My dad left for work at the same time every day, as we were getting ready for school. He’d arrive back at the same time every evening, except for one Thursday per month when he’d have to stay late for a board meeting. He’d change out of his sport coat and tie and into running clothes and be back for family dinner.
My mom was somehow always put together and cheerful, despite days chasing after three kids born within four years.
We were allocated a precise amount of money for new school clothes, an amount that didn’t allow the purchase of whatever trend was making the rounds (I’ll always harbor some bitterness over never owning a pair of Girbaud jeans into which I could tuck just the front of my flannel button down). Although my dad’s salary went far in our small Midwestern town, even as a kid, I always had the sense that they were saving for retirement—a hunch since verified as an adult. Even after my mom went back to work when we were tweens, there was no extravagant spending on “stuff.”
Weekends were spent at our cabin, or playing outside, or reading piles of books. My dad would fall asleep watching professional golf tournaments on tv. My mom would run us around town. As we got older, we’d be busy with sports and jobs and friends.
I was praised for being a good student, a good athlete, not getting into trouble. Fitting a “normal” upper-middle-class version of success. Being groomed for college, grad school, the workforce, family, retire by 65.
Looking back, I can also add that there was a lot of time spent curating an external image of the family, of success, that aligned with that version of my dad’s discipline. He had a public-facing job, but which he didn’t bring home with him. You could do that, in the eighties and nineties. I remember the first time he brought a laptop home, an IBM that was two inches thick and on which I played solitaire and mine sweeper.
Needless to say, my parents made this version of success look easy. Obvious.
It’s no wonder that, now, if I don’t answer my first email until ten am; if I don’t clock eight hours-plus-lunch; if I don’t have a routine that I stick to like clockwork and if it’s not easy; if I sneak in a nap after lunch and a run break at two pm; if I don’t have kids; if I don’t get married; if I rent instead of buy; if I don’t have a financial planner and retirement plan; then I’m somehow failing.
It’s also taken me a very long time to give other people the freedom to meet a different definition of success. I’ll say that having a partner without a college degree has shifted my thinking, big time. Also, living in the Bay Area means exposure to tons of different lifestyles and life paths—not just over-worked techies (most of them are at least a decade younger than me), but artists, freelancers, non-parents, travelers, self-taught experts. I had to come to terms with the fact that other people having success in “alternative” ways doesn’t somehow negate the path I’ve taken; it instead gives me freedom to consider other definitions of success.
The ironic thing is, that I often—okay, always—look at people with a more flexible and free and lifestyle with jealousy and intrigue. What if I could work anywhere? What if I stopped worrying so much about retirement? What if I could allow myself to rest? What if I could allow things to be hard without defining that as failure?
What if success isn’t defined as what my life looks like to people on the outside but how fulfilled I am on the inside, and whether I’m living according to my main value of leaving the world a little better than I found it?
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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