I had a birthday recently. I’m not a big fan of birthdays. Maybe it’s because my birthday is too close to tax season. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had one too many birthdays that have bad memories attached. Or perhaps, most likely, it’s because birthday only remind me that I’m getting older. When I was a kid, I used to look at people who achieved great success – celebrities or athletes – and think, “They’re so much older than me. I’ve got time.” To be fair, this was mainly when I was eight years old and Mary Lou Retton was 16 and I was pretty sure that I might still be a gymnastics prodigy even though I was already five-feet tall – and didn’t take gymnastics.
But as I got older, it didn’t change. I continued to look at people who achieved “success” in my various fields of interest and I would think, “No worries. They’re old. I’ll be right where they are when I’m that age.”
I’m not sure where the tipping point occurred. But eventually, the successful people were my age…and then younger. I started to panic I felt like I was working just as hard as the next person, but I had three kids by the time I was 30. While everyone else I knew had spent their 20’s working and getting promotions, I had spent mine working and trying to clean spit up out of my hair.
Don’t get me wrong, when I first had my kids, I was sure I could be that mom that taught her girls how to do it all. I would show them how to be an amazing mom and be the president of something really important while wearing very expensive shoes. But juggling it all eventually became too challenging, so I chose to stay home and freelance in my “spare” time, which turned out to be between the hours of 1am and 3am more often than not. Soon, every one seemed to be passing me and there was nothing I could do about it.
Now it feels like every time I turn around, there’s another notch on the calendar and I’m one year older – and one year farther away from the “success” that I was sure I would have at this age. These days, I am only the boss of two cats and even at that, I am fairly certain there is a hostile take over in the works. The rest of the time I am at everyone else’s command, which means I spend most of my time running people around to various events, hosting sleepovers and grocery shopping. As my teenage daughters look at their friends’ overly-filtered Instagram selfies and feel bad about themselves, I sit in the other room and scan through LinkedIn profiles and wonder how it all ended up this way.
As this last birthday rolled around, I decided to give in to my self pity. By which I mean ignore the fact that it was my birthday and mope around in pajamas. Luckily, my girls had other plans and salvaged the day brilliantly with decoration, cake and presents.
I won’t go through all of the details, but I will mention a gift from Girl 1. She had found a photo of a much younger, much more idealistic me. I was wearing a t-shirt that said “My five year plan is…” and I had filled in “to empower women” with a Sharpie marker. This was at a time when I was sure that I was going to change the world. I had big plans and was absolutely committed to a career that would have far ranging impact and would, in fact, empower women.
But that was a long time ago. That dreamy, hopeful girl still believed that anything was possible if you wanted it enough. She actually thought that she could influence the course of her own life and that no dream was too big. She believed that obstacles could be overcome with hard work and determination. She certainly didn’t know how quickly life could go sideways or how even the most carefully shaped dreams could shatter. She also didn’t have dark circles under her eyes and looked like she was actually having fun.
I’ve thought about that t-shirt over the years. In fact, I think I still have it buried at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. I have often felt that weight of failure as I stare at my cats and wonder what I’ve actually managed to accomplish. Most days, it doesn’t feel like much. But what Girl 1 had done with this picture changed my perspective entirely.
She had created a photo collage with “hopeful me” at the top, and beneath it, images of each of the girls. There was Girl 1 on stage – which is her favorite place to be – acting in one of her many incredible plays, some of which she has written herself. There was Girl 2 standing on a mountain peak holding a yoga pose that shouldn’t be humanly possible. That particular photo was taken after a personal struggle that would have defeated most people, but that she faced with courage and bravery that is usually reserved for the battlefield. Finally, there was a photo of Girl 3 with a big goofy grin, bathed in sunlight and clearly listening to the music that plays constantly in her head, but that no one else can hear. I won’t repeat the captions that were written underneath each photo, because I’ll just end up ugly crying (again) and this article will never get done. But I will tell you the message: I am not living the life that I thought I would. But I am empowering women.
In each of those photos, and in the faces sitting around the table with me, I saw, once again, that anything is possible if you want it enough, that you can influence the course of your own life, that no dream is too big and that any obstacle can be overcome with hard work and determination. In my girls, I saw dreamers, fighters, and faces filled with hope. I saw strong, empowered women just waiting to take on the world. And I realized that, maybe, I have been a success after all.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our preconceived definitions of success that we forget to see what is right in front of us. I will most likely never achieve my former aspirations. I will certainly never be rich. And “head of household” on my tax return is probably the closest I’ll ever get to being the head of anything. But I have the greatest job on earth. I have been entrusted with three incredible humans who I am tasked with shaping and teaching. As each year passes, I see my daughters growing into women that I believe can, and will, become exactly who they are meant to be. And that is the greatest accomplishment of all.