Mama, what does success look like to you?

Dear Rosie,

Hoo boy; this is a biggie. This is something I think your dad and I struggle with a lot.

When I think of “success,” my first thought is – when I’m on my deathbed (sorry to be morbid), what will make me proud and happy when I look back on my life? And when I imagine that moment, I think of this:

  • I saw the world. I wasn’t still and stuck. I moved and traveled and explored and while I was tired most of the time (hehe – but seriously), I pushed myself to live life energetically and squeeze the most out of each precious day I am given in this round.
  • I cultivated so many loving relationships. I have the deepest friendship and love possible with your dad. I have you, and your brothers and sisters who I imagine in my heart are waiting to join our family. I have been a great mother and a grounding force in the family. I have loved and served my children, my elders, my partner, my friends and other family peers, and their lives have been enriched by my presence and support. I was a good person – loyal, empathetic, unobtrusive but present, committed, sensitive, thoughtful, kind, patient, and loving.
  • I created a home that was meaningful and healing to those who entered it. I used my love of homemaking to create spaces that soothed and healed and grounded the people who spent time in them.
  • I created something that helped to move the needle around racial and/or socio-economic equality. While I didn’t solve all the problems of the world single handedly, I did create something that helped people to live better. To help people born with privilege to think differently and share better. To help people born without privilege have access to the same things privileged people have. Money, power, education, connections, resources – I’m not sure. This is the one that feels the stickiest and most uncomfortable and urgent and vague for me – and I think the one that gets me the most stuck.
  • I treated animals with kindness and helped humans to be more compassionate towards animals through their actions and beliefs.
  • I continued to develop spiritually, cultivate my own witchcraft and magic, and deepen my relationship with the other side. And I found ways to use my unique abilities to help others on this side, and help my soul to reach new levels of growth that I’m meant to achieve while I’m here this round.
  • I published a book. This falls lower on the list over time – it used to be a burning desire and now it feels like something I’d maybe like to try. Perhaps that light will be re-ignited throughout my life; right now it’s a little flicker.

So as you can see, for me most of my successes center around how I showed up each day. Was I grabbing life by the hand? Did I treat others with love and kindness, compassion and patience? Did I use my unique gifts to create healing spaces and moments for others? These are the bulk of my definition, and also the things that feel easiest to me now.

The ones that are hardest are the “moving the needle,” and the book. And these are the ones that I stress about the most. And they’re the ones that I intellectually use to define success. They’re the products I create in my life. The physical symbols of my effectiveness. The proof I was here. The impact on a bigger scale. The purpose. The reason I came. (Or is it?)

I see my friends from childhood and young adulthood – your beautiful aunties – and they have accomplished so much. They are doctors, have PhDs, make lots of money, travel all over the world for work, publish articles, win huge awards . . . and I look at myself and wonder if I’m a failure. I was raised to do those things. I still believe that those things are incredibly meaningful and worthwhile. Part of me longs to accomplish those things. Part of me doesn’t care about them as much as I care about freedom. And they do absolutely feel mutually exclusive: freedom, and growing a deep, linear career trajectory.

I like the idea of only defining success as the kind of person I am each day of my life. But there’s a part of me that demands something more profound – something on a bigger scale. I am daily overwhelmed by the great injustices around me in the world. The cruel and horrific treatment of other humans. The torture of animals. And I think to myself, how can I do nothing about this when I have been given so many opportunities and resources in my life? How can I be so selfish? And yet I don’t ever settle on what kind of impact and change I can really make that will be lasting and meaningful; that won’t strip our family of resources that will allow us to live a good life too; that will not have me choose one small cause only to be then equally overwhelmed by the incredible number of other problems that need solving, and which now I’m unable to do anything about.

Right now I’m lying in a bed in the apartment above your grandparents’ house, looking at a tree with carrot-orange leaves. It’s 1:30 pm and you are napping in the other room. We packed up our lives and moved here a week ago to be with your grandma who is having surgery next Monday. There is laundry everywhere, and I can still smell the burned pasta I made for your lunch through the closed door, where the kitchen is on the other side. The cheap blanket I bought is covered in grey pills, and the pups are lying on me with chewed up stuffed animals they stole from you, fur all stiff from their spit, on my feet.

This is not the glamorous, accomplished, high-achieving and high-energy life I envisioned for myself at this point. I have no job. I closed my business, which I worked so hard to build. We left our house and are renting it to strangers, and are staying here without even a crate to put my glasses on at night. I feel like I’m 19 again living in a college house trying to make it feel like home. I am proud of us for making this choice to support your Baba (Grandpa) and Manya (Grandma) so profoundly. It sits right with me. This is who your father and I are. This is how we show up. But, it also leaves me feeling confused; angry; lost; aimless; unmoored; frightened; sad.

And so I ground myself in you. Burying my face in your hair while you sit on my lap and eat chunks of beet with a plastic fork. Making sure your room smells like the lavender oil I brought from Philadelphia, and your clothes are folded neatly in the wood-paneled closet, and the agate and elephant strings you’re used to brushing with your little hand before naps and bedtime are hung on the curtain rod where you’d expect them. I ground myself in seeing you happy with your little cousins, holding their hands and walking from one bedroom to another in their apartment to be shown their precious toys as you all tickle each other. I ground myself in taking you to the park so you can play with scooters and go in the swing and be sung the same song I made up when you were four months old. You are not and cannot ever be the key to my happiness; that is a burden I never want to put on you. But right now, mothering you gives me a sense rhythm to my unfamiliar days, and as always, a deep feeling of purpose.

Even though my life right now feels like a question mark more than an exclamation point, and I am unsure about everything I am doing and what my next steps are, I feel great pride in seeing you healthy, and eating good big meals full of different vegetables, and going to bed on time after your familiar routine, and giggling with your grandpa over christmas lights he put on a timer, and knowing that the holidays are coming up and there are many fun traditions we’ll start together, and that we’ll be doing potty training this week and you’ll be so proud of yourself to be done with diapers… I take great pride in creating a cozy, joyful, safe, fun, peaceful, and loving life for you. Beyond anything in the world, finding your father; committing to partnership with him throughout the rest of my life and working on our relationship knowing that it is our souls’ agreement to grow together in this lifetime; bringing your soul into the world and our family through the process of pregnancy and our birth; and continuing to raise you as patiently, thoughtfully, and lovingly as I can – nothing makes me feel more successful. Nothing.

With love,

Mama Justy

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We at Letters To Rosie create a more connected future for parents and children by starting the conversation...now. We send parents thought-provoking questions each week and, through their responses, allow them to present their rich inner selves to their children.