Our family has had a week of nice highlights to share on Facebook, as Josh completed his year long film project, Matt was notified of his acceptance for the International Cadet Exchange Program for Civil Air Patrol where he will be visiting the Netherlands for two and a half weeks this summer, and as Kenny, Olesya and Angela are traveling with me to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in a couple days as they work toward the launch of Buckaroos Slices and Scoops this summer. All Facebook worthy stuff, right?
But is a photo and an exclamation of a success that the world would recognize as such really what our family views as success? Sure, I guess, but as wonderful as such pronouncements are, they aren't really the kinds of accomplishments that humble us, that touch our hearts, that help us feel we have really, really succeeded at something. I have reflected a lot on this the past couple of days, on the long drive from Colorado to California. When I considered the past twenty years of family building and parenting, the moments that really stood out to me as my personal yardstick for success were not at all the sorts of things that can be simply captured with a photo and a paragraph post on social media. They are too nuanced, too complicated, too ignored by the world to ever be held up by most as the kind of thing that one would share joyfully with others.
As graduation draws near for Kenny and Angela, I guess it is natural to look back over the long stretch of my life and ask myself how I measure success, and what that actually looks like to me. Someone once told me that Matt must be the one of our five that helps me feel successful as a homeschooler and parent. I scratched my head for awhile over that one, as though I certainly am happy for him and see his hard work paying off, his more traditional accomplishments are not what I would lift up as helping ME feel successful in my work as mom and educator.
So what do I view as the biggest successes in our lives? Where do I see celebratory accomplishments that are far harder to point toward and explain to others? What matters most to me as our kids mature into adults and we enter a new phase of our lives together?
Watching Josh this past weekend as he shared his heart and ability to connect with others and feel their pain through his film project was a success beyond all measure for a young man who had Reactive Attachment Disorder!! Being the recipient of his open and easy affection, his ability to overcome the insecurities that still creep in from time to time when he feels alone in the world, or when fall comes around and the inevitable seasonal depression sinks in is perhaps my most important success of all as a mom. This is the child who, without intervention and years of continuing hard work had the most potential to harm others, for RAD is the thing serial killers are made of. Sound extreme when one looks at Josh and sees the softness in his eyes, feels his arms wrapped authentically around them as he enfolds them in one of the best hugs ever? Trust me, this is not hyperbole, nor was it a given that "love will conquer all". His years long rejection when he was young, his fight through the pain of being abandoned, and the trust he has placed in us as his parents was hard earned and the biggest fight of my life...to save his heart, to reawaken his ability to let others closely in. The first three or four years with Josh were the hardest of my life, and preserving my ability to continue to act lovingly in the face of constant hourly rejection was something I never thought I could do.
He "sees" others and has an affinity for those who are overlooked...people with cognitive disabilities, kids on his teams who are not the super stars, those our culture deem as worth less than others. He befriends them all.
This weekend, he was held closely by those in his film and he didn't physically push them away. He felt deeply, loved openly, and has a heart filled with compassion and could be described as deeply good. He rejects the standoffishness that other teens show their parents, and instead enthusiastically yells out, "Loves Ya Ma!" as he exits the car at basketball practice, no care at all who hears his declaration of love for me. And man, every single time he does that, I feel successful and I never take that easy declaration for granted.
That is my yardstick for success.
With an engineer-like brain and a "close to the vest" heart, this young man concerned me most in areas of spiritual development and warmth. Relying too much on his head and too little on his heart and gut, being a true natural introvert, I have often been concerned that he might have traditional success and be hollow inside. Does that make sense? We all know the type...those analytical kinds who are moved by very little, who become almost robotic in their interactions with others and who can't easily exhibit empathy towards others. There are very, very few people who are allowed to see the real Matt, the softer inner core of the young man just isn't shared openly unless he feels you are really, really worth it. He has always been gentle, funny, and kind with his family but we have worked hard to help him learn to express emotion, to tap his inner feelings, and to develop a healthy spiritual life that he can rely on.
Success with Matt might look like a pilot's license or certifications and leadership opportunities, and I get that and don't dismiss it. But you want to know what looks like success and makes my heart swell? You may think I am stupid for this, but this really, really mattered to me...it was him chasing camp counselor opportunities. It was him setting aside time to attend a retreat recently as a young adult all of his own doing and choice. It was Matt saying that this weekend, while the entire family was gone, he was going to drive an hour to attend church on Sunday AND he offered to fill in for the girls and teach Sunday school to the little ones AND he is going to remain for a fund raising party afterward. At 19 years old, he is owning his connections and spiritual life in ways neither Dominick nor I would have imagined four or five years ago. Honestly, these are the successes with Matt that bring tears to my eyes. It was standing on the sideline, listening to him speak publicly about the three men who trained him for his pilot's license, to hear the humility in his words, the honor he accorded them, the gratitude he easily expressed. It was the fact that he had an internal mechanism I didn't think we would develop when he was 10 or 12 years old that helped him have heartfelt appreciation for others. It was that he had grown in confidence and public speaking skills when he was terribly quiet and shy as a younger child. He has warmth, and that was hard earned as it was shut down in the orphanage and took years and years to bring out. Being shut off in a room by yourself does that to you. Having no one to love you or hold you and having your bottle propped does that for you.
And that is my yardstick for success.
Oh Olesya, you came to us willing to give up all of who you were to be accepted. You never stood up for yourself, for you learned at a young age in the orphanage that you had two ways to go...be the strong one and push your way through, or be left alone by giving in to everyone. Your disabilities had you viewing yourself as far, far "less than" anyone else, and you had virtually no self-esteem...none. Like Matt, you are an introvert and that contributes even more to your previous Wall Flower status.
Sure, you will always struggle with math and logic, but you are the single most organized person I have ever met! You are standing up for yourself regularly these days, and will say a firm "no" to things that are not of your choosing, something I never thought we'd get you to do. You are seeing strengths in yourself...finally! You are, in many ways, my child who I think will be more of a late bloomer, who is gaining the most confidence through our business development process, and I can't wait to see how Buckaroos impacts you over the next year. It is clear that you will shine as you grab hold of the kitchen there, as you keep Kenny and Angie on track, and as everyone sees your abilities begin to merge organizationally.
And you hug now, real hugs...not tentative, polite hugs, but settle into you, sigh-as-you-feel-safe-and-loved hugs. You have always had a protective wall around you, have said you never wanted to get married or have kids, and the past year or two we are seeing a new openness to a life you once rejected. Your emotional growth has been far and away an enormous blessing to witness! You set a standard in our family for working diligently on yourself, and it impresses all of us. When you want to change something about yourself, you set about it with great intent and dedication, which means that YOU matter to you, and that matters to me!
And that is my yardstick for success.
That you are alive and thriving and overcoming and reading and writing and oh so much more, Kenny LaJoy, is through an enormous amount of work in just about every possible arena. Watching you lead adult Sunday School, listening to you preach, or seeing you read a college level book, all of it is One Big Accomplishment. Probably my work with you has made me feel most like a good educator, for your intellect was unable to be tapped in public school, and you were unable to read at 12 years old, until you and I dug in and said, "Yes, he WILL read!" and put in the hard work to make it happen. That you have tested at Post High School in EVERY category of your annual standardized testing is perhaps the biggest accomplishment ever for both of us, for you were never supposed to be successful in academics.
But what makes me literally drop to my knees in gratitude is that you are alive, for I know your disabilities have taken a toll on your psyche and at times you have wished you were not present to us. If my encouragement has helped your resilience grow, than I have been successful, for the world needs you and your wit, your easily offered love and affection, your astute insights, and more.
And that is my yardstick for success.
We made it, Angie and I. We almost didn't, she almost couldn't trust enough to give love and family a shot. But ultimately, she did. What we both would have missed makes me heartsick to even consider! With a tough exterior and a strength that very likely saved both her and Olesya, Ang needed help to learn she could retain that strength but that it would take even greater courage to allow others in and let her softer side come through. I call out to her tender heart, I ask it to come forth, and she has responded willingly, something I wasn't sure would ever happen.
Acceptance of certain limitations due to FASD has been hard, figuring out that she really DID have it along with Kenny and Olesya was difficult, but obvious once acceptance settled in. Matching her strength for strength, delighting in her ability to let the Tough Girl slip away, and witnessing the transformation to someone who could embrace all of who she is and not deny enormous parts of herself is pretty intangible, not nearly as Instagram worthy, and is success almost beyond measure, and yet...
That is the yardstick I measure success by.
I have had to ask myself the honest question, do I value different things because of the reality of disability and lack of possibility for more traditional successes? Or do we actually "chase" different things due to our values? Does our success look different because we are settling for less and trying to make ourselves feel better about it? Or do we, as a family, reject society's ideas of what success ought to look like?
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
It is hard to tell, for we create our own reality, don't we?
I'd like to think that our values and faith guide us, that we truly look at the world a bit differently, that we live outside the norm a little. I will be the first to admit that I am not that certain of all of this. We are not overly virtuous, we are not completely blind to the fact that we all fall prey to the desire for the things the world elevates.
Maybe it is just that we feel there is more...MORE to celebrate than JUST the worldly accomplishments, MORE to see beneath the surface than what is easily visible, MORE value to the abstract than the concrete.
Whatever it is, I think our personal yardstick works for us, and I wouldn't change a thing.