Last month, my third child graduated from kindergarten. This means that, among other things, I am now a three-time veteran of the Kindergarten Halloween Parade. Three times, I have hurried to the elementary school to watch from the sidewalk as a tiny boy I love marched beside his classmates — one boy as Batman, one boy as Mario, and most recently, one boy as Spyro the Dragon — and posed for pictures for a throng of parents before settling in for a crafts and a snack.
Last week, I found out that the senior adviser to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, is a Halloween Parade Veteran too. At the Huffington Post’s Third Metric conference in New York City — a day devoted to talking about redefining success beyond the traditional measures of money and power — Jarrett told our wonderful hosts Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski about a time when she had to bolt out of a meeting with her boss at the time, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, in order to try to make it to her then-second grader daughter’s Halloween parade. She explained that though she missed plenty of school events over the years, the Halloween parade was an event that was particularly important to her daughter. She knew, she said, that her daughter would scan the crowd, looking for her face. If she wasn’t there when her daughter looked for her, it would be crushing for them both. (I won’t leave you hanging: she made it.)
The moment Valerie Jarrett relayed that story was the moment I truly felt like I belonged at the Third Metric conference. I had arrived that morning trying desperately to fake it ’til I made it: I had flown to New York and left my four kids in the care of a relay team made up of my babysitter, my mom, and my husband. I had ditched my every day uniform of yoga pants and flip-flops for a grown-up ensemble and heels, blown out my hair, and applied actual make-up. And I had fervently hoped that no one would notice that I am a mostly stay at home parent who writes during my baby’s nap time, yet I was somehow lucky enough to stand in a room of true luminaries — CEOs, a U.S. Senator, magazine editors, film producers, television journalists, doctors, and yes, Valerie Jarrett. I was, in a word, intimidated. I wasn’t sure what I could add to this conversation about success when my usual definition of amazing success might mean surviving a trip to Costco with all my kids in the midst of a summer thunderstorm or getting all of my children to bed on time without someone crying (usually me).
But a Halloween parade is something I know and understand. What Jarrett’s story first made me realize, confirmed throughout the conference day by other mothers (and fathers!) like Joanna Coles, Candice Bergen, and Ali Wentworth and her husband, George Stephanopoulos, is that parenting is a great equalizer. Whether we are suburban moms hoping for a good nap out of our toddlers or renowned actresses or CTOs or television personalities or political bigshots, we’re parents. When our children scan a crowd expecting to see our faces, we want to be there. Period.
Bergen told a story about asking for a Golden Globe category to be moved later in the program so she wouldn’t have to miss her daughter’s performance as a warthog in a school play. Wentworth admitted to turning down a television show that would be shot in L.A. — far from her family’s home in New York — because she knew her husband George Stephanopoulos was right when he told her she would “cry every day” of the thirteen-week shoot. She knew she would miss her children, ages 10 and 8, too much, even if she was only gone part of the week. Several conference panelists talked about trying to avoid work on the weekends and in the evenings and to ignore their phones and messages. They talked about setting boundaries for their families, carving time for self care and meditation, and about trying to remember that a life well-lived, as Jarrett said, was more important than having the life others expect you to live.
It was a big day and a bigger topic. I came home with my head swimming, full to the brim with ideas and voices and opinions. I still haven’t fully digested everything that I heard and thought at the Third Metric, and I am fully immersed again in my familiar setting of diapers and Goodnight Moon and Minecraft and so, so many Legos. What is a third metric for success? The question has rolled around in my brain and kept me awake at night. What element rounds out a successful life — for mothers and fathers, for women and men who are not parents, for stay at home parents and for those with careers big or small? For me?
I have decided that it is connection — in whatever form an individual finds it — that fills in the gaps between money and power in my definition of success. My personal feeling of success is measured by a connection and the quality of that connection to my children, to my husband, to my friends and community, to myself, and to and through my writing. Money and power would be awesome (goodness knows), but a strong connection is my priority. That is what I saw in the panelists at Third Metric, too: whether the connection was to themselves through meditation and mindfulness, to their families, or to their communities, it was that reaching out beyond the confines of their work hours and responsibilities that made people feel like they had achieved true success in their days. Senator Claire McCaskill, for example, relayed that her morning had been made by spending breakfast in her hotel room bed with her college-age daughter, watching Sex and the City episodes. The smile on her face when she told us the story made it clear that her moment of connection with her daughter had been vital to her day.
I’m not a U.S. Senator. I’ve spent the past ten years having babies and trying to figure out how to keep them and myself alive by bedtime. I’ve also volunteered in my children’s schools, in my community, and for my alma mater. I’ve done work I feel is important, even if it was unpaid. I’ve missed plenty of school events, just as Valerie Jarrett did, even though I have not been working in city or federal government or for pay at all. But I haven’t missed the times that count. When my children’s faces have scanned the crowd, my face has been there beaming back at them. Our eyes connected. That is what matters.
Even women and men who aren’t married or who aren’t parents have the equivalent of Halloween parades in their lives, whether they are family weddings or funerals, anniversaries, vacations, or even just a long-awaited dinner with a friend. For everyone, there are times when we can miss things for work and then there are times when we know that if we miss that moment — if we can’t show up, connect, and be present — we will lose something. Something important.
The challenge, then, is to live our lives honoring that other part of success, and to remember that it is our personal connections to others as well as ourselves that tether us to this crazy world. We must, as Jarrett advised, look for jobs and bosses that understand the importance of our personal Halloween parades — and then we must firmly commit to nurturing our personal lives and not apologizing for doing so. That’s true for the stay at home parent too, who must sometimes leave the kids at home and go on date nights or nights (or even weekends) out with friends in order to maintain a self outside of the primary caregiver role. The truth is that we are all more productive and happier at work — whether that work is in the White House or our own houses — when we connect to ourselves and our relationships outside of work. And the bottom line is, if you miss your daughter’s one-time performance as a warthog, it doesn’t really matter if you win a Golden Globe or not. Take it from Candice Bergen.