BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

What My Father(s) Taught Me About Success

Posted by knbarrett on June 18, 2011

It was 1992 and I was at Kidsville, a playground in Duncanville, TX. I twirled around in the tire swing and watched parents catch their children at the foot of the slide, assist them across the monkey bars, and play chase around the park. The playground was full of mothers; fathers were in shorter supply. It was the fathers and daughters that caught my attention. There was something special about the interactions between father and daughter – the smiles and laughs were somehow different from that of a mother and daughter.  I distinctly remember feeling sorry for mothers; they would never share the same type of bond with their daughters. At nine, I sensed the importance of the father-daughter relationship.

Research supports my childhood observations. According to Nielsen’s research “Fathers generally have as much or more influence than mothers on many aspects of their daughters’ lives . . . well-fathered daughters are usually more self-confident, more self-reliant, and more successful in school and in their careers than poorly-fathered daughters.” Fathers help daughters develop a sense of place in this world.

Who I am and how I view the world has been profoundly shaped by my Papa and the men who have played father-like roles in my life (Great-Grandpa Kenyon, Gramps, Uncle John, Uncle Chris, Uncle Scott and Uncle Jeremy). They have influenced not only my professional pursuits but also how I perceive success in the workplace.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need for new definitions of career success because societal definitions of success impact workplace policies and practices. Through my father figures I’ve learned three important lessons for becoming a successful woman.

Lesson 1: Action not Accolades

My Nana once told me that Gramps sometimes refers to me as “The Empress of the Western Hemisphere.” Knowing that my Gramps, even in jest, pictures me as a ruler fills me with great delight. Within the confines of my family, I have never felt that my gender was a hindrance for leadership positions. While I often struggle with equating success with positions of authority, the men in my life have often encouraged me to see past a person’s title and look at their actions.

At six, my Uncle Jeremy and I had a serious talk about the presidency. I wanted to know two things: what I had to do to become the President of the United State and what earnings I could expect as President of the United States. My uncle patiently discussed the presidential office. He never discouraged me from seeking office, but I remember him encouraging me to think beyond the title and paycheck – what would I do as President?

There is this illusive draw to being at the top. It signals that we as women have arrived. In my mind it says “Take that” to every ignorant man who ever made a sexist joke about how I was destined for a life of domesticity. Yet, in my short career tenure, I’ve learned and re-learned through my father figures that I want my career to be measured by impacts (how my actions affected people and causes) instead of outputs (# of reports written) or outcomes (awards and titles of distinction). It’s about using whatever sphere of influence I have in whatever position I hold and harnessing it toward good.

Lesson 2: Sacrifice over Self-Indulgence

In a recent New York Times op-ed column, David Brooks wrote about how adulthood isn’t about finding one’s passion or charting one’s own path. He argues instead that “A successful adult makes sacred commitments to a spouse, a community and calling.” My father figures have showed me that a successful life is marked by sacrifice.

I’ve watched the men in my life make career sacrifices for their families. I’ve learned from them that men and women alike are responsible for the health and well-being of their families. There is this perception that only women make tough choices when it comes to balancing career, family and community responsibilities. But, I’m not sure that’s true. My own husband has passed up opportunities offering greater pay and prestige because he is committed to playing an active role in our daughter’s life. And, a recent study by Boston College Center for Work & Family on fathers and work “presents a portrait of fathers who strive for professional growth as they also strive for equality in their home life.”

Putting others before career ambition is not something that women alone face. Watching men make these sacrifices has made it a little easier for me to accept the trade-offs involved in having a career and family. Knowing that these men experience the tension and conflict of living a life that includes family, work and community responsibilities makes me feel less alone. It also makes me all the more passionate about my research on workplace policies and practices that fit the realities of today’s workforce.

Lesson 3: Daily Choices Matter Most

Papa asks my sisters and me one question whenever we talk: “Are you winning the day?” It is a question that we roll our eyes at and mock from time to time. But, it’s a useful question. It helps me refocus my time and energy. The question helps me take a deep breath when I feel anxious about not reaching my full potential or leaving accomplishments unchecked. As someone who likes to develop five year plans, it’s easy to get so distracted by the pursuit of success that I forget about the importance of “winning the day” – being a dedicated mother, dependable friend and diligent worker.

The question reminds me that my own life has been shaped by men who have included me in their days- challenging my thinking and exposing me to new ideas (thank you, Uncle Jeremy and Uncle Scott); bailing me out when my car broke down and I was out of money (thank you, Uncle John); taking a day to drive down and spend time with me (thank you, Uncle Chris); sharing life lessons and experiences (thank you, Gramps);  walking through the tough times (thank you, Papa); being my best friend (thank you, Peter).

Success is not so much an end destination but the byproduct of our daily choices and decisions. In the words of Mumford & Sons, “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die/Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” Thank you Papa, Gramps, Uncles and Peter for the love you have invested in my life.

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