The Single Measure of Parenting Success

I never fell apart.

I felt bereft for hours and sad for days; but what most strikes me about the weeks and months after my mom’s unexpected death was that I never fell apart. (I got “the call” 7 years ago, today.)

I was sad and lonely at the thought of facing life without either of my parents (Dad died when I was 8, plus I’m an only child). And I was overwhelmed by planning a funeral and closing an estate. But I never fell apart.

As parents we stress about our kids measuring up to our expectations. We “just want the best for them”, (but secretly hope they’ll be the smartest and most talented and most accomplished…oh, and happiest.) We want them to win at Field Day and avoid broken hearts. We hope they’ll “go” Ivy League, find the perfect mate and live better lives than ours.

And their accomplishments make us feel like successful parents.

I know my mom felt that way about me. I earned straight A’s, won piano festivals, got the lead parts, competed in college sports and received trophies and scholarships. So Mom got to brag about her over-achieving son in Christmas cards. And that’s fine.

But what does this all mean? I knew how to compete, charm, and work my way to the top? But did it mean my mom was “successful”? In part. She raised a well-adjusted, kind, hard-worker. Those are skills passed down from her.

But I believe that her time spent as chauffeur, cook, vacation-planner, homework editor and over-zealous academic cheerleader, pale in comparison to my realization AFTER her death.

My mother prepared me for a successful life without her.

In base terms, this is proof or her overwhelming success as a parent.

It doesn’t matter how she did it, or if it was the sum of all her contributions, or the fact that our last few months of communication were our best. The fact is: my life didn’t fall apart without her. I miss her terribly and, damn, I wish she could know my kids.

But isn’t it a simple tenet of species survival and life endurance that we want our children to be able to thrive without us? We need them to do so. Humanity needs it. Happiness, intelligence, social adjustment, fortitude and focus add up to kids’ independence, but they mean nothing if our kids can’t live on without us.

Our smooth adjustment to life without our parents is the strongest benchmark of their parenting success.

And while I don’t want to parent with an eye on my own demise, I hope I can give my boys the same preparation that my mother gave me.
I suppose I’ll never know whether I parented as well as my mother.

No matter. I’ll work toward it.

And make damn sure everyone’s striving, honest, and hard-working in the meantime.

Oh, and happy.

What do you think? What is your “single measure” of parenting success?


  1. This is such a lovely tribute, Gavin. Is the pic from Jake & Alyssa’s wedding? I’m still so new to the parenting gig that just getting the full face smile is success in my book. But I think a lot about what kind of person I want to raise, what I want to do the same as my parents, what I want to do differently. Lots of rumination & reflection going on out here.


    • Sure is from their wedding, Anne! Good catch. I know I’m speaking anthropologically in this post. But it was so eye-opening for me to have been forced to hit the ground running after her passing and I just couldn’t help but think that’s (one of?) her greatest gifts…to keep me functioning after she’s gone. There’s a lot of things we can screw up, but they gotta live on in all ways without us!


  2. It’s funny – my husband and I talk about this all the time. We say, “wow – if we do a good job, that means they’ll leave and create their own lives”. 🙂 In response to your final question, my “single measure” of parenting success is if they know I love them – always. 🙂 Great post. Thanks for sharing!


  3. I agree with keely. I too lost my father at a young age (4) and my mother was faced with way to many obsticles raising 3 children. She did the best she could do. She loved me no matter what though. That will live with me forever knowing I had her love unconditionally.

    Dammit Gavin! Why you gotta make me sad on my way to work!

    Great post. Nicely written.


    • Thx for reading, peach! Nah, it ain’t about feeling sad. It’s the pride knowing that our moms did their jobs and did them beautifully. And yours must be over the moon after the last few weeks you’ve had. But if (God forbid) she weren’t here, I know for a fact you wouldn’t fall apart. Your ingenuity and drive are a tribute to her. And no doubt she endowed you with those traits. So she did her job. Good job, mama peach Sharkey.


  4. My three kids are my pride and joy….my contribution to this world. They are all artistic, thoughtful and kind, and successful in their various fields. My favorite trait that each of them has is ’empathy’…that ability to feel the other person’s point of view. I think I gave them that.


  5. Your mom was amazing! I remember this day 7 years ago… Had many tears these last few weeks for our loved ones lost! She would be SO proud of you! She would have road tripped to see every one of your debuts at parenting moments, delighting in each one! Your boys will be a reflection of her unconditional love through the unconditional love you show them!! Miss you all!

    My single measure of parenting success??? Yet to be seen? I hope it is in my unconditional love for them showing them the way I feel God’s love for me. Don’t groan! 🙂 Love to you all!!


  6. Absolutely love this – and I think it extends even to our young children being able to “make it” at preschool, in social situations as they grow, grade school, hockey practice, then college, employment, etc..all of it without us. The finality of the situation in your post is like the final exam. Sorry for your loss so many years ago.


    • You get it. 🙂 thx for sharing. So true…our job as parents is to prep our kids for life without us…every step of the way…preschool, hockey practice, college, etc. We wanna hold them close, but we have to get them independent. Sigh.


  7. Dear Gavin,
    Seven years since we received word of you Mom’s passing. Just about a month ago Betty was speaking of her as if she was still among us, forgetting momentarily and it broke my heart to explain her unexpected death. Flash forward to what has changed in this “blick of an eye” and realize how blessed you and Todd are, your mom helped make parenting possible and she would beam with pride for those precious boys. Even on the hair pulling out days she would laugh into the phone with your tales of fatherhood. Marcia made a life of purpose extend beyond her earthly life, my personal memories of her are always with a smile and such a good feeling of what love is. I love reading your reflection and we can smile together!
    You are loved,


  8. Gavin, this is such a lovely, thoughtful testament to the ultimate measure of successful parenting. Your mother’s wonderful example does live on in you. You probably have already caught yourself saying to your boys things your mom had said to you. You know, the ones that we swear we will never say when/if we have kids. But we do, because as those phrases slip out of our mouths, we suddenly realize our mothers really did know something, after all. How about that??!!
    Yes, teaching our children to be kind, loving, caring, generous people who can survive without us is the single measure of successful parenting.


    • My kids hardly understand cause and effect, yet I’m already spouting my mom’s old (formerly annoying) phrases at them. I laugh, now (even in the moment) but they’ll undoubtedly just become my habits, too.


  9. I think of your mom often and my emotions run from anger (why did she have to leave us…it was way too soon) to regret (oh god, wouldn’t she have loved to experience this moment?) to admiration (how did she raise Gavin all by herself and hold it all together?). Imagine the endurance it took to experience all of those major parenting events without someone by her side to share her wonder or sadness. She had “endurance” in spades and passed it along to you. She also knew the worth of a “moment” and had her camera ready to capture that moment so she could share it and re-experience it herself…the ultimate in “recycling”. She did not take things for granted…and that is a lovely trait.


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