Grad School Ruined My Daughter

You pay big bucks to get your kid an advanced degree, and the next thing you know, she turns on you. A cautionary tale.

Trouble is, guilt and secrecy only really work when everyone is standing in the same spot, seeing life from the same viewpoint. And as Marcy’s grad school continued, her point of view changed. When she started, she viewed her gender as the oppressed, thanks to her women’s-studies major and what I had always told her, which was, mostly, that I was oppressed—bogged down by laundry and housework and a job and a husband and son who can’t mow the lawn without slaughtering the hydrangeas, which means I end up doing that chore, too. Now, suddenly, there were occasions when Marcy intimated that the real problem might be my need to be in charge of the yard—not to mention the front porch, the living room, the books on the bookshelves and the shoes in the shoe bin on the basement landing.

“Are you saying I have control issues?” I countered at one point. She rolled her eyes. “Don’t roll your eyes at me!”

“I just think you’d be happier if you learned to let go a little bit.”

“I’d be happier if they’d learn not to run over the hydrangeas with the mower!” I couldn’t believe she was turning on me.

My friend Mary sympathized. Her son’s in social work. “I can see when it happens,” she confided over lunch. “I’ll be complaining about my sister or something, and this sort of mask slides over his face, and all of a sudden he’s all, ‘Well, did you ever think about how it looks to her?’ Why should I give a damn how it looks to her?”

“He’s supposed to be on your side.”

“Exactly! I hate it when he gets like that!”

But that’s what Marcy’s grad school was training her to do. Take the dyad thing. When you have two kids, like I do, you play them off against each other. It’s only natural. Family members are like nations. Alliances change according to what you’re trying to accomplish. If I want to watch Law and Order: SVU reruns on the TV, I want Marcy on my side. If I want … well, I’m not sure when I would want her brother, Jake.

“The dyad between you and me is really strong,” Marcy told me one day.

There she went with the social-worker jargon. “What the hell is a dyad?”

“A relationship.”

“Why not just say ‘relationship,’ then?”

“It’s a specific kind of relationship. One that’s between two people and has sociological significance.”

“What’s the sociological significance of our dyad?”

“We see things the same way. We enjoy doing the same things. We can always tell what the other one of us is thinking. It must feel really unfair to Jake.”

This from one of the world’s all-time-greatest sibling tormenters. “Are you saying you feel sorry for your brother?”

“It’s hard to be on the outside looking in.”

The thing is, once a thought like that gets planted in your brain, it has a tendency to pop up at inopportune times—like, say, when you’re shopping at T.J. Maxx and see a dress that would really look great on Marcy. So, does Jake even notice that I buy his sister a lot more clothes than I buy for him?

“Marcy’s mad that I’ve stopped buying her as many clothes as I used to,” I told my friend Mary. “Just in case he does notice.”

She nodded knowingly. “Social justice. It’s a bitch.”

What really got me nervous, though, was when Marcy started talking, early in her final year of grad school, about a big project she had due at the end of second term. For this project, she had to analyze each member of her family according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.

“We don’t have mental disorders,” I said when she told me this. “At least, not on my side of the family. Your father’s is another story.”

“It doesn’t have to be, like, schizophrenia or psychosis,” Marcy explained, in what I suppose she meant to be reassurance. “It can just be an anxiety disorder, or a phobia.”

“We don’t have those, either.”

She eyed me sideways. “When’s the last time you flew?”

“That’s not a phobia. That’s common sense. You don’t know anything about those pilots when you step on a plane. How much of the family are you supposed to diagnose?”

“You, Dad, Jake. Grandma and Grandpa. Aunts and uncles. You know.”

Marcy had asked me to proofread every single paper she ever wrote for college or grad school. She didn’t show me this one.

“I think it’s really creepy that some professor I don’t even know is reading all about my business,” I told her.

“Now you know how I’ve felt about your magazine column for all these years.”