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.

Grad school diploma

People say college is the new high school, and as far as I can tell, it’s true. My kids’ friends who’ve gone off to college seem pretty much the same when they stop by these days, except that most of them are now old enough to drink. They’re teachers or store managers or unemployed history majors, but four years of higher ed hasn’t altered their essence. And that’s fine by me. I’m not big on change.

Let me tell you about grad school, though.

My daughter finished college with a degree in women’s studies and the declared intention of joining her pot-smoking boyfriend in living on the beaches of the Yucatán. Miraculously, my husband and I kept from pointing out that this didn’t really qualify as a life plan. And wouldn’t you know it? Their relationship abruptly blew up, and Marcy frantically signed on to study for a master’s degree in social work, even though none of us were really sure what social workers do.

I first sensed potential for trouble when Marcy mentioned that her grad school had a philosophy. I had never thought about schools having a philosophy, beyond taking one’s entire life’s savings in return for teaching one’s kids to hold their beer. “What is your school’s philosophy?” I asked dutifully, playing along.

“That all of life is a balancing act between wanting to belong to the group and wanting to break free of it.”

“I see.” And I didn’t think anything more about it at the time. But over the course of the next two years, I watched as this innocent-sounding mantra became the lens through which my child viewed the world. And I didn’t like what she saw.

I grew up in an Episcopalian household. We weren’t rich, but we had all the less attractive Wasp characteristics: We didn’t talk about our feelings, we kept a stiff upper lip, and we certainly didn’t go to see shrinks. Crises were dealt with in convoluted passive/aggressive ways that left no one really satisfied, but no one overtly in revolt.

Let me give you an example. My mother’s father lived with her and my dad and me and my three siblings for many years after Mom’s mother passed away. He was a shoemaker, a man of very few words who smoked Tareytons nonstop and read three newspapers front-to-back every day. When I was 16, he went into the hospital with advanced emphysema. Not long afterward, I came home from school and found my mom decanting some port into a jelly jar. “What’s that for?” I asked.

“For Poppy,” she said, clearly not wanting to talk. She was in a rush.

“If the doctors thought he should have wine, don’t you think they’d give him wine?” I asked, with all the insufferable moral superiority of a smart-ass 16-year-old. I only figured out much later that the wine was for Poppy’s last rites. Mom could have explained this to me, but it would have involved discussing illness and death, and that would have been so uncomfortable. So instead I’ve been feeling like a jackass for the past 40 years every time I happen to think about that day.

Guilt and secrecy: Those were the operating forces of my childhood household. They seemed to work pretty well, so when I had kids, I made them my operating forces, too.

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.”

What she’d told me about the dyad stuck with me. Just our little family of four has Game of Thrones-ian possibilities for alliance and betrayal. We all take turns siding with each other; sometimes Doug and I are an unshakable parental front, and other times we pair up with one or the other of the kids. Jake and Doug snap into instant cohesion whenever I blame them for sucking up all the Internet coming into the house; as critical as I can be of Jake, I leap to his defense should Doug dare find fault with him. The dyad thing is a different way of viewing family dynamics, and for me, it explains why they’re so damned dynamic. Add in Doug’s parents, my siblings, and their spouses and kids and in-laws, and it’s a wonder Christmas dinner doesn’t end in blood.

Marcy’s current boyfriend is from Kenya, where people identify with their tribe. They aren’t Pennsylvanians or New Jerseyans; they’re Luhya or Kikuyu. It’s a different organizational modus, but it’s not unlike our divisions into, say, Cowboys fans and Eagles fans. We have a million ways of separating ourselves, we humans, and a million of tying ourselves together. There’s a theory that the word “tribe” derives from the Proto-Indo-European roots tri, for “three,” and bhu, “to be.” To be three is to be we, the group, those who belong together. The odd man out is always skirting dyads, trying to find a way in—the child with his parents, the girlfriend in a bromance movie, the youngest of three princes in a fairy tale. Once in, though, we only seek disruption. That old Groucho Marx joke about not belonging to any club that would have us as a member turns out to be the foundation of the entire world.


Months after Marcy graduates, her diploma comes in the mail. It’s big and impressive-looking and written in Latin. It arrives the same day as her gold-foil-stamped social-worker license from the state. I call to let her know, and offer to have them framed for her. “Then I can hang them in my office,” she says with rich satisfaction. Her office that I’ve never seen, where she counsels people on belonging and separating. Having lived through 24 years of tearful, fever-pitch crises on her part, I have a hard time picturing her sitting there at her desk in her new business clothes, the voice of calm and reason, helping others make sense of their lives. When I try to, I see instead the tantrum-ing three-year-old that Doug and I had to forcibly dress for preschool, or a skin-kneed eight-year-old declaring with the operatic intensity of Ethel Merman that she will never, ever learn to ride her bike. This is what you work for as a parent, right? For your child to find her own place in the world. Why, then, do I feel so bereft?

When we talk now, there’s someone else in the room with us—the one who coolly and clinically no doubt wrote down for my DSM diagnosis that I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Well, that’s where I’d start.) Our dyad’s been infiltrated by this stranger, this grown-up, grad-school-trained self with ideas that didn’t come from me, mentors and colleagues I don’t know, theories on how the world works that I struggle to understand.

I used to have all the answers. She used to come to me for help; now she gets paid to help real people in the real world solve real problems. Did I mention that I don’t like change?

And then: a crisis. She calls me, sobbing, from her office. The same way she has called me in the past, sobbing, from the middle-school locker room, her college dorm, a beach in Mexico. We meet for co­ffee after work—after both our works. She sits across from me in Capogiro—neutral, adult
territory—and unpacks a load of unhappiness that is mostly boyfriend-related, with tinges of financial frustration and career insecurity.

I want to be helpful. I think about what grad school has taught her—not to be judgmental, to mirror back to me what she hears me saying, not to interrupt, to let my thoughts unwind without finishing them for me, even though she knows—that dyad!—where I’m going, what I mean to say. I’m oddly intimidated by her profe­ssional standing—that fancy, indecipherable diploma! I sip my latte and wait, and when she’s all spun out, I ask:

“Ideally, what would you like him to do? In a perfect world, where would he go from here?”

She gives a quick, brisk nod and mutters: “Elicit change talk.” It’s a step they taught her at grad school, one she uses with her clients. It’s one that she’s taught me. Born into a hide-your-dirty-laundry bunch, Marcy has managed to carve out this space of her own: She’s of us, yet she stands outside us, too, looking in. She’s sought out tools to let her reach beneath the familial guilt and secrecy, to make sense of the clan she grew up in. To—oh, hey. To balance wanting to belong and wanting to break free.

(When I tell her, weeks later, that I want to write about that moment in Capogiro, she’ll say: “I knew as soon as I said that, from the look on your face, that you would.”)

So if you send your kid to grad school, you should know: Anything can happen. Life may never be the same. But there’s this, too: You’re really getting two educations, yours and hers. Which means it’s almost a bargain, I guess, even if you’ll both be paying back student loans for years and years to come.

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