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.

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.