As a mom with two sons in college, I often find myself wondering where they will be a few years from now when they have jumped through the last hoop that their father and I have set for them.
Reflecting on my own time in college, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of choices before me. I was a strong student who loved school and I didn’t know what else I might like or be good at…if anything.
My life was full of possibilities but I only felt fear and confusion. I recall wishing there was another hoop or two! I wanted my parents to tell me what to do next. But they believed my next step should be my decision, and beyond expecting me to support myself financially, they didn’t guide me. I’ve always wondered if my career arc would have been different if they had involved themselves in my plans, given me a nudge (gentle or not!) in one direction or another.
As a result of my own experience and a TED talk I watched recently, I find myself wanting to be more hands-on with my own children. In her TED talk, Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, makes a case for the importance of the 20-something years. She argues that young people can’t afford to wander through their twenties — they shouldn’t wait until they’re 30 to get serious about work and romantic relationships. Their twenties are when they can build what she calls “identity capital” — figure out who they are and what they want to do.
Part of me thinks my husband and I should just leave our son alone. If he wants to work at a job that gives him maximum flexibility to travel and be outdoors, shouldn’t we just let him explore?
Meg Jay convinced me it might be a mistake to silence myself and offer no advice, even if unsolicited. So I find myself struggling to strike the right balance between helpful and hovering, between interested and judgmental, between fostering their independence and telling them outright what I think they should do.
My older son — a philosophy major who resists conversations about his future — worries me more than the younger one (who plans to pursue a PhD and is already doing research and building his resumé). Before college, he spent a gap year in Australia working as an outdoor assistant at a school in the mountains. The last two summers he worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) atop a peak in New Hampshire, off the grid. He has a great work ethic; his dad and I have no concerns about his ability to get a job and support himself since he’s already done so multiple times.
Part of me thinks we should leave him alone. If he wants to work at a job that gives him maximum flexibility to travel and be outdoors, shouldn’t we just let him explore? For how long? The practical side of me thinks he needs to start trying out career-type jobs since it may take awhile to figure out what he wants to do and he’s already older than his classmates. For example, he might like teaching but he also might hate it. What else might he do? He will certainly be unhappy at a desk all day.
In a recent conversation, he mentioned wanting to work a fall season for the AMC and to hike the full Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It’s not that I don’t want him to pursue these dreams. In fact, I wish I had done similar things when I was young and that’s why I supported his gap year. But I worry that if he delays trying out some jobs that might lead him to a career, it will put him at a disadvantage and lead to major disappointment or frustration down the road when he is 30 and still underemployed.
A friend recently challenged me on my use of the word “underemployed.” If my son chooses to work at a low-wage job that he enjoys but doesn’t offer him opportunities for growth or advancement, a job that doesn’t require the college degree he has, is that wrong?
To me, it is. He will have been given (and worked hard to earn) a set of skills (writing, critical thinking, problem solving, oral presentation) that he would not be using, and that would be wasteful of his talents. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and I expect him to use his education and good fortune.
Yet when all is said and done, I know I need to step back and watch, offer advice when it’s asked for and try to remain quiet when it’s not. I can suggest he watch Meg Jay’s TED talk and forward articles about career choices, but I must also allow him to ignore me and to find his own way.
It’s his journey. Pressuring him to pursue a path that I want for him won’t lead him to happiness, or satisfaction. It will certainly not preserve the relationship of mutual respect and love that we have now. And in the end that is what matters most.
Beth Bishop is an independent school administrator who has worked in schools for more than 20 years, primarily in admissions and college counseling. When both of her children chose colleges in the West, she and her husband decided they were ready for a major change too and moved from New England to the Bay Area. Neither of her sons has spent a summer at home since leaving for college, but the move has made phone calls and visits easier.