A "Transition into Equality"
When Denise, age 52, asked her daughter, Jill, a junior in college, to describe the ideal college mother, Jill responded that such a mother is able to make a "transition into equality." She hoped that she and her mother would develop an equal "give-and-take."
Jill envisions an enviable adult mother-daughter relationship--a sharing between equals. But a "transition into equality" comes slowly between a mother and daughter, who have just emerged from the adolescent years of "give and take" criticism, not encouragement. During adolescence, a mother tries to mold her daughter into a perfect woman, or at least an acceptable woman, while at the same time her daughter is struggling to establish her uniqueness, her own self. The often acrimonious, and sometimes hilariously absurd, exchanges that arise between mother and daughter begin during middle school and may last well into high school.
But now the daughter has graduated from high school; her adolescence is over. The mother breathes a sigh of relief becauseher daughter has emerged from the emotional turbulence of imbalanced hormones and fifteen-minute mood swings. Her body and mind are in sync, and she is safe. But just as mother and daughter once again begin to appreciate each other, the daughter leaves for college.
Over eight million women now attend college, composing 55.1 percent of the total enrollment. In 1966, when many of their mothers were college-age, only two and one-half million women attended college.1 This change in women's educational opportunities requires another shift in the relationship between mother and daughter. Just as a daughter must adjust to her new status as a college woman, not a high-school girl, her mother must adapt to her daughter's adulthood.
Preparing for Freshman Year
Sometimes the social scene during the summer before college delays the new, more peaceful, accommodation between mother and daughter. It can be grueling for families as a daughter often begins acting like a freshman, ignoring parental restrictions, and almost guaranteeing that her family will be happy to see her leave. This blip in the new harmony between mother and daughter occurs because the daughter fears leaving home, family, and friends. Her insecurity surfaces as she faces the prospect of living with unfamiliar roommates, coed dormitories and bathrooms, and an unrestrained social life. She may not feel prepared for this freedom--and for good reason.
Not everyone fits easily into a college campus. A mother and father who are sensitive to their daughter's needs can assure her that she has the ability to make good choices, that they trust her and are confident she will make the right decisions. However, she still may cover up her nervousness and want to spend all her time with friends, accumulating memories of their last summertogether. The summer before college should be a time of reassurances and love from her family, not a summer of constant arguing.
Abbie's daughter Trina wanted to go to a college as far away as possible, and she fought with Abbie about her college choice, her curfews, and her boyfriend all that summer. "It was a mother-daughter thing," Abbie explained. Abbie cautioned Trina that the university she chose was "too big, too far away, and too much of a party school" and urged her to change her mind while she still had other options. Trina won the argument but called home before the end of the first semester complaining that the school was "too big, too far away, and too much of a party school." Trina remained for the year, studied hard, and transferred to a smaller, closer, and more academic university--and Abbie claims that she never told Trina, "I told you so."
No matter how difficult (or easy) the summer before college is for families, fall finally arrives and the moment of departure descends. A mother must say good-bye to her daughter's childhood.
I was taken by surprise by the overwhelming sadness I felt when I dropped my daughter, our youngest child, off at college. The feeling of loss that swept over me should not have surprised me since I had wept when each of our children had gone to college. But this time I thought my response would be different. With our children on their own, I would be free to pursue my own interests and a new career. Yet I wept as I walked across the campus green. I was leaving behind a part of myself, my lastchild, and I didn't think anything could fill the vacuum left by my children.
I resisted staying around to help my daughter unpack and arrange her room because I did not want to intrude when she was meeting roommates for the first time. Their conversations and room design had to be theirs alone. She was establishing her mark, her identity within a college dorm, and she had to do it her way. I knew that a new era was beginning for her--and for me.
However, I, like many women, wondered if life would ever be as exciting as when she and her siblings were young. I seemed to forget the fretful nights waiting to hear the garage door open to signal she was safely home. I forgot our disputes about curfews and parties and boyfriends. I could focus only on the good times we had and the fun of having a teenager in the house.
I also realized that although my relationship with her was not ended, it definitely was altered. No longer would she saunter into the kitchen and casually ask if she could visit a boyfriend away in college. Now when she wanted to go off campus, she would not have to ask anyone. No longer would I share the spontaneous joys or sorrows of the events in her life. No longer would I agonize through a late night imagining the worst scenario of smashed cars and calls from a hospital. Now her college friends would be the first to share good news and bad news, the first to hear about boyfriends, classes, and hardships. I no longer would be an intimate part of her life.
I was relieved to read that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, age 54, felt the same way I did. She wrote in the Time magazine issue on baby boomers turning 50, "It wasn't so much turning 50 that had an impact [on me] as much as my youngest child's going off to school [college] ... . The structure of your day is rounded by the kids."2
For some mothers more than others, the reality of daughtersdepending on roommates for moral support is difficult to accept. They want to be the first to know what is happening in their daughters' lives. Cynthia, whose daughter suffered a nervous breakdown in her freshman year, did not realize the intensity of her daughter's distress until her daughter's friend called from the college infirmary to tell Cynthia that her daughter had to be hospitalized. Cynthia, upset that she did not know the magnitude of her daughter's difficulties, also realized her daughter was not alone in her despair. "I think college is very tough," Cynthia said. "Several of my daughter's friends had even a harder time than my daughter." One friend dropped out of school and spent two years in intensive therapy before she returned. Another of her classmates, an outstanding scholar and athlete, committed suicide.
Because freshman year is difficult for young women, mothers need to keep in close touch. However, every mother faces a dilemma: How much contact will be considered too much, and how much will be welcome? Will her phone calls or questions be perceived as intrusion? Now that her daughter is an adult, will advice be wanted? How much support does she need?
How Much Support?
Although parents of daughters who reside on campus are not involved with them on a day-to-day basis, studies show that parental support is essential to a student's psychological adjustment to college. After testing college freshmen, researchers found that those who received parental support were better adjusted and less distressed than were those with low parental support.3 Maternal support was determined by asking the freshmen questions like: "Does she really understand how you feel about things?" and "Is she critical or disapproving of you?"
The second question offers a key to the success of mothers and daughters during college and perhaps for life. If a daughtersuspects that her mother disapproves of her choice of classes, friends, boyfriends, she faces an even greater challenge in adjustment to college. She needs assurance from her parents that, as a young adult, she is capable of making wise decisions.
When the same researchers followed 18- to 20-year-olds into sophomore year, they found that "social support from both the mother and father and a nonconflictual relationship between parents played an important adaptive role during the transition to young adulthood."4 The study suggests that a college student's ability to make friends easily is related to a warm attachment to her parents. A young woman who is emotionally distant from her parents, or whose parents are unhappy with each other, may find herself uncertain about how to relate to others. She may have difficulty making friends because she has not experienced what it means to be at ease with others.
Even though a daughter may have argued her way through high school, tested her mother's limits, and challenged her father's authority, she wants--and needs--their love, acceptance, and approval during college. Some students never receive that much-needed vote of confidence.
"She Wanted to Be Independent"
During her senior year in high school, Nancy really upset her parents. She challenged their religious beliefs, hung out with an "unacceptable" group of friends, wore her hair in odd ways, and accumulated earrings. She also became a first-class cyclist, entering and winning many cycling competitions. Spending more and more time alone, she stood apart from her family. When she entered college, her parents never telephoned her. She occasionally called home, and she went home for Christmas. Right before freshman parent weekend, Nancy, who was attending a traditional college, shaved off all her hair. When her parents arrived for the weekend, they brought her handsomeolder brother, whose appearance contrasted sharply with Nancy's unconventional style.
A week after that weekend, Nancy was killed in a biking accident. At the funeral her mother told me that Nancy had fought so hard to show that she was independent that they decided to let her go, to let her be independent. Her roommates later said that Nancy did not want to be alienated from her parents. Through long nights of talking, she told them that she wanted her parents to recognize her individuality, her uniqueness, and to realize that she was not her mother, her grandmother, or her brother. She had longed to remain connected, yet she never had the opportunity to express that longing to her parents. The distance between them had grown too great, and she did not know how to take the first step toward reconciliation. Neither did her parents.
Nancy's mother did not understand that the "rebellion" her daughter was undergoing was not a defiance of her mother but a searching for herself. If she had grasped Nancy's needs, she may have been more accepting of her lifestyle and looked at her daughter--shaved head and all--with pride, love, and even admiration. Perhaps she could have thought back to her own youth and remembered her yearnings to be someone, to do something different, her desire not to be a clone of her mother.
If Nancy and her mother had thrashed their way through their differences, their bond might not have been broken. Conflict between a mother and a daughter does not have to result in a lost relationship. Researchers from Wellesley College's Stone Center found that "conflict between late adolescent daughters [college students in their research] and their mothers is typically encapsulated around specific issues that can co-exist with the feeling that 'my mother is my best friend.'"5
When mothers and daughters stop talking and do not attempt to understand their differences, they create an emotional distancing that is disabling to each. If they are able to argue throughtheir conflicts and still love each other, they keep emotionally connected. The impassioned give-and-take, the interruptions, the emotional upheavals will not harm mothers and daughters as long as they keep talking and listening to each other. "When my mother didn't talk to me for a time during college, it was the hardest time in my life," a 25-year-old woman told me as she looked back on her college days.
Not all mother-daughter pairs are volatile. Some, uncomfortable with confrontation, quietly discuss their disputes. The important point is that they remain engaged and connected. A mother's support remains critical for college-age women. Some mothers, however, overstep their boundaries, keeping their daughters dependent and inept.
"I'm Putting Her Through School"
Pam, a college freshman, flunked two classes her first semester away from home because she had never written research papers on her own. During middle school and high school, her mother not only did all her research but actually wrote her required papers. When Pam went to the opposite coast for college, she had to write her own papers for the first time since fourth grade. Needless to say, without possessing any research or writing skills, Pam could not continue in school. She returned to her hometown and enrolled in a local college where she is passing, with her mother still researching and writing her papers.
When I asked Pam's mother why she cheats for her daughter, she replied: "I'm not sorry. I think I do the right thing. I don't want her to drop out. If she has a paper to do, she doesn't do it and gets headaches when she goes to the library. The time comes closer and closer, and she begins fretting about the paper, and nothing else gets done. She doesn't pay attention in class. She can't study. She has it on her mind until I can't stand it, and I'll say, 'I'll do it.' If I do it, it's like all the pressure is off and she canrelax. She can't really get mad at me cause I'm putting her through school."
Pam's mother clearly gives her daughter the wrong kind of support. Pam is under her mother's control, a pattern established in childhood, and now she cannot free herself. She depends on her mother for her survival in college. Pam would have benefited from research and writing tutoring during middle school. Now she would be better off going directly into a work environment that does not require research papers and can utilize her other skills. Perhaps at some point she could enroll in a continuing education class that teaches research and writing skills, pass the course on her own, and try college again.
Although Pam's pathological fear of writing papers is extreme, many students are challenged by academic classes. Students who obtained top grades in high school are now faced with classmates who have accomplished as much as or more than they have. Conversely, students who have fears of inadequacy may realize that their ideas/thoughts/answers are just as accomplished as their peers'. All students quickly wake up to the fact that no one is going to tell them when to study or what to study. Many mothers have received frantic phone calls right before a major paper is due and heard the cry, "I can't do it. It's too much." Rather than writing the paper for them, wise mothers realize that their daughters only want to vent their frustration about the difficulty and challenge of the workload. A good listener and a little confidence boosting are what they need, not a quick fix.
Finding the Balance
Mothers can also discover how quickly their daughters mature in college and develop the skills necessary to manage their lives. Marilyn, whose daughter, Jill, is a junior, described her daughter and her friends as "focused." "They know what they want to do,and they work for it," she said. Although many students may not manage as well as Jill, all mothers and daughters search for a more equal balance in their relationship. Mothers wonder how much support is just right.
Marilyn herself is an accomplished woman, a social worker, but acknowledges that Jill is "deeper and smarter than I am. She'll talk about something, and she knows it a lot better than I do. I've almost consciously let her move out ahead." Her daughter now recommends books for her to read and calls her about mutual interests.
In spite of her daughter's intelligence and their good relationship, Marilyn still grapples with how much support she should give her daughter. How often should she call her? How much advice should she give her? Marilyn doesn't quite feel comfortable with their being "equals"; she believes she still has to act like a mother. "There still has to be this person that she can call and fall apart to on the phone," she said. "Someone who is going to hear her out and will be more worried than anyone else will be. At the same time there is equality, there should be mother and daughter."
Marilyn and her friend discussed a common theme between mothers and daughters: how much to let go during college. "We worry about this," Marilyn said. "It's such a fine line between being readily available versus letting go a little bit. What is it that fosters a young woman being fully developed? How much do you want to be there? What's good enough, and what's too much?" They have decided that "it's better to err on the side of too much."
After my interview with Marilyn and her friend, I thought of the contrast between them and Nancy's mother. Nancy's mother did not err on the side of too much. Perhaps she never thought about how much emotional support Nancy needed because she was so angry at her for her show of independence. Her anger would not allow her to consider doing "too much."
On the other hand, Pam's mother did far too much for her daughter when she wrote her papers and made her daughter dependent on her. She undermined her daughter's ability to manage her own affairs, even though she thought she was helping her.
The question of how much support is just right can only be resolved by individual pairs of mothers and daughters. However, researchers confirm that attachment to parents during college is positively related with stability of a young person's self-esteem and life satisfaction.6 When a daughter and mother are no longer living together year-round, telephone calls, letters, and E-mail can keep them connected. I remember listening carefully to both my daughters' voices over the phone, trying to discern any signs of sadness or unspoken disappointments. I relished in their rundown of classes and activities. They were changing, creating their own friendships, their own style and interests--an inner core that would be theirs alone.
College women appreciate a parent's vote of confidence. "My family has always instilled in me the attitude that whatever I put my mind to I can do," a college sophomore told me. "Even if there was a day when I was weak, I would think back to my family and remind myself that they believe in me. I know I can do anything. It's not a burden. There are times when I think I'm not doing well grade-wise, and I get upset. They will say 'Okay, relax. We don't expect you to be a superstar.'"
Another student appreciated her parents' sacrifices to send her to school. "My mom and dad don't have a lot, but they totally give to me and my brother and sister," she said. "My dad doesn't have a day off. He works Monday through Sunday, and it's for all of us. I think they are the most beautiful people on earth. They don't tell me you better do this or that. They just give, and they don't ask in return."
That kind of support can never be considered "too much,"and a daughter appreciates the "transition into equality" that flows from parental support that respects her uniqueness and maturity.
"A Time to Develop Yourself"
"I think the four years from 18 to 22 are fundamental periods of growth and personal development," a senior in a residential Midwestern college told me. "After I left high school, I was pretty confident and vain and materialistic. My value system was not fundamentally different than now, but I appreciate things in a different capacity now. I think my confidence has gained. In college you have the time to develop yourself and not worry about other things. It's a luxury a lot of people don't have."
This woman found the perfect college (for her) that gave her the time to "develop" herself before entering the world of full-time employment and independent living. But the four years (or longer for many) of college do not always pass serenely, and for some, they may be hazardous to their health.
Sex, Drugs, Eating Disorders: Social Scene 101
Gwen recalled that at her daughter's freshman orientation the dean welcomed the students and their parents, extending a special welcome to gay and lesbian freshmen. He informed the students about the drug and alcohol facilities on campus, told them where they could obtain contraceptives, and warned the women students about date rape. When the dean was finished speaking, Gwen and her husband were ready to take their daughter out of college. They had not expected the school to replicate their home life, but they were not prepared to have her encountersuch a disparate environment. Her daughter, Gwen said dejectedly, was offered escorts to walk around the campus at night. They had worried about leaving their daughter, and after the freshman orientation they were panicked. They fretted that she was not prepared for the gritty realities of life on that campus.
The social "realities" of college often are encountered for the first time during girls' high-school years, but the major difference between their high school and college experiences is that their parents are not there to set guidelines and monitor their behavior at college. If parents discuss standards with their high-school daughters and trust them, remaining vigilant yet trusting, their daughters usually develop a sense of responsibility. Some college students, however, have not developed that maturity and must learn the hard way. When one 28-year-old reflected on her college years, she commented, "I don't know why it was so hard to be responsible in college. I remember running to the clinic asking, 'Where are the morning-after pills?'"
Because they are living alone or with same-age friends for the first time, college students encounter a freedom with no restraints. Some women find that freedom overwhelming, and others discover their own built-in common sense.
"Parties are ridiculous," Jesse said. "People get so smashing drunk, and I'm not having fun. I'll have a few drinks and get a buzz, but I don't enjoy having a hangover in the morning. I did it in freshman year. For me it was being out of the house and saying, 'I'm out. Let's go crazy.' But I've done it. I won't do it again."
Alix, now a senior, was surprised when she first arrived on her campus. "I saw cases of alcohol stacked up on each end of the dorm, and I was overwhelmed. I didn't expect that." She has friends who "have to" go out every night. "I think a lot of kids are very dependent on alcohol to have a good time. The whole social life is going to a party and getting drunk. It's very frustrating."
Abusive drinking by women has increased dramatically andnow is comparable to the drinking rates of men, according to the National Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities. The commission reported that about one-third of all college women said they drank to get drunk--triple the number who reported such drinking ten years before. The report also said that about 90 percent of campus rapes, 95 percent of violent campus crime, and 80 percent of campus vandalism are alcohol related. Although some studies indicate a slight decline in campus drinking, alcohol abuse remains a major problem on college campuses.7
Substance-abuse prevention programs in colleges tend to focus on young males and stress drunk-driving, physical risk-taking, and vandalism. As worthy as those concerns are, one of the most dangerous connections, that of alcohol and sexual assault, is neglected in the discussions.
Alcohol and sexual assault are frequently linked in studies that examine college females. In a sample of college women from a large urban university, over half of the 1,160 women surveyed reported that they had experienced some form of sexual assault, not always from fellow students. Ninety-five percent of those assaults were committed by individuals the women knew, and almost 50 percent involved alcohol consumption by one or both parties.8 The average age of the women at the time of the assault was 20.
No wonder parents are worried about their daughters. They realize they must send them to college with additional warnings about health and safety. But now, unlike the high-school years, they have no way of knowing what is going on in the dorms, sororities, fraternities, or off-campus housing. The in loco parentis role of the university was relinquished along with most single-sex dorms during the college revolutions of the sixties. Parents cannot rely on college administrators to oversee the social activities on a campus; they must rely solely on their daughters' use of common sense and the values they have taught them.
Those values are learned from mothers and fathers who careand care and care some more. A daughter may complain about her mother being too strict or "on her case" too much during high school, but sometimes she misses the attention once she is out of the house. Jayne told me she now realizes what her mother was doing during her high-school years: "I understand now why she was such a pain in the neck to me. When you go away to college and you're on your own, you miss that. I probably would not admit that to her, but you know you miss someone caring all the time. I didn't hate her, but I was always telling her to leave me alone. I wanted to be with my friends."
Of course, not all sexual activity in college involves assault, but there are other dangers associated with sex in college. In a study from a southern university, 66 percent of the unmarried college students reported being sexually active during the previous three months, and one-third of that group reported having more than one sexual partner.9 The sexually active students were putting themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases because three-quarters of them reported inconsistent or no condom use. In addition, most failed to disclose to their partners that they had had multiple partners or that they had tested positive for the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases.
There is some good news. A recent survey from the University of California at Los Angeles reported that just over 42 percent of college freshmen endorse casual sex, down from 50 percent in 1975.10 In surveying 348,465 freshmen throughout the country in their first week of classes, the researchers also reported that the "guzzling of beer" dropped to a record low, with less than 53 percent of the freshmen saying they drank beer occasionally or frequently.
The research is encouraging but does not reflect the anecdotal comments I heard from seniors who were resident assistants (RAs) in their college dormitories. One typical RA described the freshmen women as having "no clue in life. I see most of my students go out every night and they come back from bars, and Ithink to myself, Your parents are spending thousands of dollars for you to come here and drink and party and then do schoolwork. They party every night, not just Friday and Saturday."
Perhaps the UCLA research reflects the optimism of incoming students--they were interviewed during their first week--that they can handle the college social scene. Or perhaps students' attitudes are changing. Almost 30 percent of the freshmen surveyed in the UCLA study identified themselves as born-again Christians.
The RAs at another college told me they were concerned about the high incidence of eating disorders among the young women on their campus. Not only did they relate stories of "nobody eating" at the dining hall, one of them could name six residents in her section of thirty-four women (almost 20 percent) who had eating disorders. Another said, "I have forty-four girls in my section, and I know three [have eating disorders] for sure. Then there are the thin ones, and I'm sure some of them have an eating disorder." RAs generally do not know how to approach a student whom they suspect of having an eating disorder. The subject is not emphasized in their training sessions, as it should be. Early attention, both medical and psychological, to an eating disorder can avert a lifelong problem.
Colleges are not blind to their students' problems, and counseling facilities are expanding. A young woman who is addicted to alcohol or drugs or who has an eating disorder can find counseling and help on her campus if she reaches out for it. This is where a mother can help--by finding out all the resources available in a school and encouraging, even escorting her daughter to the medical center.
New Role Models
During her college days, a daughter who is exposed to challenging ideas, women professors, and feminist classmates mayconclude that her mother is not her role model. "I would have been a different person if I didn't go to college," a woman in her midtwenties recalled. "I believed in women's rights, but I didn't have any sort of female model of independence until I went to college." A dedication to a cause, research project, or unusual person may take a daughter beyond her family's expectations for her. A daughter often senses that her mother worries about her exposure to different ideas. And, sometimes, a mother doesn't hesitate to state her opinion. One mother told a young woman that she didn't want her taking international courses because "she may go to that country and get a dread disease." All a young woman can do is reassure her mother that she will safeguard against the pitfalls that accompany any new adventure.
"Madly in Love with Shakespeare"
A great teacher, even just a good teacher, can inspire a young woman. When Jennifer registered for summer school as an exchange student on another campus, her mother warned her that she could not party all summer (as she liked to do), that she had to take a worthwhile course. At first Jennifer resented her mother's suggestion but realized that she had not been applying herself in class. Therefore, she carefully studied the courses available that summer, asked about the quality of the professors, and chose wisely. She fell "madly in love" with Shakespeare that summer and actually wrote a thank-you note to her mother for her advice, in spite of her complaint that she had to "work day and night" to survive in the class.
"You feel as though you've learned so much when you come out of here that you're just armed and ready to go," a senior said as she was discussing her progression from a "naïve" freshman to a seasoned senior. Her professors had stretched her mind and she applauded their efforts, although she admitted that she often protested the hard work and resisted their influence.
The College Network
The close college network of friends sustains women during the dark days of cramming for exams, writing all night, breaking up with boyfriends, or failing to get desired grades in important courses. With deaths of grandparents or parents, the breakup of parents' marriages, and the trauma of friends' crises, college friends form deep ties. They know each other well, have often lived with each other, and their friendships are formed with men as well as women.
According to research from Emory University, college women who are able to sustain a close network of friends and work in a college environment that provides equal opportunity to both men and women are less vulnerable to depression than high-school girls or adult women.11 In many ways, a college campus offers the ideal setting for young women to develop their full potential in the company of, and on equal basis with, good male friends.
During the seventies and eighties, most all-male colleges opened their doors to women, so this generation of women, unlike their older sisters, did not have to integrate their schools. By the time they arrived in college, sororities and women's organizations were a vital part of the campus life. Lesbian women often could find organizations that welcomed them. Medical schools, law schools, and business schools were equally accessible to women and men. Women entered college with assurances that they would be treated equally.
This perception of equality is confirmed in a study conducted at the University of Texas that appraised students' attitude about gender-role equality, comparing the results of a seventies survey with the same survey conducted in the nineties.12 College students in the nineties increasingly expected women and men to be treated equally in the workplace, home, and social settings (including either men or women proposing marriage)--a positive trend.
Not all women, however, experience equality in the classroom. But today they can do something about it. If a young woman feels she is not recognized or that her accomplishments are not acknowledged because she is a woman, she can bring her grievance to the attention of a counselor, a school official, or a friend. Merry, age 29, spoke about her experience in film school. "I don't run into sexism now in the type of job I have, but I did in college." Her professor was really "anti-women," and she was one of the two remaining women in the class. She majored in animation and in the final project teamed up with a male friend. "The professor loved the cartoon we created and kept telling the guy how great it was. My guy friend kept telling him it was my idea and my work. At last my friend wrote to the professor, making it clear that it was my project." That is a good friend.
I frequently heard from graduates that what they miss most about college is the proximity of friends, both male and female. "I don't have friends drop by like I did in college," a recent graduate in California said. "My favorite thing about college was people would just drop in [and] say, 'Hey what's going on?' or 'Let's hang out for a while.' Now we call and say, 'Come on over and watch a movie.' You lose that wonderful easiness."
Computers also link students. Information about what's happening on campus, where friends will meet for a party, and what class assignments are due connects students from across the campus. Professors correspond with students, friends catch up with friends, and students meet for the first time through E-mail. Not only can parents reach their daughters directly through E-mail, friends can stack up the messages, knowing that eventually they will read them.
Work Instead of College
College offers a slow transition to full-fledged adulthood, but it certainly is not the only path. My older daughter spent only threesemesters at a performing arts college before pursuing a career in dance. Her transition from family and home to career and apartment was short. Many women move into careers directly after high school or technical school. When I interviewed a group of young hairdressers, I was impressed with how satisfied they seemed with their lives. They had met at a technical high school at age 15 and remained good friends.
When I asked them if they thought they differed from other young twenty-somethings who had been to college, one of them replied: "We don't expect things the way some 20-year-olds do. They expect someone to do everything for them, while we're more used to doing it ourselves. They expect the world to be handed to them on a platter because they grew up with parents who wanted to make sure they got the best of everything. If you keep giving and giving and giving to your kids, they're just going to keep wanting and wanting and wanting." She did not resent her peers who were still dependent on their parents' income, but she thought they were immature.
Women who enter the workforce immediately after or shortly after high school learn how to budget their money and their time. Retail stores provide abundant jobs (at low pay) for high-school graduates, and some store clerks told me they were in serious retail careers, hoping to manage a store in the future. They didn't think their lack of a college degree hindered their ability to sell or to manage. And they knew that if they were serious about a career, they would be rewarded.
When I asked Lisa, a 20-year-old, if she wanted to be boss, she immediately said yes and was very confident that she would become a manager soon. After working at a store for three months, she had been promoted to manager-in-training and then shortly after that to assistant manger. Lisa plans on managing a store with heavy customer traffic because her salary will depend on the volume produced at the store and her goal is to make money. She does not envy those who have gone to college. Shequit college after one semester. "I was so sick of the college scene," she said, "where you drink yourself into oblivion and someone has to babysit you, and that would always end up being me 'cause I don't drink. So I was the one making sure they got to bed okay without puking all over themselves or going off with some random guy. I got sick of that really fast."
A friend who worked in retail with Lisa commented in a similar vein. "I got tired of the college scene too, and I'm one of those people who likes to party, but I have a little more self-control than most people. I saw myself without a reason to be there and [saw college as] a waste of everyone's money and I said, 'Forget it' and came home."
Other working women mentioned various reasons for not attending college or not staying in college. Some, like my older daughter, were eager to get on with their careers. My daughter recognized that a career in modern dance required early commitment. At age 18, after three semesters at a performing arts college and many auditions, she received an offer to dance with a modern dance company. I'll never forget her excitement when she greeted us with the news. She was going to dance with a company that even paid for rehearsal time--a major accomplishment for an 18-year-old.
Others leave school because they miss their families or boyfriends. Leigh recalled: "I remember my parents' reaction when I went to college. It wasn't a happy one. I was the only one of the family who left to go to college, and they had a tough time dealing with it. I remember a couple of times I walked in and my parents were crying, and I tried to ignore it, but I'd walk away and go to my room and cry. My school was only forty-five minutes away, but I didn't live at home. I came home every weekend because my boyfriend was here and I missed my mother's cooking so much." She left college after one semester.
A young hairdresser also reported that missing her boyfriend brought her back home. She attended college for two years. "Itreally was difficult partly because of my boyfriend," she said. "My heart wasn't in school. I worked as a hairdresser before I left and I was used to having money, and I was broke in school and didn't really have an interest. I was doing it because my parents wanted me to, but I really didn't have a purpose to continue."
Whether the motivation to work is a passion for the arts or the desire to make money or dissatisfaction with college, young women who work full-time after high school have many options. Some may return to school at a later time to pursue another career, as my daughter did. Many of these young women, at least during their decade of the twenties, have an advantage over college women--they know where they want to go.
"I Appreciate Her So Much More": The Relationship Changes
The misunderstandings and turmoil of the adolescent daughter-mother relationship seem to evaporate during a daughter's years at college, especially if she is living away from home. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that living away was associated with greater independence, support, and mutual respect between the college student and her parents.13 College students who lived at home and commuted to class were more likely to continue viewing the relationship negatively, probably because they felt constraints similar to those of their high-school days.
When I asked a group of seniors in a residential college if their attitudes toward their mothers had changed during their four years in school, they all admitted feeling very different now than they had felt in freshman year. Joyce, for example, used to have a lot of resentment toward her mom. "I can't say I blamed her for my parents' divorce, but I definitely saw my dad's side," she said. "My mom's a very spiritual person and my dad wasn't,and I resented her for focusing so much on that and not on family life." Joyce used to say that she was never going to be like her mother, but now she is very conscious of the ways they are similar. Even her career goals are now very much in line with those of her mother (who is a doctor). "I don't know if I'm turning into my mother," Joyce said. "But I've come to appreciate her so much more and understand her as a whole person so much more. I think it has a lot to do with distance, and I think it has a lot to do with my developmental stage."
All in the room agreed with Joyce that their new stage contributed to a better understanding of their mothers and therefore a better relationship.
Fran commented: "Our relationship has changed because I've matured. My mother used to call me all the time. We still talk, not as much, but I've gotten closer to her. When I go home, we talk about things that matter in my life and in her life." Fran feels, however, that there's a limit to their conversation. Her mother is not interested in the world events and issues that concern Fran. She lovingly calls her mother a "gossiper," and they talk about friends and family only.
Although Fran's mother did not attend college and is not particularly interested in her class work, Fran has achieved a "transition to equality" with her mother and is able to view the world through her mother's eyes. They do not have the same intellectural interests (Fran wants to be a lawyer), but they have found companionship and love in gossiping about and concern for family.
Anne smiled as she described her change in attitude: "At 13 we were far apart. She was the same but I was into the 'me' stage, but now we're like best friends. I can call up my mom and tell her just about anything. When you're young, you think friends are the most important thing. You realize as you go through life that you lose friends and get others, but your family is always there. They don't leave. They're constantly there for you."
When September of senior year rolls around, most women are restless and ready to move on. Their excitement is boundless. As one senior explained to me in October: "I think this summer I got on a power trip. I don't know if it's a power trip really, but I just decided that I want to get out and make my own money for a while. My job this summer was going out on sales calls with these businessmen, and I like the idea of doing that. I think we're ready to graduate and move on to a job or grad school."
But by the time May arrives, they are less eager. They realize that the close-knit family of friends will be departing for all corners of the country and, sometimes, the globe. The same feeling of anxiety that they felt as they departed for college returns. Uncertainty prevails on the college campus. Job rejection slips ("ding" letters) are posted on the bulletin boards. Suddenly graduate schools and volunteer organizations look appealing. Some seniors make plans to travel, to take time off before looking for a "real" job, while others seek temp or waitressing jobs until they figure out what they really want to do. And many will respond, "I don't know" when they are asked what they are going to do when they graduate.
I discovered the worst question one could ask a senior was, "What are you going to do after graduation?" The seniors who had received a job offer or acceptance to graduate school or admission to the peace corps would talk about their future without being asked. The others volunteered information when they felt comfortable enough to vocalize their lack of plans.
Seniors share a sense of sorrow that they are leaving the security of a campus that has nurtured them during important formative years and a sense of grief that they no longer will experience the closeness of their friends. They have lived by anacademic calendar since kindergarten, and their activities have been structured within an academic environment. Now they will be responsible for themselves--and mothers can't help.
"I felt a slight distancing from my mother at this stage," a 26-year-old said as she looked back on her senior year. "She was married before she finished school. I felt she couldn't relate to my experiences: the stress of interviewing and entering the fastpaced business world. I felt she had no advice to offer me. I felt very alone, graduating with no job and no one to counsel me."
A mother may not have undergone the same transition to adulthood as her daughter and not fully understand her daughter's dilemma. But she can acknowledge that her daughter's next years will be very different than her own decade of the twenties and support her daughter fully. The daughter's next few years will not be easy as she must choose among seemingly unlimited choices, a difficult task any time but particularly daunting in new settings without the old network of friends. And because, unlike her mother, the daughter does not expect to get married quickly, her career takes on added significance as she contemplates supporting herself for the next years. She will turn to her mother for advice, but what she wants is a quiet supporter.
By the end of college, whether a daughter's job is settled or remains uncertain, whether a mother and daughter truly understand each other or not, both must move on and adjust to their first years of living independently of each other.