As a mom with two sons in college, I often find myself wondering where they will be a few years from now when they’ve jumped through the last hoop their father and I have set for them.
Reflecting on my own time in college, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the number 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 wished there was another hoop or two! I wanted my parents to tell me what to do next. But they believed it 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 20s. That’s when they can build what she calls “identity capital” — figure out who they are and what they want to do.
Meg Jay convinced me it might be a mistake to 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 already knows he wants to pursue a PhD). Before college, he spent a gap year in Australia working at a school in the mountains. The last two summers he worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), off the grid atop a peak in New Hampshire. 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 work that lets him travel and be outdoors, shouldn’t we just let him explore?
Recently 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’d 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 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 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 opportunity for growth or advancement, a job that doesn’t require the college degree he’s worked hard to earn, is that wrong? To me, it is. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and I expect him to use his education, talents and good fortune.
But when all is said and done? It’s his journey. So I’ll step back and watch, offer advice when it’s asked for, and try to stay quiet when it’s not. I’ll suggest he watch Meg Jay’s TED talk, but I’ll also allow him to ignore me and find his own way.
Pressuring him to pursue a certain path won’t lead him to happiness or satisfaction. It certainly won’t preserve the relationship of mutual respect and love that we have now. And in the end, that’s what matters most.