Monday, May 13, 2013

The Mother's Day Hangover

With yesterday being Mother’s Day, a lot of blogs and twitter feeds I follow were bursting with stories about cute-but-screaming babies, cute-but-messy toddlers, cute-but-bratty grade schoolers. There are a lot of Mommy blogs out there, and they are mostly funny and the kids are adorable, but it does seem like “Mommy” now means a woman who has children under the age of 13 or so. There’s not a whole lot of talk out in the blogosphere about kids with raging acne or who are failing physics or who make Sue Heck look like Homecoming Queen by comparison. Maybe it’s because outlets like Facebook have taught us that social media is used solely for the purpose of bragging about our children, and since they aren’t so adorable at 15 and perhaps aren’t getting straight A’s or quarterbacking the state champion football team, parents of teenagers keep quiet unless there’s bragging rights to be claimed. Or maybe it’s because that phrase “little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems” has never been more true, and we’re all terrified that our children – only a few years away from legal adulthood – are making huge mistakes that will doom them to living out life in our basements, juggling jobs as waiters and Wal-Mart cashiers, their fancy college degrees gathering dust in the corner.

Unemployment rates can be parsed however you want, but the fact remains that new college graduates are mostly working at jobs that do not require a college education. The fact also remains that once a college graduate has stepped onto the Wal-Mart trajectory, the changes of stepping back off and onto a professional track grow harder and harder as time goes by. So while our kids kill themselves to get into good colleges and we kill ourselves trying to pay for them and save for retirement at the same time, that college degree is no longer the guarantee it was once, a ticket to a middle-class life.

For parents who are my age, it’s doubly frustrating because it’s such a different situation than what we dealt with. My parents were gracious enough to be born a few years before the baby boomers, and, as such, we Generation X parents were a baby-bust echo. There were plenty of college seats to go around. Kids who didn’t work hard in high school were assumed to be underachievers whose needs simply weren’t being met, rather than lazy-asses who couldn’t be bothered to crack a book. The University of Maryland, College Park would admit just about anyone who got over 1000 on the SATs.

As for jobs after college, nearly everyone I graduated with had a professional position within a few months. Granted, I believe things were a bit more challenging for the women I went to school with – there was still a lot of talk about needing to start somewhere as a secretary first; talk I’m pretty sure the male graduates didn’t hear – but I had my own business cards less than six months after graduating, and while the workforce was an up-and-down place, especially after I had a baby, there was never any time where I felt that I’d made a mistake that was going to doom me for life. Having earned that degree put me on a completely different path than those who don’t, and every time I log onto Facebook and check the statuses of the people I went to school with, there’s a bright red line separating those of us who had college degrees four years after we graduated high school, and those of us who did not.

Today’s young adults cannot say the same. And that’s why the “big kid/big problem” looms so ominously. Never before has each misstep made by a teenager seemed so consequential. Twenty years ago, if a kid overslept and missed an interview for an internship, it was no big deal. Today, it seems that each opportunity is so rare and so important, oversleeping or a flat tire or a just plain bad interview will ensure that the kid spends the rest of his life in your basement, working at McDonald’s and giving you some illegitimate grandchildren.

Sociologists say that this generation of young adults, currently in college and freshly graduated, is the first one who will not do better than their parents. Is there anything more ironic? My generation of parents is the helicopter parent generation. We quit our jobs to make sure someone was available to drive them to soccer practice; we argued with their math teachers over how homework was graded; we hired tutors to help them write college essays and we gave them a pass on the after-school jobs we were required to take so they could play sports or volunteer or do something that looked better on their college applications than scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. And now it seems that all this helicoptering has been for naught; that in fact it may have boomeranged right back on us just like our children have, by teaching them that a door is too hard to open if we are not there to open it for them.

My parents were not helicopter parents; they had their own lives and pretty much left me alone to figure out mine. But in one respect, my father was a better helicopter parent than I’ve been so far. I ended up majoring in his profession, and he got me my first job out of college. That job led to my second, which led to my third, which ended up with me having an impressive career until my husband’s winner-take-all position led me to chose between my own job and my child. Because of that, I am not in a position to help him get his first job, even though he’s interested in similar work. If I had stayed, rather than quitting in order to take better care of him, I’d be in a much better position to help him secure that all-important first job. Instead, all I can do is offer ideas and nag.

I don’t know whether it’s the helicopter parenting that made our kids unable to get a professional job out of college (I hear horror stories sometimes about parents accompanying their kids to job interviews or calling their kids’ bosses) or it’s just a bad economy in which companies aren’t hiring because they don’t have to – their exempt workers are putting in 60-hour weeks and Republicans are kindly working to abolish overtime for those who are non-exempt. But the result is the same – college graduates who can’t get a job better than working reception at the local gym; taking out huge loans for a graduate-level degree that won’t guarantee a job either… and the government accepting that this is the new normal by requiring health insurance companies to keep “kids” on their parents’ policies till they are 26. When I was 26, I was married, had a full-time professional job, a house and a baby.

The irony of Mother’s Day is that it’s the one day where Mom is supposed to be pampered, in recognition of the 364 other days of the year when she’s busting her butt taking care of other people. We do this as an investment in the future – we work for our kids so they’ll be hard-working, successful, professional adults who’ll someday give us grandchildren to coo over and babysit occasionally. But now the future looks disturbingly like the present, except that instead of cute 7-year-olds watching TV on the couch, it’ll be not-so-cute 27-year-olds who are there, waiting for dinner while they play their videogames, wondering what happened to the 17-year-old who graduated high school with honors and matriculated to the college of his dreams. As for the parents, the “Mother’s Day Hangover” could last just as long as active motherho

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