A friend recently told me that her daughter -- a freshman at a major university -- will be returning home to stay this June, dropping out of her dream college and choosing to attend our local community college next year. This decision isn't based on academics. She's a smart kid and has been doing fine, though B's mostly have replaced the A's she used to make in high school. There are no romantic ties luring her back home. The issue isn't money: the family is affluent and can afford the tuition, room and board. She hasn't had any traumatic setbacks, though she hasn't been keen on sharing a dorm room, hates dorm food and hasn't made many friends this year. She just loves the idea of being at home with her parents, her dog and living in her own room once again.
As I listened to my friend's mixture of disappointment and weary acceptance of her daughter's choice, I struggled to understand. Why would a young person give up a chance for an excellent education and the experience of living in a very different, stimulating environment to come back home to dusty, rural Arizona to attend the local community college? Now that she has had a taste of being on her own, why is she heading home?
While I believe that this young woman knows what's best for her -- and it could well be that she just isn't ready to be so far away right now -- or ever -- from those she loves most, I felt a twinge of sadness for her.
I felt sad for her both despite and because of the fact that her parents are so wonderful, her home so beautiful and comfortable, her dog so endearing. With a home atmosphere so inviting, it might well be difficult to break away.
Sometimes, it seems to me, becoming an independent adult is easier when you don't have such wonderful parents. Certainly, parents who encourage a young adult to be independent and who also provide a safety net for those times when he or she truly needs one are the best. The young person can go out into the world, secure with the knowledge that she has a worst case scenario option that isn't bad at all.
But there are some of us who have thrived because we didn't have such an option.
Growing up in a tiny, cluttered, over-crowded house and in a volatile, abusive family atmosphere, I started planning my escape early.
When I was only 8 or 9, I would grab the Sunday want ads and, in a blissful hour of fantasy, would pretend I was a new college graduate and would look for a job, an apartment and a car, totaling up what I could afford and making a practice budget. I dreamed of living and working in New York City - just about as far and as different from L.A. as I could imagine at the time.
And when I actually made the break to go to college -- even though I was scared and cried the first day -- I was in heaven.
I had chosen to go to a college -- Northwestern University in suburban Chicago -- nearly 2,000 miles away from my Los Angeles area home. I had never visited there. I didn't know a soul. I was terrified -- but determined to make a new life for myself, to build a family of friends, to become more independent. And, indeed, all of that happened just as I had planned and dreamed.
It wasn't easy: I worked throughout my college years to supplement my scholarship and loans. The classes were challenging and the atmosphere of Northwestern's famous journalism school was both competitive and supportive. At first, I was stunned and a bit depressed when I realized everyone was at least as smart as I was and I wondered if I'd ever feel special again. But, only a few weeks later, I was excited and happy to be among accomplished peers who were quickly becoming treasured friends.
While other students, who had grown up with rooms of their own, might have bemoaned the sudden lack of privacy, I reveled in the fact that I shared a room with only one other person -- my wonderful roommate Cheryl -- and that I had my own bureau drawers and my own little closet -- a major step up from sharing a tiny bedroom, drawers and closet with my brother and sister.
And dorm food was a major improvement over the fare at home. In bad times, we went to bed hungry. Even the good times weren't splendid. My mother, mortified by her lack of organizational skills, didn't want an audience in the kitchen and so consistently refused all offers of help in meal preparations. She could never quite make all the elements of a meal turn out at the same time. So we grazed through the evening. "Does anyone want green beans?" she would call from the kitchen. "The meat won't be done for an hour or so and I have to go to the store to get butter for the mashed potatoes, so why don't you all go ahead and eat the green beans now."
At the dorm all the components of a meal were there for my choosing -- main dish with sides and salad -- all at once. And there were bonuses I had never had at home, like crusty rolls and dessert. It was divine.
And while professors could be demanding and some dorm mates harder to like than others, there was no criticism or psychodrama that came close to what I was used to at home. People could be cranky or indifferent. But they never threatened my life or general well-being. People had good and bad days, but no one had mood swings, screaming rages or physically and emotionally abusive rampages like my father did. There was no constant atmosphere of anxious vigilance and fear. I could breathe. Despite my crammed schedule, I could relax inwardly and feel warm acceptance. I was convinced that I had won the roommate lottery with Cheryl, a delightful kindred spirit, and was truly blessed with a wonderful group of friends.
I felt I was living a very good life.
Looking back, I think I had a significant advantage: my home life was so uncomfortable, so bizarre and, occasionally, so horrific that just about anything -- from a small dorm room to, later on, a grungy studio apartment -- was better.
In fact, my parents' reassurances that if I wasn't happy, I could always come home only increased my resolve to maintain independence.
Once, two weeks into graduate school at Northwestern, I had a banner bad day: I found out -- through a classmate I had never liked -- that the love of my life had fallen in love with someone else over the summer and was now engaged, a fact that he had yet to share with me. And a visiting professor who didn't know any of us well mistook me for another student and screamed at me in front of everyone that I had no writing talent whatsoever. I was totally shocked. I was already selling articles to national magazines. I had won a special award at graduation the previous June. My classmates clustered around me and told the professor "There must be a mistake!" There was. And, when he discovered his mistake, there was no apology, just more yelling, this time at the poor soul who was the real target of his displeasure.
Angry, shaken and generally distraught, I rushed back to my apartment and called my mother in tears. She spoke the magic words. "Oh, Sweetheart," she said. "You could get a perfectly good job without a Master's degree. Why put yourself through this? You know you can always come home."
My tears dried up instantly. "No!" I cried, a bit more vehemently than I had meant to. "I can't...I have to finish. I just can't come home...." I could feel my mother's puzzlement over the phone. But the fact was that no matter how hard life was or would be during that difficult year, the thought of going home was infinitely worse.
And while my brother Mike, sister Tai and I sometimes talk about what our lives might have been like and what more we might have achieved with less pain and hardship in our shared childhood, it occurs to me lately that those of us with less than wonderful childhoods may well have some unique advantages in making our way through life.
- Freedom has a much broader meaning for us. As young adults, and even later on, we celebrate our freedom from fear and abuse and chaos as fervently as our freedom to make our own choices. And we've learned to treasure all of these freedoms throughout our lives.
- We don't expect others to be perfect. After a childhood with extreme behaviors all around us, roommate (and later, spouse) personality quirks or habits that might unhinge others don't register with us. While most of us don't seek out friends and partners sharing the dysfunction of our families of origin (though some do feel drawn to the horribly familiar, consciously or not), we also tend not to be quite so picky about personal habits. Unlike some bickering couples on the Dr. Phil Show, we tend not to go ballistic about towels not hung our preferred way or toothpaste tubes squeezed in the middle. Our requirements are different. My own personal tolerance limits are simple: I don't want to be with someone who doesn't treat me kindly and I could never tolerate a partner who, like my father, was addicted to alcohol or drugs. But I don't require friends or my husband to share my political or religious beliefs or all of my interests or inclinations.
- Our motivation can be fierce and undeterred by setbacks. Our freedom feels hard won and we may be more motivated than most to maintain it. While moving back home during a time of financial, occupational or relationship upheaval may be an option, our horror at such a prospect may keep us moving forward. Thus, I was able to grit my teeth and stay on for my journalism Master's at Northwestern. It was one of the worst years of my life -- mostly due to my unrequited love for a classmate and a truly punishing work schedule in addition to school -- but fleeing back to L.A. would have felt much worse. And I would have missed some valuable lessons in writing and in life.
- We are infinitely grateful for small -- and not so small - things. We don't take freedom or happiness or functional relationships for granted -- ever. To this day, I find myself thankful for the quiet -- either the silence of solitude or the comfortable feeling of quiet time shared with someone dear. I'm still grateful for the freedom to plan and organize my own time. I continue to treasure time with friends (as well as with my husband, my siblings and cousins) -- time to get close, time to hang out, time to laugh and enjoy each other -- all pleasures that tended to be elusive when I was at home and not allowed to have friends over or to spend much time with them outside of school. As a young adult, I treasured the freedom to be myself, to discover who I was outside of my troubled family of origin -- and that still means so much and has also enabled me to embrace anew the surviving members of my family - Mike, Tai and my cousins Caron, Jack and George.