Thicker than blood

Why does college life teach students to lose the family to find the self?


Simon Rodberg
September 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

During my last long conversation with my mother, I asked her whether,
after she died, I should leave Yale and come home to live with my father
and sister. It was far past bedtime for both of us, but her body clock had
given up under the influence of insulin injections, chemotherapy and the
steroid pills she downed by the handful every morning. I was kept awake by
the adrenaline rush of responsibility and fear, and the searing pain of love.

The American way decrees that chicks should flee the nest, and baby boomers
can't deny their own babies the privilege of flying solo. "Dad isn't going
to be happy unless you're happy," my mother told me. "And he can't be
happy if you give up these incredible opportunities for him." The
syllogism seemed simple.

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So here I am, on another late night 18 months later, back at Yale
for my senior year. But though I have no wish to neglect my mother's last
instructions, I am unable to escape the gravity of my family. My sister
just went off to college as well, but my old anxiety about leaving my
father alone has only shifted focus to the complexities around his
impending remarriage. I still call him almost every day and check in with
my grandmother every week. And as my friends discuss overseas fellowships
and fun post-graduation vacations, I find myself unable to imagine being anywhere but back home with what's left of my family.

This isn't the way college is supposed to be. Our deans act in loco
parentis, but nobody mistakes administrators for the real thing.
We're free of bedtimes, chores and curfews, free of expectations and
history, living in a world consisting entirely of other 20-year-olds.
College is for navel-gazing and self-actualization. Family? Who even
remembers it exists? Few of my friends have seen the place I grew up or
met my parents, and few mention anything about their folks back home.
College is for now and for the future -- when we'll graduate and move to San
Francisco, Seattle or New York, or take off to teach English in Guatemala
or France and self-actualize some more.

In a society where extended families scatter across a continent and
nuclear units move without regard to who is left behind, is it any
surprise that the model maturation process involves cutting ties to the
people who raised you? Age stratification is the social, political and
even geographic norm, accepted -- contrary to many thousand years'
experience -- as natural. Generation X has no faith in Social Security and
the elderly vote down school budgets, while television programmers know
that any given sitcom can only be pitched to a 10-year-wide demographic.
American Self-Reliance! Growing up means striking out for distant shores and a virgin
prairie, unencumbered by Grandma or Aunt Tillie or any obligation to anything
but your own ambition.

Here in the dorms, we have a mild expectation of spouses and children
somewhere in the future, but any current requirement of family is buried
deep and undisclosed. It's awkward to mention my friend who loved Yale but
graduated early to save her parents another year's tuition, or my former
roommate who now lives at home and wasn't excused from class to attend his
grandmother's funeral. Another friend never explains why he doesn't talk
to his parents during the semester and never goes home for vacations. I
was blessed with a loving family and a happy childhood, so I can't
criticize the escapist needs of my friends whose homes hold only pain; my
family lives in New York, so I don't have to choose between them and all
the peculiarly urban opportunities. But then again, I know a lot of people with loving
families who seldom find the time to call home. We leave it all behind,
or at least we pretend to.

But by denying the connection to the people closest to us, we
sometimes lose our connection to the world. Sure, demands of the
clan can induce provincialism and xenophobia, but families also teach us that we
are neither alone nor entirely our own. They make us remember that there are a few people who will always care about us. Without this understanding, it's hard to avoid the instability and self-doubt of college life, much less the anomie of the "real world." But in return for this comfort, we must acknowledge what we owe -- a lesson families teach best, and one both American and dorm culture could stand to learn.

The very idea of going away to college assumes that we grow best through independence,
through cutting ties with our homes and forging new connections, new friends, a
"family" of people our own age who happen to end up living down the hall.
It's brilliant, mind-expanding, joyous. But I'm not sure it works. That
night with my mother, I learned that the crucial question about college is
the one we hope never to have to ask: For whom am I doing this? In a
free-market world, any answer but "myself" is hard to come by. As I decide
what to do and where to be after graduation, I'm trying to come up with something better.

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The last time I saw my mother, she came out of her painkiller haze to wish
me a good trip back to school. I sat on the train unable to study, unable
even to think, gazing out the window through my tears at an empty
landscape. I knew she was gone. When the call came the next morning, I was
not surprised; in the company of friends, I put my suit in a bag for
the funeral and got back on the train.

I will not leave my family.


Simon Rodberg

Simon Rodberg is a senior at Yale University.

MORE FROM Simon Rodberg

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