When I was a student in the late 60’s, my alma mater, Wellesley College, adhered to the legal theory, in loco parentis. The administration decreed it was acting “in place of” our parents, dictating when we could go out, and for how long, and establishing consequences should we, say, sneak a drink on campus, or come in from a date 20 minutes after curfew. I was a first-born over-achieving good girl; I rarely ran afoul of the rules, even though I chafed at their existence and worked to have them repealed. Today, of course, such regulation of student behavior is, indeed, very ancient history.
But on occasion that parentis mystique resurfaces, with all the emotional impact only a mother can have. The other day, for example, I received an email from a current student, a “rising sophomore,” as she called herself, asking for time to talk about my career path as she contemplates hers. Most days, my “career path” seems hardly worthy of that name. To be sure, it has been a journey; but my very checkered resume makes the path seem considerably less than straight-and-narrow -- certainly not obvious, and probably not very instructive as it twists and turns from television news to local newspapers, to a magazine, to this blog, with a hiatus here and there for marriage, moving, and four children. Still, I confess, I was a bit flattered that one of Wellesley’s own was seeking me out as a role model.
The very next day, however, Wellesley’s Alumnae Magazine editors sent another email to my box. Subject line: Failure. I tried not to take it personally; it had been sent to all alumnae, after all. But it felt like when your mother used to say, “Oh, darling, you look lovely; could you just do something with your hair before you go out?” Or, “I loved your piano recital, dear; and I’m sure no one else noticed that part at the end when you seemed to forget how the sonata ended.” Or, “Congratulations. Your report card is really excellent. Did Carla get more A-plusses than you?” What the editors are seeking is stories of failure from a very ambitious, achievement-oriented cohort whose very College has as its mission each graduate’s ability “to make a difference in the world.” It seems the Magazine wants to do a story about the creative, educational aspects of failure, or coming to terms with failure, and to explore different perspectives on failure -- perhaps even to define what failure looks like and feels like and, in turn, what that means about success. It’s an interesting topic and journalistic enterprise. But it felt like a powerful maternal critique -- yet another reminder from Mom (who knows and loves you best, as she would say), that I wasn’t quite good enough.
It’s instructive, nevertheless. I need to get over the Mom thing. I am a Mom and a Grandmother myself. I work hard not to undermine my children. Recently my husband even asked why I had to be so “goddam affirming” in conversations with our daughter who is spending the summer as a legal intern in Cambodia when his instincts are to remind her over and over again (as if she didn’t know or hadn’t thought about it) that she’s in a dangerous place and needs to be careful. I also need to get over measuring success and/or failure in terms of goals I set as a 21 year-old. Life is so much more complicated, so much richer, so much fuller than that. There are many ways to make a difference. And I’m not done yet.
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