by Vicki Larson
“My grades came today,” my older son said as I was in the middle of making dinner a few weeks ago.
He had just finished his first semester at the local community college; for the most part, he enjoyed his classes if not exactly the community college scene.
“Some As, some Bs,” he said, and before I could congratulate him, he added, “Guess what I got in math.”
I was hoping this would be one of those surprise questions, but instead I heard a familiar response.
Math has been a four-letter word in his academic life; if he didn’t get an F, he got a D, despite a considerable amount of money, time and energy spent on tutors, Kumon, Score — pretty much any math program known to man.
And that’s why I was somewhat disappointed when about a year ago he changed his mind about going to culinary school and decided to go to community college instead. I didn’t get it; he’d spent 12 years struggling through traditional schools, and I didn’t see how college was going to be any easier.
Going to culinary school would have at least given him a great skill, a marketable skill. People have to eat, no matter what the economic climate, not to mention our current obsession with chefs, organic farmers, the Food Network and artisanal whatevers. And, besides, recipes don’t require algebra and trig.
But as he told me as I stood before him —or more likely slumped, no doubt unable to fully disguise my concern — “Mom, it’s my life, not yours.”
Truer words were never said. Yet, like most parents, I want my kids to find a career they’ll thrive in, one that will engage, challenge and fulfill them, one that they’ll love, or at least enjoy. And if it happens to earn them a decent salary, well, who’d be against that?
As much as I know a college degree is pretty much essential nowadays — college grads earn about $20,000 a year more than those who ended their education at high school, and that adds up over time — not every kid fits the traditional school model. He doesn’t. And for every Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Walt Disney — all self-made multimillionaires who never went to college — there are who knows how many minimally educated unemployed or underemployed people.
If he can’t make it through college, I wonder — how will he earn a living?
Obviously not in accounting.
This is new for me. School was relatively easy, and by the time I graduated high school, I knew what I wanted to study — environmental science. Even though I ultimately didn’t end up as an ecologist, I found a career, journalism, that I believed allowed me to make a difference, however small, in the world.
Of course, that hasn’t turned out to be such a great choice given the dismal state of newspapers nowadays. However, I don’t regret it — I’ve loved what I’ve been doing for 20-plus years.
My younger son has had a similar experience; school has been relatively easy for him, too, and with a passion for moviemaking and few dozen YouTube movies under his belt, he’s Hollywood bound.
But, since my older son is approaching his college aspirations with the same determination he had about the rest of his schooling — keep trying, never give up — I want to be supportive. Yet, as I’ve tried to brainstorm with him on what careers might be good fits with his strengths — and he has many — I realize that I have an unspoken but reality-based, somewhat sexist agenda in mind. The stakes are much higher for a son than a daughter.
Women rarely get rejected for their careers. I surely wasn’t, even when I was serving up sundaes at the local Dairy Queen or bagging at the neighborhood supermarket. But men? Whether you know from your own experience or just observation, men who have highly satisfying but relatively low-paying careers are often less-than-desirable husband material.
And that is something I understand more than my son does — his earning ability will forever be judged, especially by women.
That’s so much scarier than having to declare your major.
Despite more dual-income families, most women still expect men to support their family. As Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, says, young professional women nowadays are “a little nervous having a man who won’t be the main breadwinner. These are old tapes running in their head: ‘This is how you get a man.’” And with more highly educated women than ever — women earn 60 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all MBAs — many are not interested in marrying “beneath them.”
Although they say they would. University of Louisville psychologist Michael R. Cunningham discovered that college women overwhelming said that after graduation, they’d much prefer marrying a teacher than a wealthy surgeon who worked brutally long hours. But, ask those same women the same question a few years later, when they’re established in their careers, and, “what you hear is ambivalence, if not downright hostility, about the income disparity,” according to a New York Times article.
So much for that.
And that’s too bad. Because if we’re trying to move ahead as a society that values men and women equally, we need to bust those “old tapes” in our heads.
So, I don’t know how to counsel my older son. Telling him to bust his butt for a BA that’s likely to reinforce a feeling of failure doesn’t seem much better than advising him to follow his passion and end up in a career that may keep him from finding a life partner, which is just as important — actually, more so — in the grand scheme of things.
“Relationships make your life great, not jobs,” says Penelope Trunk, the CEO of Brazen Careerist who blogs about work-life issues for Gen Yers. “A job can ruin your life — make you feel out of control in terms of your time or your ability to accomplish goals — but no job will make your life complete.”
Her advice? Don’t do what you love; do what you are.
I look at what my son is — a kind-hearted soccer fanatic who is personable and funny and genuine and who keeps working hard even when he fails.
I wonder what the going rate for that is.