Before applying for colleges, my daughter Maddie set a few broad criteria: She wanted a liberal arts college with a low teacher-to-student ratio, and she didn’t want to be in a big city.
My main criterion was amorphous: I wanted her to be happy. But what is happiness? Does prestige matter? Would she be happier being challenged, or happier in a less prestigious place where she would be one of the best and brightest and presumably have to study less diligently?
The most beautiful campuses we considered were in California, but would she be happy so far from home? If she chose a less prestigious school, would she be happier in the short run but unhappy in the long run when it came time to apply for jobs or graduate schools? Funds were limited, and if she chose one of the most expensive schools on her list, would she be happier because they are such beautiful and well-endowed places, or would she be happier at a cheaper place with a lot more money in her pocket for fun? Is happiness even a good criteria, or should she be choosing the place she’d get the most rigorous, demanding education?
As a mother, I suffered great angst about the influence I was exerting. I wanted the best thing for her, but there were two problems with that. One, I didn’t know what was best for her. Secondly, I found it so hard to determine how much my thoughts were being influenced by my own best interest. For example, when I leaned towards St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the state honor’s college, was I really leaning that way because I thought Maddie would be happiest there, or because I wanted her closer to home?
Maddie’s other two top choices were more exclusive and prestigious, but both also cost more than twice as much. Her father and I told her it was her decision. Were we right to also share the facts of life: If you choose one of the private schools, it will be a stretch for us? Was this particularly unfair knowing our sensitive daughter is so mindful of our needs? At a state school, would she be missing out on making connections with influential people? Was I handicapping her for life?
Was I really considering her happiness when I would think: Maddie can travel a bit or take unpaid internships in the summers if we’re paying $22,000 a year for St. Mary’s instead of about $52,000. Or was I really thinking: Life will be so much easier for me financially if she goes to St. Mary’s?
I thought: Maddie will love being on and sailing the Chesapeake Bay. Or was I thinking: I’ll sure enjoy being by the water and sailing with Maddie when I visit.
In the end, Maddie chose St. Mary’s. I hope she’ll be happy there. If she’s not, she can transfer.
So maybe this decision wasn’t as momentous as we were making it out to be. True, we’ll never how her life might have been different if she made a different choice. Maybe she missed being in class with a professor who would have inspired her to devote her life to a subject she’ll never even consider now, or maybe she missed meeting and falling in love with a trust fund baby. But then again, one never knows where life will lead.
This process did not give me the answers to the continual questions parents face about how much they should influence their children, about when to guide and when to stand back, about when to share feelings and when to hide them. But I did learn one thing: When faced with what seems like more than one good option, don’t agonize. Celebrate that great good luck, make a choice, and see where life leads.
Cindy Loose, a journalist now working in public relations, lives in Bethesda, Md.