A grownup in grad school: The radical difference between me and my peers

In grad school, while studying and practicing to become a counselor, I became a grownup. I’d had other moments coming up that demonstrated to me that I wasn’t there yet – like when the checkout lady at the Hi-Low grocery store handed me the bag and said, “Well, little lady, I’d say you were old enough to be in charge of this now and help your mom out.” I was nine or so, and  felt shamed that I didn’t know that myself. I stepped up after that.

And then there was a YMCA meeting when I was in high school where I witnessed our great guy adult leaders get roundly criticized for how they were running things, and I didn’t stick up for them. My shyness trumped my character. When it was over, the main guy looked at the row of us kids who loved what they were doing (emphasizing communicating and sharing feelings over basketball), shook his head, and said, “So none of you could speak up? Not a word?” Shamed again, I stepped up after that, gradually, a little at a time. It took a while.

My moment of recognition that I was actually a grownup came in grad school while I was preparing to become a counselor. I was twenty, the youngest one in the program, mixing with women who were five and ten years older. Part of our curriculum was to use our relationships with each other as a laboratory for the issues that would come up in our careers – to speak honestly with each other, and explore our similarities and especially our differences.

We read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and our discussion revealed a gulf between us. They had been raised during the subservient wife era, and had already formed families that were running on that basis. As these women stepped out and entered grad school with the intention of taking on a career, some husbands had stepped up too  and supported their ambitions. Others were fighting with all they had to derail their wives’ new paths. I saw their pain and the difficulty of renegotiating the terms of their relationships once they were well underway. Not all of them managed a happy ending.

These women were fighting battles that my friends and I would never have to fight, because we grew up with second wave feminism behind us. From the start, we had the deal that these women were fighting for – to have autonomy and self-direction, and expect partnership instead of subservience. I woke up to the fact that I had moved into adulthood at a lucky time; was living life in a way that seemed utterly natural, but was decidedly new.

I’ve been a grownup for a long time now, and sometimes wonder how it would have been for me to have to fight for what came naturally to my generation of women. I hope I would have found it difficult, but doable. Not that we had smooth sailing either, as working moms and stressed Superwomen-wannabes. As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It’s always something.”


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