The summer after I graduated college was one of the worst times of my life.
Even now, 20 years later, after everything else that has happened, that statement is true.
I had moved home from New York, leaving my college boyfriend behind, something my head knew was wise, but my heart was struggling with. We hadn’t broken up yet, so there was the added stress of a long distance and very expensive phone relationship. My parents had put the down payment on a car, but I needed to make the monthly payments. Luckily it was only to the Bank of Grandma, but it was still a responsibility.
I knew what I wanted to do: teach. But I needed a credential to do that, which meant more schooling. I needed to find a job that would let me go to school, so I took a temporary sales job at Nordstrom’s, hoping it would turn into something long term. One Saturday, the assistant from my dentist’s office came to my register. I will never forget what I felt when she said “Wait. Didn’t you just graduate from college? What on earth are you doing here?”
It was the push and pull of transition and it was painful. I felt that if I didn’t find a way to stand on my own two feet, independent of my parents, and make my own way, with my fancy private school degree, then I was a disappointment. An ungrateful disappointment, since I had both earned and been given an amazing cultural and educational experience.
But the lure of dependency was strong. I knew my parents loved me and if I folded, they would have supported me. It might have caused big problems, but they would have done it and I knew it.
One night my mom laid a stack of bills in front of me. Her bills, not mine: the electric bill and the water bill. “You need to contribute by paying these bills”, she said. I will never forget how that felt either. I’m sure she thought she was introducing me to the hard reality of being a grown-up, but to me it felt patronizing, like she wasn’t treating me like an adult. And a part of me knew that wasn’t a rational way to feel, which made it worse.
I cried a lot that summer. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea how to make anything happen. I have never felt more lost, or afraid. I wanted to be an adult and start the rest of my life. Sometimes. The other times I longed for my life to be the way it was in college, when life was one big adventure.
We are welcoming a new crop of college graduates into the world this month, including one in our family. I would bet that most of them are feeling the stress of this transition. Some of them will handle it, but for others, it will feel like the floor is falling away beneath them.
Last night Teresa and I were discussing a job offer she received. She only graduated two weeks ago and this was her second offer this week, so she’s already got me beat by months in the job arena. But still, there was a moment when she broke down. It’s a lot, facing a real job, making real money, paying real student loans, taking on a car payment and finding health insurance. Wanting so badly to move out on her own, but realizing that this particular job will require her to live very quietly for a few years for a bigger pay-off down the line. That’s a hard thought for someone who has been living the good college life, where gel mani/pedis, designer jeans and nights out are the norm. Not that I’m criticizing her, because the girl has been working since she was 15. But she is processing the truth that life is going to replace fun, for a little while.
She’s scared. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Can she do it? Can she be a functioning adult in this world? Can she meet her own expectations of success?
We know that she can, and will, but that doesn’t matter. She needs to know it.
So to her and all the scared, faltering, frustrated college grads out there, here’s is what I wish I had told myself twenty summers ago:
It’s ok to be scared. A little bit of fear is a motivator. But be careful: too much fear will paralyze you. It will make you reach for what is safe and known. It will trap you in a limbo between childhood and adulthood and weaken you, and you will not break free of it until you are strong again.
That could take years. We all know someone who got stuck there, and what it cost them.
Don’t be afraid to step away from what is known, because great things happen in the unknown. And nothing is forever. The days of having the same job for fifty years are long gone. If you hate what you are doing you can make a change, but it’s always better to make a change from a position of power—so get that first job, give it your all and see what happens next.
Have faith. Lean on God. And remember that no matter what, someone loves you. We love you.