An Early Decision Acceptance

9 Dec

The phone rang, shattering the quiet air.  I picked it up.  It was my mother-in-law.

“Katy got into Brown!”  She announced excitedly.  Katy (not her real name) is my niece, who had applied early decision to Brown University.

“That’s great!  Wow!” I exclaimed and covering the mouthpiece, I turned to my daughter and told her the news.  She nodded and went back to her homework on the computer.  Something flitted across her face but as quickly as it appeared it was gone.

After I hung up the phone, I couldn’t stop marveling about my niece’s accomplishment.  She is the first in my daughter’s generation in my husband’s family to apply to college and she had done very well for herself.

“Isn’t that fantastic that Katy got into Brown?”  I gushed to my daughter.  She turned to me and said,

“I’m very happy for her, Mom, but now the pressure is on.”  I frowned a little, uncertain of what she meant until the import of her words dawned on me.  My daughter is the next to go to college and now her cousin had set a very high bar.

“You don’t have to go to Brown, you know, or an Ivy League school,” I tried to assure her.  She nodded and said,

“I know.  But still…” Her voice trailed off and she continued working on the computer.  I fell silent, not knowing what else to say.  (I’m finding that more often than not these days, I don’t have an adequate response).

Several days later, I was with another sister-in-law who had a daughter in middle school at the time (I’ll call the daughter Emily) and the subject of conversation turned to Katy’s acceptance at Brown.  I casually mentioned my own daughter’s response and she immediately said that Emily had reacted similarly.  Both girls apparently felt the pressure to have to live up to the standard that their cousin Katy had set.

Some of the pressure is self-imposed and personality-driven; both girls want to do well in school because that’s who they are.  But I strongly suspect some of the pressure comes from family, however subtle or unintentional.  My mother-in-law once remarked that among her children, their spouses and now the grandchildren, we had collectively attended all the Ivy League schools except for Dartmouth College and Yale University.  And however much has been written about rebellious teens, most teens still seek their family’s approval.  For my daughter’s generation to get into the Ivy League is pressure indeed, especially since these schools are more competitive than 30 years ago.

Of course, this kind of familial pressure is not unique.  My husband can still recall growing up in the shadow of his brilliant older sister who, incidentally, is Katy’s mother.  His teachers often reminded him that they had taught his sister and he inevitably felt himself being compared to her.  It wasn’t until he realized that as much as he admired his sister’s accomplishments, he didn’t want to be her, that he felt free to chart his own course in life.

It’s been two years since Katy got into Brown and my daughter is now looking at colleges, trying to figure out what she wants.  While life is never without pressure, my hope as a parent is that she, like her father before her, will eventually find her own way.  Isn’t that what we all want for our children?

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