On the lucky side of things, Anna now had several commercial design gigs: an ice cream store that wanted a font that looked frosty, a financial startup that wanted a logo that looked reliable to the point of stolid, opening credit fonts for a documentary about the spirituality of an aboriginal group of Guatemala.
On the less lucky side of things, each of these gigs paid poorly, so Anna found herself working overtime each week at the coffee shop to make sure she had enough to live on.
Her mom came for a visit. About four months had passed since the last time she’d seen her daughter. The big surprise was the dark rings under Anna’s eyes. So young, but old enough to reveal that the human body has its limits.
“Honey, are you getting enough sleep?” Robin asked.
“Sleep?” The more Anna worked, the more she resented her parents for not doing more to help her with her education, and now she found she had a more or less permanent rage where her mother was concerned. “Oh, so now you care?”
“What in the world does that mean?” asked Robin.
“Listen, don’t give me any grief about sleep,” Anna snapped. “I’ve got to make enough money to pay the rent.”
Unused to an aggressive tone from her daughter, Robin left. She went to the grocery store to collect her thoughts and some organic produce for dinner. No doubt she was curious about what had set off the latest explosion. They didn’t see each other often, and the last thing Robin wanted was to spend one of their few evenings together fighting.
For dinner, Robin created her own version of a Mexican mole: black beans left to simmer for a long while, heavily spiced with chili peppers, then hunks of chicken added at the end—a hearty stew. A fresh baguette on the side, a simple salad of spinach and onions and diced tomatoes, with oil and vinegar as the dressing.
Voracious, Anna ate quickly.
Robin let an hour pass, happy to simply be in the same room as her daughter. But the anger was something they needed to discuss.
“Honey…” Robin began.
Anna looked up at her, then went back to eating, without saying a word.
“I’m curious…” Robin didn’t want to make the situation worse with too many questions, despite her urgent curiosity.
“Honey, what are you so angry about?” asked Robin.
Anna put her fork down and looked around the room. “Nothing.”
“Nothing,” said Anna. Then she picked up her glass of sparkling water. “I’ve just been working a lot.”
In her mind, Robin went through the catalog of past disputes and zeroed in on the most likely source of today’s mood.
“Sweetie, will you apply to college this year?”
As a teenager, Anna had almost unconsciously imitated her father’s habits of evasion, but now that she was an adult, she was pushing herself to be more direct with people. However, directness was a new practice, and it left her feeling uncomfortable.
“Why are you asking now?” asked Anna.
“Honey,” said Robin, as calmly as she could. “I’m just asking if you’re still thinking about going to college.”
“I don’t know,” said Anna. “Is it worth it?”
“You moved here to North Carolina so you could get residency and pay in-state tuition rates. And you’ve been an official resident for two years now. And Mera’s in school now. Why not you?”
“First of all, what would I study? Graphic design? I’ve already learned the basics. I know Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign.”
“Yes, but college would give you a theoretical background that goes way beyond how to use the software. And so much more.”
“Sure, but I learned a lot from Frida Lopez. And I need to think of the money.”
“The college isn’t too expensive, now that you can pay in-state tuition.”
“But it is demanding, so I’d have to give up working. And I’d need to take out loans to pay for my living expenses. For four years. I’d end up with a lot of debt. I know I have a lot to learn about graphic design and aesthetics and color theory and all that, but maybe I can learn it while working. I don’t know how I could afford to do it otherwise. If I do four years, then I’ll be twenty-six — with a ton of debt. Will the school boost my income so much that I can pay off my loans?”
“College can help your life in more ways than just boosting your income. Think about all the friends you’ll make. And the other subjects you’ll be exposed to.”
“Think about all the friends I’ll make?” For once Anna wanted her mother to see how angry she was. “Yeah, I wish I had the freedom to think about all the friends I could make! I wish I could spend four years making friends!”
“What is it that’s gotten under your skin?” asked Robin, surprised by Anna’s intensity. “I mean, seriously, I’ve never seen you like this!”
“I just wish that you and dad had thought about this a little bit. I mean,” Anna hesitated. “You… You…”
“Oh, I see,” said Robin. “You’re angry about us as parents. We didn’t do enough for you?”
“I don’t mean to be petty,” said Anna. For a moment she thought about hiding her feelings, as she had done countless times before. Her mother was very nice, and it seemed a bit cruel to hit her very nice mother with the reality of her circumstances and the anger she felt about those circumstances.
“Lots of people find their own way,” said Robin. “Most people don’t have help, yet they still build a life. I didn’t have help from my parents, but I have a life that I enjoy.”
Anna went silent and looked at the floor. Robin realized it would be better to have this conversation than to explain to her daughter the many ways she was wrong.
“No, let’s get into it,” Robin nodded her head up and down to encourage Anna. “I want you to be honest.”
“It’s just…You and dad just sort of had a kid, but without any kind of plan, right?”
“Look,” Anna said, “you and dad are good people. But you never really had a plan for my education, did you? So now, I’ve got to figure out this whole thing on my own. I just feel like this is a lot to dump on me. And me alone. I’m alone in this.”
“You’re not alone!” shouted Robin. “Honey, I’m right here.”
“Are you?” asked Anna.
“What does that mean?” Robin was puzzled. “What are you trying to imply?”
“Do you ever…” Anna stopped and wondered if she was going too far, then decided she might as well put her grievances out in the open. “Do you ever wonder what this is like for me?”
“Is what like what?” asked Robin, unable to follow.
“You and dad, you’re…uh… free spirits. You were free spirits, raising an independent kid.”
Robin sat up straight and brushed her skirt while she gathered her thoughts. The brutal fact of children in early adulthood is that they can, rather easily, put a parent’s entire life on trial.
“Is this about money?” asked Robin. “It’s true I can’t help you with money, but I got through school without any money from my parents.”
“I wasn’t thinking about money, but since you brought it up, there is that too,” Anna continued, “Mera’s parents helped her to plan for her college. She’s going to UNC for four years and she doesn’t have to pay a penny. She’ll graduate with zero debt. ‘Cause, you know, her parents… had a plan. They thought about her education. Mera’s life is really easy now. I’m working a million hours a week, and Mera goes to parties most nights a week.”
For a moment, it looked like Robin was about to cry. But she didn’t. Perhaps she felt that crying would be selfish, given the circumstances. She took a deep breath. “I understand that the issue of student debt is serious. And—”
“Yeah, okay, whatever,” said Anna. She really didn’t want to see her mother cry. The looming threat of tears was enough to convince her that it had been a mistake to be so honest. “I mean, yes, it is. But, we don’t have to talk about it.”
“Listen, honey,” Robin’s voice began with a wavering, “I’m sorry I don’t have any money, but I built my life without any help from my parents, and millions of people build their lives without help from their parents, and you can do it, too.”
“You are stuck on the whole money thing,” said Anna, again wondering if she was going too far. She knew that she did not want to see her mother cry, yet she also wanted to share how she felt. How much could she share, before the tears started? “I’m sorry I even mentioned that. But nobody grows up without help from their parents, unless they are an orphan, and then they typically have help from some other source. They get adopted, or a charity takes care of them. There are a lot of ways that parents help their children, ways that don’t involve money.”
“Well, if you mean, did we take care of you, yes, I think we did a good job of taking care of you. You’ve always had a place to live. You’ve always had clothes. I’ve cooked you the best meals that I know how to cook. You got all of your shots. You’ve always been healthy.”
“That is so besides the point. I mean, thank you, really, thank you for all of that. You were great at all that stuff. But that’s all childhood stuff, isn’t it?”
“Yes, what are you saying? Parents help you when you are a child. Then you become an adult and you take care of yourself. What are you trying to blame me for?”
“I didn’t use the word blame,” Anna was frustrated that her mother was becoming so defensive.
“No, but what are you saying? It sounds like you’re accusing me of something. And you’re being vague about it.”
“I don’t want to get specific if you’re going to cry.”
“Oh, so this is about me crying? Is that what you’re angry about?”
“Forget it,” Anna was done with this. The whole effort to be honest had clearly been a mistake. “Just forget it. Please forget I said anything.”
They sat in silence for a moment. For a long moment Robin had an expression of confusion and fear. Then she softened.
“Anna, I’d really like to hear what you would like to say,” said Robin. “I promise I won’t cry. You should know that you can always be honest with me.”
“Okay,” Anna was wary and paused for a long moment to try judge whether this offer was sincere. Perhaps her mother would start crying despite her promise not to? But then it occurred to her, the conversation was too far along to simply walk away from it. Having started to share her thoughts, she needed to share all of them. “You say that parents take care of children, and then the children become adults?”
“That is the way it usually works, honey,” said Robin, with just a subtle touch of sarcasm.
“But isn’t there something in between?” asked Anna. “Not quite a child and not quite an adult?”
“Is that what you think you are?”
“That’s what I think I was. Maybe I still am, a little bit. Trying to figure things out. And my role models are… I mean, you’ve never given me one word of advice about how a person my age is supposed to build a career.”
“You want my career advice?”
Anna remained silent.
“Oh, wait, what?” Robin was confused by the silence. “You’re silent now? Because?”
Robin was watching Anna’s face.
“Oh, I see,” said Robin, reaching a conclusion, “Are you saying I have no career advice to give? Because you don’t approve of the way I’ve lived? I’m too much of a free spirit?”
“Do you have some career advice that you’d like to give me?” asked Anna, afraid that her silence would come across as more aggressive than she meant for it to be. Again, she didn’t want to see her mother cry.
“Look, honey,” Robin almost laughed. “My life was fluid and spontaneous and fast evolving. There were a lot of accidents …” Anna winced at that word and Robin immediately regretted using it, so she tried to save the situation with, “all of which turned out wonderfully and I am so happy about them.”
“So, is that your career advice?” said Anna, using the most neutral voice she could but unable to fully disguise the irony in what she was saying. “I should have a lot of accidents?”
A long silence descended during which they studied each other carefully. The surprise on Robin’s face was undisguised. For once, Anna did not give in to her instinct to apologize.
“Well, I see that you have become an adult,” said Robin, very quietly, more to herself than to Anna.
The silence returned. Anna felt angry, and misunderstood, yet she felt this conversation had evolved in such a way that any effort she made to explain herself would simply bring more pain to her mother. She did not want their time together to be marked by a vicious fight, so she decided to keep the rest of her thoughts to herself.
“Listen, honey,” Robin’s voice began with a wavering, “You don’t need to go to college. I went to college and it didn’t gift me with any kind of career. My generation was lucky enough to go back when the government still subsidized the schools. I paid three hundred dollars a semester and graduated with zero debt. School is a lot more expensive now.” Her confidence grew as she went on. “And you’re right, your father and I did a poor job of helping you prepare for this moment in your life, as you try to establish yourself as an adult. And Mera’s parents… Well, I didn’t know they were paying all of her expenses, but that’s wonderful.”
“Yeah,” said Anna. She thought about saying more, but then decided whatever she said would hurt her mother, so she kept silent.
“Yes, honey,” said Robin. “But, listen. If I could go back in time, and talk to myself when I was your age, there is one piece of advice I’d give myself, one simple rule, and I think if you can just follow this rule, then one way or another, you will end up with the career of your dreams.”
“What is this one simple rule?” asked Anna.
“Don’t run away,” said Robin. “Anxiety can kill — not just your career, but also your health. Not that you have to fight every battle, but if you’ve decided that some task, or some skill, is something you’ll need for your career, then don’t run away from it. Don’t be frightened. Don’t let panic make the decisions for you. Take it slow. Go one step at a time. Keep going forward, one way or another. Learn what you need to. Find someone who can teach you. The main thing is, just don’t run away.”
“Is that a rule you followed?” asked Anna.
“No,” said Robin. “And I regret it every day.”
Photo credit: Marco Verch