“Alice said she needs to find a rich husband,” my friend Dana said as we were having lunch in New York City last week.
“What did you tell her?” I asked, incredulous that her daughter would say such a thing.
“I told her I agreed!” was my friend’s response. “She doesn’t really want to work. She wants to have lunch with friends, go to the gym and museums, have lots of babies.”
Alice is a recent graduate of an elite college in Maine, with a degree in art history and French. Jobless, and showing few signs of seeking employment, she’s living in her tiny former bedroom in her parents’ apartment on West End Avenue.
“She tells Richard and me it’s our fault for sending her to an all-girls private school for rich kids,” Dana went on.
The school in question is the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and Alice’s classmates included the usual hedge fund crowd as well as Lada Gaga’s younger sister. Tuition is $42,810. This doesn’t include room and board, but hey, it does include “all fees, lunch, textbooks, instructional materials and required class trips.” Whew, a relief not to have to spring for lunch and all those books!
When I told this story to my friend Pam, who has spent 30 years working as a psychologist at a residential treatment facility for underserved, mentally ill youth in Queens, she said, “Alice is right. It is her parents’ fault.”
Dana and Richard are not rich. They’re architects, which is generally not a lucrative profession unless you are Sir Norman Foster or Mr. Frank Gehry. They struggled financially over the years, as most of us living in the city did.
So are they at fault for sending their only child to such an elite (and highly regarded) Manhattan school, and then to a prestigious liberal arts college?
Weren’t they doing what we all did, stretch our financial resources to give our children the best of the best?
Dana told me how frenzied she was during the child-rearing years, working as an architect out of a tiny home office, racing to meet Alice’s bus, put food on the table, pay the tuition.
“I hated every minute of it,” she said. “I would have preferred to just be a mom.”
I was stunned. Was it because she was exposed to all those rich Upper East Side women all those years, who had provided an excellent source of work, what with all their kitchen renovations?
“But Dana, I did the same thing. And it worked for my husband and me. Yes, I was the one with the less pressured job, but I made a good living.”
My husband and I did not become parents until we were 43. After many miscarriages and IVF and ectopic pregnancies–yes, we waited too long, and paid the price–we went to China in 1994 and adopted a one-year-old girl, Lili.
We put her into a wonderful daycare center a few blocks from our home on the Upper West Side, and my husband dropped her off at 8 AM every morning on his way to his office at a large architecture firm in midtown. I picked her up at 6 PM, taking the subway from my job in lower Manhattan.
These were the happiest days of my life. I learned this, as is often the case, the hard way, through loss.
Pressured by my husband and daughter to leave New York City following the tragic events of 9/11, I agreed to move to Weston, Connecticut, to the modern, stone-and-glass house my husband had designed.
At the age of 50, I found myself unemployed and alone much of the time in alien territory, upscale suburbia. A decade older than the other soccer moms, I was lonely, with my husband in Asia half the time for his work, and my only child at school all day. I became despondent and depressed, wondering how I could have made such a stupid decision.
My marriage suffered. Angry at having a complaining wife at home when he returned from his travels, exhausted but thrilled to be in the house he designed, he told me often, “This is a good as it gets.”
He was resentful. “You go to work, and I’ll stay home with our daughter,” he’d tell me, and I think he was serious. Like many men who are the sole wage earners, he felt his stay-at-home wife had a good deal and should shut up.
Then, six years into our move, he was dead, at the age of 56, from melanoma. And I was an unemployed widow, lost in the woods of Connecticut. How could I have complained so much? I’d ask myself. Why did I quit working at 50? Too late.
As I approached the age of 60 I had to go through the entire career process a second time, and it was much harder. I became a “Lucy Stoner”–a married woman who keeps her own name–and was thrilled when Ms.com published my essay about it. I started a career as a freelance writer and had some measure of success.
Now my daughter, Lili, has just a year to go in college. She wants nothing more than to get out of school and get to work in digital media. I thank my lucky stars that she found this wonderful college that prepares students for professions.
“I want to be a millionaire, Mom,” she told me recently.
“Why?” I asked her. She is not materialistic or a shopper; she won’t wear any clothing with a logo or that is not on sale.
“So I can live in New York City and have my own apartment!” she responded. She often sends me real estate listings of apartments in brownstones with awful exposed brick walls and ugly loft beds, just the sort of place a young woman would love to call home.
I worried that Lili had not really known me when I was a working woman, and I’m grateful that she has a work ethic and a desire to achieve her own success. If she told me she wanted to marry a rich man, as Alice told my friend Dana, I’d feel as though I had failed in every way.
Elizabeth Titus worked in advertising and communications in NYC for over 20 years and left it all behind a decade ago to pursue freelance writing.