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My Quarter-Life Crisis

This past summer my Daddy left his partner status at a posh law firm to join a company whose office building is on the off-ramp of Route 128 in Braintree. Très chic, no? He’s happier now and loves the fact that he was in the position to do what he wanted. I enviously try to keep up as my father completely changes his professional life. He makes outrageous purchases, such as the spaniel that should arrive in a matter of weeks, and the Wrangler that he wants to have for road trips with Puppy. He is purchasing a car for a dog, and the dog as a friend because my little sister leaves for college soon.

That is how I came to realize that my father is having a mid-life crisis and I am having a quarter-life crisis.

As much as I love my Daddy—no guy will ever be the man he has been to me—he can be such a jerk. He tells me I’m hopeless and have regressed since going to college. He pays me and my sisters to give him clothing of ours that he doesn’t like. I’ve gotten $50 for a pair of plaid golf pants that he desperately wanted to burn. Not a bad deal, but still a jerk move.

Last week we were on the phone for an hour discussing what I should do for the summer. This summer, he said, I should look for a job where I’ll learn, a job where I’ll make good contacts for the future and a job that at least somewhat interests me, in that order. He wants me to succeed and he is willing to help me in any way he can. I’ve been to meetings with him so I can see how negotiations work from the inside. He tries to teach me the subtleties of Boston politics. His help is only a mild comfort. I still think failure is not far in my future.

I vaguely recollect first reading about quarter-life crises in my early adolescent days when I was crazy and carefree. I remember being incredulous at the sight of the article. I couldn’t imagine being 20 years old, let alone being 20 and unhappy. At 52, my Daddy is trying to do all that he wants to accomplish in his life. He’s nervous that his energy is running out and that his opportunities are limited. My years at Harvard are half over. I don’t love it here and I feel the same as I did when I first arrived. If college is supposed to be years of growth and change, I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong. What happened to the nights of gaffing alcohol from my parents’ liquor cabinet and the hours of cutting class to do nothing but be cool?

A quarter-life crisis is less about depression or death wishes than dissatisfaction, confusion and apathy. I am bored with my useless concentration. I’ve only really enjoyed two classes in four semesters here. My social life has improved from last year to this, but still the monotony of the weekends—prep, pregame, party, final clubs, back to bed alone—drives me insane. One day I am confident and the next I want to do nothing but watch “TRL.” I’ve been 30 since I was 17. I’m tired. I’m jaded. Yet I also feel unprepared to give up the security of classes and college life and live on my own.

I don’t know what to do about it. “It’s complicated,” I tell my sister when she asks what’s the matter. Some guy I barely know tells me I am clearly manic-depressive and I can’t refute his claim.

I haven’t even actually reached my 20s, but it’s not surprising that early quarter-life crisis onset would occur at Harvard. The people are stressed, competitive and selfish. It’s hard to know who’s a friend and who simply has an agenda. It’s hard to know if you’re taking advantage of all that the University offers, if you’re meeting parental expectations, if you’ve set your standards too high or not high enough.

The quarter-life crisis is all about the fear of failure—the thought that life after college won’t be all brie and water crackers, wine tastings and garden parties. My quarter-life crisis is in part having to come to terms with the fact that my father can only do so much for me. When it comes down to it, my successes and failures rest on me, not on what he has done to better my position. I’m not sure if I can accept this responsibility yet.

So far the only answer I’ve found is to have a baby. This solution might seem strange coming from a girl whose biggest commitment (yeah, six months!) was to a coke fiend. I have trouble remembering what I wore yesterday, if I ate a meal and when I last got waxed. I can’t even imagine taking care of myself, but...I want to be a mommy, to hold a crying newborn in my arms and know exactly what she is telling me. I want to be selfless and dedicated and give all I have to shape that little being into a beautiful adult. I want to do for her all that my parents did for me—only better, if possible (and it probably isn’t possible—my parents are amazing).

A baby doesn’t care what your GPA is, who you know or what your yearly household income is. When you’ve fallen for a newborn the love is easy and unconditional and always reciprocated. Your baby isn’t going to leave you and she won’t care if you spend another summer waitressing on Cape. I know that the last thing I actually need right now is the immense responsibility of raising a child. But the thought of escaping from the fast track to the real world is so appealing. If I jump off the path now, I’ll have a serious guilt complex—what a waste of time and money. But if I do stay on this track, will it really be worth it?

At Harvard we’re encouraged to pad and perfect our resumes, to schmooze and network and kiss all kinds of ass. Women here want to be CEOs and sit behind the Oval Office desk. This is all normal and I, too, am ambitious. But during this quasi-crisis, I feel like I have to choose between professional success and personal (maternal) happiness. I’d like to be able to prepare an afternoon snack for my kids and go to all their T-ball games and still have 800 employees, but I’m scared I’ll find myself at 45 in a dead-end job with four resentful brats and a stranger as a husband. Not even Daddy can offer advice on this one.

At some point the crisis must pass. I’m hoping my father will be satiated by drives to the Cape with the puppy in the passenger seat of his roofless, doorless Jeep. If not, I fear for my mother’s sanity. Maybe I have years to go until my quarter-life crisis fades. Won’t things only get worse as a second semester senior when I will surely be without job or strategy? Will I be happy as a corporate bitch juggling children and a career? Will I regret it forever if I don’t try to have it all?

There’s no instant fix. But at least I’ll be used to this whole crisis thing by the time I hit mid-life rock bottom on the sales floor of a car dealership.

Elizabeth F. Maher ’04, a government concentrator in Cabot House, is an associate editor of FM. At the time this issue went to press she was not pregnant.

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