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Marc Weingarten is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water and The Real Chinatown.

My daughter graduated from college last month. It was a miserable experience.

Child rearing is tough; we all know this. But taking leave of your child as they transition from the scholastic life into the thankless world is a lot harder. You have had 18 years to figure it out, and suddenly it doesn’t seem nearly long enough. Has anything stuck? Will they be okay?

When the child moves into the realm of independence, we become nervous children, taking on their anxieties about the future. My insecurities as a parent were made evident the day my daughter accepted her diploma, a kid who was publicly keeping it together but was most likely future-tripping – making mental calculations about her student-loan payment plan versus the desolation of her chequing account, desperately wanting to graduate but also wishing she could just go to class on Monday morning.

I know that’s how I felt when I matriculated – unmoored in a way that didn’t feel like freedom. This was 1987, a time when the prospect of a job and a career wasn’t occluded by a high ridge of student debt and thousands of money-hungry, overeducated kids pouring out of universities. In the day, it was drilled into all of us that a college degree was the ticket to a fulfilling life. Now, “you’ll never get anywhere without a master’s” is the new battle cry. In 2019, the pressure is immense, the expectations outsized.

As a young, insecure kid, I was hounded by my parents from secondary school onward, constantly being reminded that I must make something of myself, lest I fall off the cliff and never claw my way back.

My father was a first-generation American, the son of an uneducated Polish Jew who escaped the anti-Semitic pogroms of the Russian Empire only to find himself making dresses for pennies an hour in New York’s garment district during the Depression. This was a fate my father wanted to avoid, and he worked hard to make it so. As a man who pulled himself up from nothing, he regarded his path as an article of faith, something to be studied and put into practice. Anyone who strayed from this brutal self-reliance and mercantile ambition was to be censured; they were simply not worthy of his time.

When I had children, I vowed to do it differently. I would not judge, or encourage my children to pursue jobs that were merely remunerative, that didn’t elicit passion and meaning. Parenting, I believed, shouldn’t be about positioning your kids to earn, but it feels like this current cultural moment has given us precisely that. I didn’t pressure my kids to pile on more student debt in order to attend grad school, or convince them they needed at least two degrees to feel whole.

Every parent vows restitution to their kids in return for the things their own parents did wrong. I shall be many things to my children, we tell ourselves, but I will not be that. This worked beautifully for a while. The kids, after a bumpy start, took to learning, thrived academically, made the grade. When my eldest daughter, Sam, was handed her yellow tassel at her college honours ceremony, all I could think about was how at least I hadn’t made a complete hash of things.

But everyone, of course, winds up turning into some version of their parents. Such clichés endure because they’re comforting; perhaps it’s better to playfully grouse about the fact that you have also become an impatient, quarrelsome micromanager intent on shunting your child into a career and a steady living, rather than own up to the fact that you hate yourself for being such a hypocrite. I was laissez-faire as a parent; now, I had become some aggressive job-fair booster, prodding her to figure everything out, quick. Aphorisms such as “always stand on the balls of your feet” flowed out involuntarily, as if I was channelling Mastin Kipp.

I thought I had a solid purchase on parenting, but being a parent to an adult was strange new terrain. It’s not something you find in child-rearing Baedekers. Initially, my attitude about having grown kids was that I was now out of loop regarding Big Life Decisions, and was now free to focus on things other than my children’s welfare. Like basketball, or cooking. But here’s the thing about growing older: As you travel further away from your youth, the curvature of your back-life can be seen clearly. You might not be as wise in middle age as you’d like to be, but knowledge of your own choices and mistakes across the fullness of your own time is something with which you are intimately familiar.

When I turned my gaze to the young adult who had now completed her academic career, I flashed on every mistake I ever made in my 20s – all the quiet left turns that became troublesome detours – and I projected all of it onto my daughter. My careful and deliberate policy of benign watchfulness fell to pieces, and I panicked. Had I given her the right tools, the coping mechanisms, the bulwark necessary for constant disappointment and rejection? And most troublesome of all: Would we have to have the Talk?

I never had any talks with my Dad. Plenty of conversations, sure, just none of the perennial hits, such as “Use Protection” or “The Importance of Good Credit.” Any sit-down between us was prescriptive, as in, “But you like reading! I think the legal profession is right in your wheelhouse.” I was more bemused than wounded by this sort of thing, and I suppose it did assist in sorting things out later in life. Still, not fun, and not something I was ready to pass on to my kids.

As the father of a college grad, I knew the Talk business was important, but it vexed me. I wasn’t sure how to calibrate advice so it didn’t sound like a decree. Now, I wanted to drag my media studies and rhetoric student into adulthood with a firm hand, to tell her how most artists fail and how dreams of a creative life are leached out by penury and regret. And what do you do with a media studies degree, anyway?

As it turned out, there’s plenty you can do. When Sam came home for the summer and we finally got around to watching her undergrad thesis, which was a long-form video essay on television and its regressive appetite for nostalgia, I was relieved and astonished. It was the work of a thinking craftsperson, expertly organized and well-reasoned. And it was obvious she had a flair for editing (as a TV producer, this is one thing I do know about). So, the path is set, for now: Sam will learn professional editing, and she’ll see where that takes her. I don’t know what to expect, and neither does she. But it doesn’t matter right now. Every long journey starts with a first step. She told me that one.

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