My eyes shot open. The surrounding darkness told me it wasn’t morning, and I reached for my iPhone to get my bearings. The screen displayed 4:02 a.m., a little more than an hour after admission decisions went up online. The school in question was one of my daughter’s top choices among the 17 universities (read: overkill) to which she applied for majors in film or business or some program-specific combination of the two.
“Should I set my alarm so I can check in the middle of the night?” my daughter had asked in all seriousness before bed.
I told her not to, mostly out of selfishness I admit, worrying that if she didn’t get in my day would, practically speaking, start the night before and go downhill from there. A full night’s sleep would mean I’d be better equipped, though not necessarily qualified (what parent ever is), to handle the heartbreak. Judging by the previous week’s roller coaster of acceptances and rejections, a few of which were surprising, such an outcome was a distinct possibility.
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Wide awake in spite of my best intentions, a part of me regretted giving her the sound piece of parenting advice I had. A self-described realist, a “red pill” according to my ex-husband, I’ve always been the type of person who had to know the full story ASAP, the truth if you will, with no painful detail spared. I’m a rip the Band-Aid off type of girl who’s forever ready and willing to deal with any catastrophe that may come my way, even if it’s one I helped bring to the forefront of my life by refusing to live in ignorant bliss, even for a moment. Decision day had finally come and not a moment too soon.
For months, every discussion about where my daughter would attend school in the fall sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me, growing louder and deeper with every conversation. I wanted the agony to stop, whatever the outcome, making the sound of the TV coming from my sleeping 13-year-old son’s room all the excuse I needed to jump out of bed and find closure. After turning it off, I lingered in the hallway for a moment, staring at my daughter’s closed bedroom door. I thought about waking her. I, after all, would want to know. I did want to know. Unbelievable to me now, I fought the urge and returned to bed to finish out my already sleepless night.
At 7 a.m., though, I couldn’t take it any longer, and I pounced. “Do you want to check the website?” I asked, barging my way into her room as if it was a regular school day, even though it was Sunday. Had I become Mommie Dearest?
Somewhere along the way, the college search had become about me, even though I’m (dare I say it out loud) almost 30 years removed from the process, a reminder of when times were more simple and when I had my whole life ahead of me. Six years after separating from my husband, my children’s father, the 45-year-old face I see in my bathroom mirror each morning tells a far different story, one whose ending has yet to be determined, and leaving me to question, “Who will I become when I’m done raising my kids?”
Eventually, she found an opportunity where she hadn’t noticed one before, a second chance instead of a second choice.
I looked over my daughter’s shoulder as she grabbed her laptop from her desk and brought it back to bed with her. The quick clicking sound of her fingers on the keyboard mimicked my beating heart. Next, silence. And then a scream.
“I got in! Mom, I got in!” she cried, tears of joy running down her face.
I hugged my daughter as I stretched my neck over her shoulder to see the letter, which remained open on the abandoned computer screen. My eyes failed me, especially without the 2.0 readers I usually walk around with on top of my head.
“Read the rest of the letter,” I suggested to her as I loosened myself from her grip.
Again, there was clicking. Next, silence. And then a scream. But this one was different.
“I didn’t get into my major! I got my second choice,” she cried, tears of disappointment running down her face where tears of joy had just been. “They rejected me.”
Synonyms: Refused. Dismissed. Spurned. Abandoned. Deserted. Brushed off.
Every connotation, negative.
The word hung heavy in the air.
I hugged my daughter, wishing the pain away. But I was powerless. I knew the truth. The struggle would be hers, and hers alone, to find significance in what had just happened. It’s bearing on her future. No amount of reassurance from me or kind words could ever erase the sting she was experiencing. After a life filled with the same—jobs I didn’t get, a husband who left me, and the series of failed relationships which came after—I understood it well. To this day, I still try to make sense of it all.
Since 2012, when, mid-laundry load, I finally faced reality and slipped my diamond wedding ring off my finger for the last time, I’ve questioned how and why I continue to confront the challenges I do. Why everything has to be so hard. On any day, my answers range from self- and external blame to bad luck. Finding meaning in pain can be a full-time job, with little if any immediate reward. I felt for my daughter, watching her meet the biggest disappointment of her life to date. Would it deter her from chasing her dream? I worried. She was too young to let this break her.
For a couple of days, my daughter weighed her options, from that school and others. She made snap decisions, then changed her mind. Back and forth she went. She phoned the Office of Undergraduate Admission at her top school. Twice. And Office of Residential Life. Asked thoughtful questions. Sought advice from others more knowledgeable than herself, and those who were less but had life experience that could bring perspective. And eventually, she found an opportunity where she hadn’t noticed one before, a second chance instead of a second choice.
Finally, my daughter came to me with her decision.
“Are you sure?” I pressed, my overprotective nature kicking into overdrive.
“All I wanted to do,” she said with resolve far beyond her years, “was get into the school that would make me the best version of myself.”
And she had. I was impressed. However, it wasn’t by the mere fact she got into the university she did (although I’m very proud of her). It was because she discovered a view of rejection that took me half my life to see. At my age, I never believed the college application process could teach me so much. My biggest question now is whether my daughter will consider me for her roomie.
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