Co authored with Susan Schneider
As your mother, I know that it is SWUG (Senior Washed Up Girl) season once again. You and your friends are college seniors; you've seen and done it all. You're hanging around in sweats, drinking wine, watching season four of Mad Men, waiting to graduate.
Many of you are Alphas: smart, ambitious, sexy, competitive, high-achieving women who are taking a temporary break from being ambitious, sexy, competitive and high-achieving. Good for you! You will need it.
You have probably heard that the future is brighter for you than for any previous generation of women. But that doesn't mean that everything will come easily. In fact, because of changing gender roles and growing economic equality, there are quite a few challenges ahead of you. I hope that your generation will solve some of the work-family issues that have been afflicting women in prior generations. And moreover, I hope that the "mommy guilt" that plagues working women will become a footnote in history. (This requires another letter to your older sisters!)
Why are you taking a psychological vacation as you prepare to go into the real world? Well, when I taught developmental psychology at Columbia University, we talked a lot about Erik Erikson, who was an ego psychologist following in the footsteps of Freud, who outlined seven stages of personal identity in everyone's life cycle. One of his central concepts is that of "moratorium," a stage of life in which a person is actively involved in exploring different identities. A psychosocial moratorium is when a person takes a break from "real life" to actively search for her identity. Erikson noted that it is a period of time "during which the individual through free role experimentation may find a niche in some section of...society, a niche which is firmly defined and yet seems to be uniquely made" for her.
During your psychosocial moratorium, you are trying on multiple identities and experimenting with various roles before firmly committing to a personal identity. You are consolidating all that you learned up until now about what it means to be a woman in today's world. Erikson intended for that phase to be the final stage of identity development, which he thought took place in late adolescence, but I believe that it takes place throughout your twenties. Although it comes with more angst than you are letting on, being a SWUG gives you time to prepare yourself for a life of independence and self-reliance. Rejecting the hook-up and frat culture, opting out of the competitive world of grade-grubbing, finding comfort in the companionship of female friends and playing with your vibrator instead of your boyfriend, is part of finding out who you are by defining who you are not.
College is a very structured environment -- if you follow the rules you are almost guaranteed some success. But now you are in transition, and the rules will not be so clear. You will have to rely on yourself. You will take on new jobs in a challenging economy. Some of you will gravitate to predictable paths in the professions and the corporate world, while others will go to graduate school, join start-ups and become entrepreneurs. Your new life will be exciting and frustrating, gratifying and disappointing. You will take risks, which might not work out but are worth taking. I am confident that with some help from your friends and family, you will succeed because you are smart, ambitious and motivated. You are getting ready for what is going to be the most challenging period of your life.
One more thing. Most of you have had and will have a slew of boyfriends or girlfriends (or both). If all goes well, you will end up with a person who respects and values you, who supports you and with whom you can share the responsibilities of running a family and working.
Life is going to be so amazing for you and I am betting that you will hit the ground running in the fall.
Dr. Sonya Rhodes and Susan Schneider are the authors of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, out April 15, 2014