If you've subjected yourself to a Bed, Bath & Beyond lately, you're well aware that we are just weeks away from the annual rite of parents abandoning their young in poorly lit dorm rooms with little more than a loft bed and a couple of stackable crates. And this means some ladies are just weeks away from the Sisterhood Gauntlet: sorority rush. If you're from a certain part of the United States (the South) or are living on a campus where frat parties are considered a good thing, this can be a huuuuuuuuge deal. Enter the rush moms and coaches — they're like stage moms, but with more Lilly Pulitzer.
In a story that is destined to become legend, the New York Times alerts us to the mounting pressure on young ladies to make it into the Right House, a pressure so great that it can only be managed and harnessed with the two-pronged power of one's own mother and a "rush coach." In Birmingham, Alabama, a mere $100 buys a prospective rushee and her mother the wisdom of Rushbiddies, a rushee consulting firm that offers two-day workshops designed to prep these young ladies get into the best sisterhood friendship club (pro tip: Lilly Pulitzer has a "sorority" line; make good use of it). In New York, an image consultant is available to help ready pre-frosh for the brutally judgmental process of finding their forever BFFs.
If as a student you buy into whatever sisterhood propaganda Panhel is pushing, rush feels stupid important. I went through it and can attest to the emotional intensity — some of imagined, some of it very real — of trying to find a group of girls with whom you'll ostensibly identify yourself for the next four years. What's your clique going to be? Who will be your friends? And you're making this Decision (proper noun, it's that big) based on relatively short visits to various houses and, frankly, a house's reputation (which is often determined by the always sound judgment of frat guys). When I rushed, the process felt equal parts political and earnest; I truly wanted to find a group of girls with whom I could relate to, but I also felt emotionally distant at times, simply because rush is the least organic friend-making process you can imagine. With the songs and coordinated outfits and rehearsed conversations, it's actually kind of hilarious. But those sisters can suck you in and make you feel all the feelings; by the time you hit the final round, the circus seems much more important than you ever imagined. Or that's how it went for me.
Given the pressure and sheer performance that is sorority rush, it's actually remarkable, isn't it, that you're supposedly going to find your sistas-4-life based on a combination of relatively vague impressions and whatever score they give you after chatting for a few minutes? Oh, yeah, the scoring thing — that's worth a mention. You can want them, but they don't necessarily want you. It stings.
As rush grinds on, students often text their moms with frequent, sometimes tearful updates. "Drama Trauma Drama," wrote one weary mother on a Greek chat forum. For some mothers, empathizing with the pain of peer rejection is excruciating.
That doesn't feel good, no. But how excruciating is it really?
"I lost six pounds that week," recalls Julie Baselice, whose daughter Christina is now a Chi Omega at the University of Texas. "It was the most stressful experience of my life."
The most? More so than, say, giving birth? If your daughter's rush experience was so psychologically challenging for you, how in god's name did you handle your own wedding day? Were you able to get into your dress without a couple of drops of laudanum?
Listen: For all I could say about the weird, intense emotional process of throwing oneself into the Greek system or the distinct (and not always pleasant) social dynamics of being in a big sorority or the real possibility of leaving the house with a handful of friends for life or none at all or how the whole rigamarole is just the reinforcement of an antiquated social hierarchy that maybe should be retired, ultimately this — the consultants, the moms, the prepping girls as if this were a college interview when it's really a process of mutual social judgment — is ridiculous.
You know how, generally speaking, life tends to work itself out? That actually applies to sororities too.
Chances are that your daughter did not exit high school a social vegetable; if she wants to ride along on the Sisterhood Selection Tour, she already knows how to form sentences in the presence of other people. She doesn't "need a filter," as Baselice says of coaching her own dear daughter. If your kid has verbal diarrhea, let her rush with shit a-spewing because she's more likely end up somewhere with girls who like the real her. Will it be a "top" house? Who knows or cares? It's meaningless. And if she doesn't make the cut at the house that has the best eighteen-ways with the "best" frats, she'll get over it (and probably feel retroactively grateful upon graduation). Really.
But if you're molding your daughter into some sort of top tier rush crush automaton and, fingers crossed, she ends up in The Best House as determined by an imaginary campus election, consider this: After the initial high of success and acceptance — she scored a seat at the best lunch table! — wears off, she may not be happy. Her real personality might not mesh with her peers once the pledge period is over. Being deemed "bestest" to join the "best" house is not a guarantee that she will enjoy herself. I mean, maybe she will! But if being herself isn't why she ended up there, if your girl is faking her way through rush and, in turn, the next few years with her "sisters," it's going to take her that much longer to find those both herself (which is the important part, but Panhel never tells you that) and those "lifelong friends" you keep hearing about.
Purely anecdotal support for my argument:
When I was ranking my top three choices, I asked myself a question that most certainly wouldn't be advised in any coaching session: Which group of girls did I think was more likely find it funny if I wrote something dirty on the wipe-board on someone's door? That's the house I ranked first (and that's where I ended up). I don't remember if I drew any dicks on doors, but out of 50 girls in my pledge class, I actually did make a number of friends for life. So yeah, there can indeed be something to that "lasting friendship blah blah" business. But I probably wouldn't have made such strong friendships had I not been honest about myself, to myself. The honesty is what gives you the best chance of ending up with a house that's good for you. (And I had a mostly good experience, but I know plenty of girls who had the exact opposite. No guarantees on any of this stuff. I consider myself lucky. Also, as much as I love my friends, if I had to do it over again I'm not sure I would have rushed at all. But that's another story.)
My giant Midwest university Greek system experience obviously isn't going to mirror that of any one person, particularly those in the notoriously hardcore-sorority South. Plus this "know thyself" business I'm preaching is all easier said than done; it's in many people's nature to want to be at the top of the social ladder and getting a feel for who you are isn't necessarily something a girl has got down pat by 18 or 19 (I certainly didn't, I just knew that I liked acting like an idiot). But at some point she should discover that finding real friends, people with whom she feels comfortable, is the best bet and rush isn't a bad time to start teaching your daughter that. After all, if she's going to join a sorority — and you, dear parent, are going to foot the bill — you might as well try to get your money's worth regarding those lasting friendships.
If all else fails, here's some perspective for those ladies about to embark on this magical journey: After those four years, you'll never see that damn pin again.
Pledge Prep [NYT]