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On Princeton and Panties

Posted by | March 16, 2010 | IMBALANCE | 17 Comments

Last week I went to Princeton to give a talk. I had agreed to this speaking engagement awhile ago. But as I was driving home from it — planning my route strategically so that I would be able to stop at a Target to buy Meera her first underpants — I realized that I had not allowed myself to really think about the Princeton gig at all during any of the days, weeks, or months prior to it. I mean, I knew it was coming up, and I prepared my talk for it (so I had to think about that part of it)… but I hadn’t let my mind think about it one bit. I mean, the actual Princeton part of it. And driving home, I was suddenly thinking lots about it.

Princeton University. To me, it is like the creme de le creme. The only other thing that might compare at all (in my own mind) is Stanford. But Princeton has its own little story in my life, so it is more more to me. The thing is this — when I was in high school I was one of those sort of ridiculously-well-rounded, scholar-athlete, president-of-everything, top-of-her-class, over-achiever ambitious super-kids. When it came time to consider college, my parents, (the best parents ever), who had spent their entire adult lives focused on work for the common good and running a not-for-profit organization (i.e., working very hard for relatively very little $$$), told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should plan to go to whatever college I wanted. Money should not be a factor. Period. There was no arguing with them over this. This is not just what they wanted of me, this is what they demanded of me. I would be disappointing them to do anything less than attempt to get into my very top choice “dream college.” It put me in a real quandary: do I go for it and do what they want (go to a premier college with –inevitably– a pricey price tag, which would –unavoidably– practically put them in the poor house indefinitely), or do I tone it down and go against them (but allow them to not have to RE-MORTGAGE their home to put me through college)? It was a real conundrum for me. In the end, despite my private self-induced mental torture over this debacle, my own EagerBeaverAimToPleaseDeepDesireToNeverDisappointMyParents won out. I made the decision to go for it and allow myself to choose to apply to whichever colleges on the planet I would most like to attend.

Thus began my college search. During the spring of my junior year of high school, like so many other middle- and upper-middle-class families, we set out — with great excitement and anticipation — for my “college tour.” We looked at a bunch of private New England liberal arts colleges and some larger New England schools too. I knew I didn’t want to go too far from my New Hampshire home (lots of reasons for that — I don’t want to get into here), but my parents encouraged me, strongly, to at least look beyond the New England state borders. On the college trip we toured some Lutheran schools in Pennsylvania (I didn’t really like them), and then we visited Princeton University. It would have been a little bit of a reach for me to get in there, but there was a definite chance I might get in if I applied.

I will never forget my visit to Princeton. Still, right now, it is a very vivid memory. The most pronounced feeling (and thought) that I had was, “This is way out of my league.” I just felt (and thought) that it was way, way, way beyond me. The hallowed halls, the history (the oil paintings of famous people — United States presidents and such — all alum from there), the ‘feel’ of the campus, the tone of the mindset, the –literally– ivy-drenched Ivy-League-school. It was just a different playing field than I was used to– or at all comfortable with. I had visited Harvard and Yale and Brown, but none of those schools shook me the way Princeton did– Princeton felt huge and scary and just totally beyond me.  I knew immediately that I would not apply. It felt too far from home, but it also felt –completely– like I did not belong there. It was way above me, beyond me, a world in which I did not belong. I had a knee-jerk reaction, for sure, but I also –genuinely– felt and thought that I was not cut out for what it would require. It would require a huge reach on my part– a reach into a world that made me feel like a fish out of water.

So, I did not apply. Who knows if I ever would have gotten in? Knowing what I know now, all these years later, my guess is that I probably had a very good shot at getting in. My chances were probably just about as good as anyone else (who wasn’t a Legacy). They very well might have taken a chance on me. But I’ll never know. And I’m not someone who tends to look back with regret. I ended up getting in early decision– and then going– to my first-choice college (a small, elite, New England, liberal arts college). My life has turned out better than I ever could have imagined or expected. So I never pause too long to worry about the “What If’s.”

Fast forward twenty years…

And I’m driving onto the campus of Princeton University looking for the building in which I am supposed to give my talk. I see the main buildings on the center of the campus– I vividly remember them from when I was last here— as a junior in high school on a campus tour. Except this time it feels very different. I have been invited by the Sociology Department to give a lecture on my work. They are paying me a significant amount of money for my time. I am only as nervous as I’d be for any other such engagement anywhere else. I do my thing. And it seems to go off without a hitch. The undergraduates, the graduate students, the faculty… they all shower me with accolades and roll out the red carpet.

And then I’m driving home. And it all hits me.

And then I’m looking for the exit for the Target. Underpants for Meera. It will make me even later getting home (I’m already due to arrive well beyond all three bambinos’ bedtimes), but if I don’t stop to buy underpants for Meera now, she’ll have to go for quite a while longer without them (there is no other time in the foreseeable future that I’ll be able to run this errand). And she needs underpants. She is totally in the throws of serious potty training. As I’m pulling into the Target parking lot all I can think about is ‘What would the people at Princeton think if they knew I was in the midst of potty training my baby while I was writing that talk I just gave?’ With all the in-depth talk about sociology and scholarly research, I’ve somehow managed to have come across as just a regular academic (not the Professor-Mommy type). I guess I’ve kind of fooled them? I sort of feel like an impostor. They would never believe that just this morning I was wiping my baby’s bum-bum and doing the “Poopie Dance” and shelling out M&M’s for pee after pee after pee at the same time as I was proof-reading my Princeton lecture. They would never guess that I’m stopping at Target for underpants on my way home from their campus. I’m just a Professor, completely dedicated to my work.

Inside the Target I need to ask for help. The two ladies in the children’s clothing area are trying to help me locate underpants in a size smaller than a 3T. There are only a few packages available small enough to fit Meera. As we discuss potty training there in the middle of Target, I get teary telling them that I really wish she wasn’t potty training– that I’d be happy to change her diapers forever– that she’s my BABY (waaaaaaa!) and I just wish she’d never be ready for “panties” (they insist on calling the girls’ underpants “panties” so I just go along with it and start referring to them as “panties” too). We all tell our Mommy war stories about potty training and they say nice things to me about Meera (how “lucky” I am she’s potty training herself, etc.). They are trying to make me feel better because I’m totally breaking down in tears in the middle of Target. They start telling me that working at Target at night is great because it allows them to be home with their kids all day. And then one of them made some joke about how they particularly love working the children’s clothing section at night because their own kids are in bed and they get to chat with “all the other mom’s who can only get out of the house after dark too”…  and then it strikes me that they clearly think I’m a Stay-at-Home-Mom escaping the house because my kids are finally asleep. I conscientiously think to myself — right there in the midst of this — ‘Wow, they have absolutely no idea that I was just giving a talk at Princeton.’  With all the in-depth talk about potty training and panties, I’ve somehow come across as just a regular mom (not the Mommy-Professor type). I’ve guess I’ve kind of fooled them? I sort of feel like an impostor. They would never believe that just this afternoon I was standing in front of 150 people and speaking about “scholarship” and signing copies of my book and drinking latte with very famous academics. They would never guess that I’m driving home from giving a talk at Princeton. I’m just a mother, completely dedicated to my kids.

Standing, alone now, in front of the rack of “panties” I am forced to make a tough choice. There are a bunch of different packs of panties but they all have big-hoop-dress-tiny-waisted-huge-eyelashed princesses all over them. Even the ‘Dora’ underpants have a version of Dora printed on them that I’ve never seen before (she’s suddenly a grown-up Dora with very long flowy hair and a corset-type long prom-gown-type dress on). Most of the underpant princesses are the [horrifyingly scary-skinny] Disney ones. Now really, I will do a lot of things, but I refuse to put my 21-month-old daughter in a pair of “panties” that put Disney princesses all over her crotch. I just cannot bring myself to do it. I buy the one –and only one– package of plain-Jane-no-princess-(no-print-at-all)-underpants. They are Hanes brand (and I kind of like Hanes anyway— for one thing, they have some of their textile production facilities in Haiti).

For the last leg of the drive home I have my millionth identity crisis of the past five years. Who the heck am I? Am I the girl who was scared to even apply to Princeton but grew up to be an invited guest lecturer there? Or am I the potty-training mom? Am I a top-50-university Professor? Or a Waldorf Mama? Am I an Academic Author? Or a Mommy Blogger? It seems impossible to be both. And yet, of course, obviously, I am. But I don’t feel like it. I feel like I jump from puddle to puddle; doing just enough to successfully “pass” as one thing, and then “pass” again as another; running maniacally around the neighborhood on Halloween night, switching back-and-forth between two different costumes from house-to-house. I feel like an impostor everywhere I go. I have no idea who I actually am. And nobody else seems to know either. I’m way more focused on career than most other mommies I know. And I’m way more focused on mothering than most other professors I know. All that I know is that I never imagined it this way.

I imagined that it would be so much more seamless. And so much less seamless. That my identities would be so much more fluid. And so much less fluid. Mostly, I just thought it would be so much easier.

At home, at the very end of that day, I made myself a bagel-egg-and-cheese sandwich while Braydon poured us wine. We sat together at the kitchen table while I ate, and we talked over our day. Just another in a seemingly endless string of overwhelmingly exhausting, overflowing, and mind-numbingly complex-(and-wondrous) days. As usual, we came to no conclusions and figured out nothing. And then we went to bed and started it all again the next day.


  • Heather says:

    This speaks to me. I appreciate the honesty about the schizophrenia-feeling of being a working mom – or maybe just a person with varied and conflicting interests. The other day at work someone asked me "how's the little girl?" and I said "who?" I'm still getting over the guilt of forgetting about my daughter for a moment (how can I forget something so intimately connected to me?), but when I'm in 'work mode' I can't be in 'Mom mode.' The challenge of trying to do both at once risk me tearing apart and not doing either.

  • emilyanndoss says:

    My husband and I recently discussed that where we are currently in lives makes no sense unless you take into account our journey. We in no way would have imagined living where we live and doing what we do, but this is where the journey has led us and we are loving it just the way it is.

  • emlancer says:

    I LOVE that you can be all of these things rolled up into one person. I wonder what Meera will be like 30 years from now? What parts will make up her whole? Perhaps Princeton will be her school of choice?


  • Ani says:

    When I returned to work 6 months after our first adoption, a female VP at the multi-national company I work for sent me a very compelling article about mothers who work outside the home titled something along the lines of The Myth of Having It All. Now, I had worked with this woman in a previous role and I looked up to her and respected her, both as an individual and a professional. She was a VERY successful executive, with a VERY interesting career, THREE intelligent, polite, seemingly well-balanced children and a husband of 20+ years – in my book, she was SUPERWOMAN (while I was trying to figure out how to balance my now reduced work schedule as an account executive and my ONE child – ha, ha, ha!)

    I don't remember the article word for word, and I have no clue where I saved it, but what resonated most with me was this woman's very personal note , where she wrote that I should learn to forgive myself for not being able to do it all/be all things/all the time. She went on to write that at times I would be a career woman goddess, at times I would rock the mommy/family gig, but that often I would have to sacrifice either career opportunities or an opportunity to BE with my family – and that was alright, as long as I/we were okay with the choice made. Words of wisdom from a very smart lady.

    And, on the Princeton topic – when I went to college was my first time EVER away from home and my parents took me to visit several NE schools before applying (a direct plane ride home was the only limitation they put on my choice – forever grateful to them for this opportunity!!!!). We visited Yale and Princeton the same day, and, although I didn't know anyone who went there, when I walked onto the Princeton campus I felt I was home. I have no idea how I got in, at times I still can't believe I had the opportunity and good fortune to attend… I loved Princeton the 4 years I was there, and still do :-)

  • gon_hikn93 says:

    None of us are just one story. No one place is just one story. We are all complex and … I think.. the more complex… the more complete and content

  • MorMor says:

    Your mom is very proud that you make all the aspects of your life look easy and you enjoy all (most) of the parts of all you do.


  • toosie53 says:

    My husband went to graduate school at Princeton and believe me, many of the professors and staff at Princeton are juggling their roles as spouse, and parent as well. So do it well, and some not so well. My granddaughter is there now as a student and finds it different from the West coast where we live but is very stimulated by the professors and her work there. I so enjoy visiting her and listen and watch her mind soak up all that Princeton has to offer. Don't you think all of us fill different roles throughout our lives and success is being able to balance these roles in a way that makes our lives rich but not too stressful?

  • says:

    I know the feeling (i.e. feeling like an impostor). Just today I called into the office – where I had left some of my colleagues last week pretty miserable as the company had decided (instigated by me) to put me on a social business project for Haiti. My colleague said: oh, it's so nice to hear your voice, are you coming in this week, your desk is waiting for you, we miss you? All the while I was thinking: my god, I left you in a MESS how can you actually miss me?? Today was also the first, FIRST time since starting to work again that I wasn't home on time to put my children to bed. I called them up to wish them good night and if there hadn't been work colleagues around me at the time, I would have cried like a baby!

    Compassionate greetings from across the Atlantic,


  • MorMor says:

    From MorFar on MorMor's computer –

    Heather, you might feel like an imposter but in my mind – you're no imposter. You are my DAUGHTER. And I love you very much. I'm so proud of who you are and what you are doing as the superb mother of my grandchildren, and so proud of who you are and all you do to have a good impact on thi world as a professor.

    Love, Dad

  • Katie says:

    I definitely feel the split in my 2 big worlds: pharma consultant and Mommy. Like many others, when I'm being one, I am disconnected from the other. In a world of so many demands, interests, pursuits, roles, etc… I find complete solace in my running. It's the only time that I am just me, with no ties/relations to anyone. Not a Mom, not a wife, not a consultant, not a friend, not a sibling, not a wife, etc… I recently re-connected with this part of my running as truly the reason I started doing it 11+ years ago. It gives me a sense of identity that can't be touched by anything else.

  • maggiebrandow says:

    After reading your blog for over two years, this is my ALL-TIME FAVORITE post. Wow. It hits me right in the gut. You have put words to something I have been struggling with as well–this feeling that I am pretending, that I have two different identities (one being somehow "secret" from the other), that I am fooling people, that I am not quite sure who I am because I am so fully both of them. Thank you. You get it, and that feels really good.

  • dchapru says:

    My husband and I are grandparents vicariously reliving our parenting days through our adopted Haitian grandson who thankfully made it to his new home this past summer. We were jugglers. My husband was a university professor and I first a public school teacher by training and experience then a grad school program and fellowships coordinator and a recruiter for the same university. My career changed due to a move where the school district that was only hiring new grads to save money. Hubby and I were both jugglers. He juggled lecturing, mentoring, writing, committee work and caring for two teenage kids and his first wife ,who was quite ill. I juggled working full time killer jobs and raising my son by myself. Looking back at it all, I think about how difficult it all was but how rich and rewarding for both of us. My husband and I have multiple interests and can talk about journalists' flaws in reporting a scientific studies while we pick up dog poop on our afternoon walk. Then we forget which dog pooped. Then, back home, we really get focused on dogs so we don't ignore the still-stuffed pooch whining at the back door. With all the interests Ive pursued, including child rearing, teaching, university jobs, music and a later-in-life great marriage, the best thing I've heard maybe ever was my son's voice saying, post-adoption, "Mom, I get it. I really get it. I know what you went through." Watching my grandson snowboard down a monster hill brought it all back again. Whoever the adoptive parents are on this board, kudos from this grandmother. And Heather, no way would I have bought the princess pants. Your home has all the princess power it needs wrapped up in one little girl – and enough young prince power to generate lights in all of Haiti.

  • nicolle.k.hamilton says:

    Heather, I think you're brilliant and amazing!

    Katie (above), if you're reading this comment, I'd love to send you a note offline to hear more about how you manage motherhood and pharma consulting (I'm also a pharma consultant). Send me a note at if you have a moment and are so inclined. :)

  • linda.paul says:

    Thank you for sharing your life through this post and your blog in general. I want to share with you the difference that your blog can make. When I read this post for the first time I was ‘pulling my hair out’ (so to speak) stressing about university assignments and doubting my ability to reach my goals. The ‘census date’ (date by which withdrawal from units is allowed without incurring huge financial or academic penalties) is tomorrow and I was seriously considering withdrawing. After I read your post I was reminded that if I persevere I may not only reach my goals but exceed my own expectations. I may feel like I am being torn in so many contradicting directions but if I just work hard at whatever I am doing at any particular moment I may just be able to continue this juggling act. I have just finished an assignment I had thought impossible. While I am still a little nervous as to how it will be received I am resolved to just keep doing my best and allow my future to unfold….who knows maybe, like you, I will achieve more than I ever thought possible.


  • mwenmanmi says:

    Hi hbj,

    You are amazing. I wouldn't expect the top-50 university professor you to be such a truly devoted, wonderful mommy. I also wouldn't expect such the truly devoted mommy you to be a top-50 professor giving presentations at Princeton and impacting her students for their lifetimes.

    I understand why you are exhausted and don't have your identity all figured out. In a different and smaller way, I can relate.

    Anyway…This is just to say you are amazing in your abilities to jump from puddle to puddle, albeit exhausting and seamless or not, with such excellence, purpose, passion and dedication.

    I am proud to call you friend.



  • nikkiconure says:

    Just wanted to say I loved this blog entry, I'm also a mommy juggling a million things, and I am also starting the college-search with my son, so everything about the writeup spoke to me. Thanks!

  • jlp2727 says:

    Heather, I love this post. It's so honest. It was so interesting to read about your "full circle" experience of being an invited lecturer at a school that gave you the "out of my league" feeling years ago.

    I am at the beginning of my journeys in both the mommy and academic roles. I am a 3rd year public health PhD student and have been a foster parent for two and half months. This post inspires me to try even harder to excel in both areas.

    Thanks for sharing!


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