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.