This Girl's Life

Those college-era intimations got it right: Becoming someone who could lead a family is 'a daring adventure.'

May/June 2011

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This Girl's Life

Illustration: Leigh Wells

One day I'm moving into my freshman dorm room, shoving a laundry detergent bottle into my desk drawer and writing in my diary, "This is day five sleeping on the mattress pad." The next day a voice sounds from the bathroom, "Mommmm, I need help," and I'm the mom in question.

There are 18 years, one wedding and 21 addresses in between the two scenes, but it doesn't feel like it. I am shocked to realize, as I spoon food into the baby's mouth and try to ignore the 3-year-old's bleats and drones, that I am now closer to my mom's age when I started Stanford (she was 42) than I am to my own age as a freshman, 18.

When I took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory test as a junior—at midnight, which was normal at the time and unthinkable now—the results suggested my reliance on improvisation posed a hazard to children. (Life with people like me, the test admonished, "is likely to be a daring adventure; they can lead families to physical and economic dangers.") This seemed entirely possible to both me and my roommates. At Thanksgiving they had me make salad because it was the least challenging assignment.

What I lacked in life skills, I made up for in ambition and optimism. I was not going to be ordinary and mired in domestic routine. Nothing was going to hold me back.

Back then we loved our mothers, but we did not fully understand and appreciate them. At that point life was complicated enough without them being complicated too. I remember when one roommate hung up the phone in shock after hearing that her mom was going to pursue a PhD. We were surprised as well: Wasn't she done? Now it makes perfect sense to me that this woman had a new project ready for when her youngest child went to college. But at the time, none of us thought about what our parents might have been giving up or delaying on our behalf.

Another roommate's grandmother cared for her while her mother worked at the family business. Now I understand that career vs. home struggle—how it feels to miss your child, and what it feels like to miss your job.

We didn't relate to a mom whose daily focus was making dinner each night. Now the logistics of getting dinner on the table flit in and out of my head all day. When I pull it off—on-time, tasty, nutritious, even with two small creatures roiling under my feet—I feel like I should throw back my arms in triumph, Mary Lou Retton-style.

I am more aware of the myriad details needed to make a family function, let alone make it happy. My parents divorced when I was in college. I am older than they were when they first separated. Now I think more about their struggles as spouses and parents than about the disruption to my childhood.

It works both ways. As parents we know only the tip of the iceberg of our children's rich inner lives. When I was 3, I looked forward to the day I would be 5 and would move into my own apartment and dye my hair red. My mom had no idea. She also didn't know I planned to look for Winnie-the-Pooh until the police brought me home. It was funny until I had kids.

The Pooh misadventure did help me get into Stanford. In an era when students were allowed to see their reviewed applications, I saw that someone wrote "Great anecdote" next to this story. (There were also "We have enough math stars" and a smiley face.) When I first got to college, my roommates and I told each other our application anecdotes. It was one of many long conversations fueled by youthful stamina that I remember fondly. It was also the beginning of realizing how different other people's lives could be—how their experiences and ideas could surprise me.

Nearly two decades later, those roommates and I are at the stage where each of our names is solidly linked to someone else's. We trade pregnancy announcements on Facebook. As freshmen we followed the lead of our Feminist Studies RA and referred to ourselves as women. Years later one of my roommates said, "And by the way, we were girls."

Not anymore.

Kristen Schmid Schurter, '95, is an editorial and commercial photographer in Springfield, Ill.

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