THE GREAT PRETENDER
Fake it ‘til you make it takes on new meaning when you become a parent.
I first felt it on the day I headed down the hospital’s maternity corridor toward the newborns room: saturation-level imposter syndrome. In the two days prior, someone had always ceremoniously handed me my newborn while I lay below florescent lights on my sanitized throne of paper bed sheets surrounded by family. Members of this extended village were the ones supporting me, helping me feel like this new normal—this new role—was, in fact, real.
But at last I felt up to getting around the hallways on foot, now able to make my way toward this curious creature and claim him myself. So, I wielded a plastic wristband with my name on it, a flimsy passport that somehow convinced the baby warden to hand over this squirrely little person.
The universal parenting anxiety
Some of the mothers sharing my hospital room were veterans of this rite of passage, but I still felt very far from that. My first time claiming my son felt equal parts thrilling and fraudulent. Why is it that parenting comes complete with such innate feelings of inadequacy? We’re wired for this, right? Our minds and bodies are equipped for no task more central than this one—the desire and ability to create new life.
Maybe it’s the fact that we understand how much is at stake that does us all in. It leads us to ask, how well are we doing this job? This job of overwhelming importance. Are we phoning it in? Slaying like a boss? Maybe a little of both, depending on the day?
Even after the hospital, my baby and I were given pride of place in almost every room we entered. Phalanxes of friends and family would admire my squirmy handiwork and we’d all engage in coded dialogues of pretence: they’d pretend that my baby weight disappeared overnight and I’d act like I knew what I was doing. Neither was remotely true, of course, but I slowly began tapping into the understanding that all parents share. We all feel like imposters under the right circumstances. And the imposter syndrome is still very much part of my parental self-image.
The two things that help me when I feel like a parental fraud
So how do we deal with imposter syndrome? Well, instead of working to eliminate imposter syndrome completely, I work to find ways to take advantage of it. Here are my top two tactics:
One: Move from Imposter to Improv
I’ve worked on developing a mindset that helps me be motivated by the anxiety instead of letting it shut me down. When I start to feel the concern of getting it wrong, of being recognized as a fraud, I tell myself that this is my body prompting me to stay vigilant and to get actively learning. I work to use imposter syndrome feelings to remind me to remain teachable and humble, in this role of a lifetime.
As my children’s needs change, so do my anxieties. This constant evolution requires a healthy dose of on-the-job training. In our family we joke that my imposter syndrome has now morphed into “improv syndrome,” with my penchant for instant mommy hacks putting even MacGyver to shame. I don’t always get it right, but I get trying as fast as I can. In the practical scheme of things, that momentum keeps the imposter syndrome at bay and me afloat.
Two: Villages of all kinds
Investing in “villages” also helps me immensely with my feelings of being a fraud. Sharing insights and stories, commiserating, celebrating and communing with others—whether it’s a virtual construct or an actual village—helps me become, and feel, more like the real thing. My villages have included first, my husband and his experience with his children from a previous marriage. Second, a wider community of family, work colleagues, church congregations, and friends. All these groups have pitched in and helped me emerge from my intimidated, first-time-mommy shell into a more confident and capable mother. Finding supportive communities is worth every effort.
As I sat in the shared hospital room with my second baby, surrounded by first-time mothers, I began to clearly recognize the role imposter syndrome has played in my development as a mom. It has propelled me to learn like never before and motivated me to reach out to my villages for help. While holding my brand-new buddle of unknowns I realized that this time around was marked by far less self-doubt. This time I could truly say I was more excited than terrified for the adventure ahead.