Motherhood: The ultimate case of imposter syndrome

How often am I supposed to bathe the baby? Every day? Every other day?

If I don’t know something so basic, how can I do something so complex as raising a well-adjusted—and clean—child?

I remember obsessing over this idea throughout my pregnancy. Despite helpful classes about labor and breastfeeding, I felt embarrassingly ill-prepared for the nitty-gritty logistics of life with a newborn. It seemed as if every other parent read that one book I didn’t get my hands on—the one with the real secrets.

Now I realize how nearly universal it is to feel clueless, even when you have the best of intentions: Whether the moment comes when you are discharged from the hospital or when you are left alone to care for baby for the first time, there comes a time for most of us when we find ourselves thinking, “Wow, they are really letting me do this? But I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Often, that inner dialogue is fueled by hormones—as well as the “imposter syndrome.”

First defined by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978, imposter syndrome was described as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” In other words, it leaves people feeling irrationally fraudulent, especially when it comes to matters we care about.

And what could anyone care about more strongly than their own child?

“We don’t experience the imposter complex when we’re coming up against something that isn’t deeply meaningful,” says Tanya Geisler, certified Leadership Coach who specializes in helping women conquer the impostor complex. “So it shows up in your parenting because it matters to you.”

Of course, now I can see the logic in this. Despite always wanting to be a mother and taking every class I could get my hands on during pregnancy, I know there is nothing that can prepare you for the actual experience of parenting your own child.

Yet, there I was, hoping I was prepared enough to earn an A+ on the final exam when I hadn’t even endured the first true lesson.

Of course I felt like a phony parent because that’s how all parents feel in the beginning. Even if you get the perfect answer to the bathing question, there will be some other mystifying facet that makes you wonder if you’re worthy of the permission to parent.

Here’s the truth, though: The experts confirm that even thinking that is a good sign you are on the right track. As Geisler says, “We can rest in the truth that actual frauds don’t feel like frauds.”

Better yet, the sense of being a parenting imposter will likely slowly, quietly dissipate, says imposter syndrome expert Lauren Bacon, author of “Curious for a Living” and “The Boss of You.” In the meantime, the best you can do is try.

“It’s like one day you’re not a parent and then you’re a parent and you’re expected to be able to make these massive decisions about another helpless and totally dependent creature’s life,” Bacon says. “You’ve just got to start doing it and you’ve muddled through and you’ve made lots of mistakes and you get there. But one day finally it doesn’t weird you out that somebody’s calling you mom.”

For me, when my son came home from the hospital, we soon settled on a routine of baths every other night. And, although that question was replaced with another I hadn’t even thought to ask before, it was also replaced with something else: a little boost of confidence in my perfectly imperfect parenting intuition.

Comments ( 0 )

    Motherly provides information of a general nature and is designed for educational purposes only. This site does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy . Information on our advertising guidelines can be found here.