I was invited to share a story about ‘motherhood’ as part of the most recent Feminartsy story share. Having never been to a story share before I had no idea what to expect but enjoyed the process of having to clarify and articulate some of my muddled thoughts about my mothering experience so far. If you’re interested, here’s a transcript of my talk…
When I was 13 I got a C- for a high school art assignment. As a pretty much straight-A student from a family that put a high value on academic achievement, this came as a bit of a shock and disappointment. That it was for a self-portrait just added a further dent to my delicate teenage self confidence. In art class I didn’t know what I had to do to get an A, and even if I did, I didn’t feel capable of doing it. From that point on I declared myself unartistic, and decided to focus, at least academically, on maths and the sciences. Subjects where there was a right answer, and that I knew that if I could figure out what answer was I would achieve ‘success’.
Soon after I became a mum I again found myself longing for a right answer. I wanted a text book with formulas that if applied correctly would produce the right result. Clear KPIs and logical processes for achieving them. In those early days of life as a new mum, it was a huge shock to find that this little human didn’t come with a manual. I desperately trawled forums and books looking for the products, processes and techniques that I could use to produce a guaranteed, consistent, correct result.
Now, almost 2 years in, I’m much more comfortable operating with the greyness of motherhood and I’ve given up searching for a right answer to every new parenting challenge I encounter. But, when I was thinking about what I would share tonight, my default intention was to identify and to tell you all some truth about motherhood. Some theory or observation which you would all nod in agreement with and say ‘ahh, yes, that’s right’. But as I played around with my ideas, I struggled to find some universally applicable insight or experience or advice. There is no single truth about motherhood. So instead, tonight I’m going to share really the only thing that I can. And that’s my truth.
This is something I wrote when my daughter was about 6 months old, reflecting on my experiences in those crazy first few months filled with self doubt, exhaustion and a significant shift in my sense of self. I don’t normally do poetry, but this seems to be the form that this reflective outpouring took.
We sit in a circle
Around the edge of the room
There’s a poster on the wall promoting support for post-natal depression
‘Motherhood isn’t always blissful’.
It almost makes me laugh out loud.
No. Those words aren’t ones I’ve used.
This ain’t no Johnson & Johnson’s commercial.
I don’t breathe you in like she does on the ad.
You don’t smile cutely like he does.
And our towels are scratchy, not fluffy.
Our house is messier.
I look at their faces sitting opposite me.
They look happy. They smile.
What do I look like?
I am an impostor. I don’t belong here.
Can they tell?
I wonder if they’re impostors too.
All I know is that I don’t feel like how they look like they feel.
Tears fill my eyes.
You deserve someone like them.
I don’t feel sad, or angry, or depressed, or even tired.
I don’t feel.
I am a body. A machine. Going through the motions.
You’re part of me, but so foreign to me.
I don’t know you.
I love you. I think I do.
But how can you love someone you don’t know?
Days go by. And then weeks.
I count them – waiting to reach some unspecified future date.
Each box I cross off on the calendar in your room marks the small achievement of simply surviving the day.
After about 4 months I stop.
I know you. And you know me.
You’re mine. I’m yours.
You’ve slowly weaved your way into my life and my heart.
Just by being there.
Every day. Every moment.
I’m not an impostor anymore.
Over the last 12 months I’ve been working in the women’s leadership space and this theme of impostor syndrome has come up over and over again. Women not putting themselves forward for roles for fear of feeling like or being revealed as an impostor. So I’ve recently found myself musing about the similarities and differences between feeling like an impostor in my career, and being an impostor as a mum.
There are several points in my career in the public service that I can recall consciously and explicitly holding off applying for promotions, despite the encouragement of my supervisors. I told them that before I sat in an interview panel to stake my claim to a position, that I wanted to believe in what I was saying. I didn’t want to feel like I was lying. I wanted to be confident that I could actually do the job, before I stepped into it.
Why is it that I avoided putting myself forward for jobs that I was probably ‘almost’ qualified for, but yet I willingly put up my hand to be a mum – a job that I honestly had no idea about, I had no ‘demonstrated experience’ in, no ‘sound understanding’ of, no ‘well developed capacity’ to undertake? Why was it that with work I would actively try to search for the reasons I couldn’t do something, the reasons why it wouldn’t work, the areas where I lacked qualifications, but with mothering, I was quick to downplay those thoughts with a ‘we’ll be right’ or ‘I’ll figure it out’ – and focus instead on why becoming a parent was the right next step to take and why I’d be great, or at least, good at it?
Maybe it was just hormones. I suspect that they have a lot to answer for. Perhaps if we could create some kind of artificial hormone to generate a similar biological urge for career progression, we would see many more women in leadership!
Maybe it was because I didn’t need to prove myself as a mum before I became a mum. I don’t know about you, but I find it far easier to lie to myself than to other people. If there had been some selection panel that assessed my suitability for motherhood beforehand, I probably would have hung back and kept practicing and learning and reviewing with the impossible goal of becoming ‘ready’.
Or maybe it was the presence of many visible role models. During pregnancy, when confronted with stories or thoughts about the difficulties involved in parenting, I’m pretty sure my default reaction was along the lines of ‘millions of women have done it before and survived, how hard can it be?’.
Although these things may have contributed to getting me to put up my hand for the role of ‘mum’, once I was there I felt overwhelmed and under-prepared. An imposter. Suddenly transported into a life that didn’t feel like mine. Lots of thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into’. In those early months I often felt that if this was a job, I definitely would have quit by now. My daughter was the worst boss I’d ever had. Hard to please, irrational, with inconsistent and ever-changing demands. An expectation of 24-7 availability. A poor communicator who’d resort to screaming to get my attention. There was no recognition or constructive feedback. No ability to gauge whether I was doing a good job or not.
But I didn’t quit. I just kept going. Feeling like an impostor and just playing the part of ‘mum’ for months before I actually felt like one. Looking back and reflecting on this experience, it now seems clear to me that the only way to overcome feeling like an impostor – as a mum, in my career, in any part of my life, including speaking at a Feminartsy story share – is to be one and to do the very thing that I feel like an impostor at, over and over and over again.