I begin this post with a disclaimer. I am a stupid person. I want to talk about how my stupidity (the kind of poor decision-making that has your friends posting GIF’s of drooling cartoon characters or dumbfounded people slapping their foreheads on your Facebook feed) led me to double-up my dance with imposter syndrome.
We’ve all felt it, right? That niggling feeling at the back of your mind that someone, any minute now, someone is going to call you out as a fraud no matter how experienced, educated or qualified you are. It is that internal monologue that whispers, “Who am I to speak?” But what happens if you combine two major causes of imposter syndrome—motherhood and postgraduate study—into your daily reality? I’ll tell you. The competent version of yourself, the one that convinced you to undertake everything at once, runs for the hills leaving you, quite literally in my case, holding the baby.
Enter imposter number one: the mother.
Becoming a mother dismantled my confidence. Not in my ability to care for my children, but in my place in the wider world. Gone was the slick, articulate and educated woman ready to take on any challenge. That woman slunk into the corner, turned her face away, flinched and shrank from the sight of my loose, heavy, leaking body, recoiling from the stitches, the undulating, unruly stomach, but most of all from the tears. THAT woman—the one I was—could not stand to look at the woman I had become. So she abandoned me just when I needed her the most. She left behind the pulp. A jelly-body struggling to hold form. She swanned off in her neat clothes, her tidy hair, her make-up and left me with the pink, squealing body of another human being, raw and formless, to care for all on my own.
Inundated as they are with the ‘best’ way to do this or the ‘worst’ way to do that, mothers live with the burden of knowing that every minute detail of their new role is open to public scrutiny. Stripped of their usual public persona, mothers suffer (at least I did) that pitying, dismissive ‘oh’ when asked what it is they ‘do’. Over time, over the many, many hours of caring for children this new figure replaced my old self. No longer a bear, but a mouse. An imposter, pretending to live my old life.
I lost it completely.
So here comes the stupid part. On top of waving sadly goodbye to my old, confident (if I’m totally honest, arrogant) self I decided to take on the task of doctoral study. I mean, who could have predicted that writing a PhD thesis and gestating, birthing and raising two children at the same time would be hard? Only everyone who has had children, or undertaken a PhD ever. But not me. My former self sniggered all the way to whatever cave she is hiding in at the enormous joke she had pulled on me.
Enter imposter number two: the student.
Who am I to speak? As I sifted my way through centuries of academic thought (because I chose to write about time… something philosophers had in the bag ages ago) I struggled with the ever-growing fear that I had no right to stand up and speak. I had no right to demand anyone listen. My training as a mother had already made it clear to me that I was floundering alone in the unknown. Postgraduate study banished the last filaments of my old self. Vets (the public face of my former self), a little like doctors, are inherently arrogant (even if they don’t know it, or don’t mean to be). It’s inevitable, because you have spent a life being told you are smart, you are successful, you are respected. Until you’re not.
A bit like a mother who is dismissed with a bored ‘oh’, when I disclosed to people that I was a PhD student, it was hard not to feel bruised by the slight (or often open) eye-rolling and inevitable How long have you been doing that? or Aren’t your finished yet? As though producing 100, 000 words of considered, researched and hopefully academically enriching writing is something you should have whipped up while the baby was napping, much like a pavlova (thanks so much Women’s Weekly for that extra pressure). These eye-rolls, groans, often hostile you’re the reason the system is struggling responses do little to assuage your own misgivings about the value of your research, how you are going to make a living if you ever finish, the guilt inherent in pursuing something as mentally, emotionally and time-consuming as postgraduate study while also being beholden to a family, let alone that mummy voice of “Who am I to speak?” that you started out with.
So do you see now? I am a stupid person. I naively believed that my former self (that confident, arrogant professional) would rally behind me and sweep away the timid mother I had become, but she is gone forever. In her place I fight against the imposter in me, an alter-ego that I am slowly learning to overcome. The light at the end of this rather morose and self-pitying tunnel? I did finish that PhD. Eventually. Though not until my children had started their orthodontic treatment. Bearing in mind that I began when I was pregnant with my first child you can make an educated guess as to how long that took. I don’t care if people know my age, instead, I undertook a PhD of a ‘certain duration’, and still feel slightly ashamed.
What I have learned? The imposter is never going to leave me, but neither will I let her run the show anymore. We stare at each other across the ring. She smirks, fists tensing, but I have trained, I have survived and I have reformed. Someone new. A hybrid. A chameleon, scarred and wiry.