My 5-year-old son’s glasses are on their last leg. He has a backup pair – frames in a nice green we bought months ago for just this reason – but surprise! I can’t find them.
Rooting around in drawers, I take note of the clutter I find and start berating myself for my lack of organization. By the end of the morning, I find myself sucked into a vortex of parenting shame, convinced I’m not competent enough to be in charge of another person.
I can’t handle this, I think to myself. I am not good enough to do this job.
There’s a thing called “imposter syndrome,” named by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to describe people who secretly feel they aren’t intelligent or capable despite evidence in the form of high achievement. “Imposters” fear being found out and exposed for the phonies they secretly feel themselves to be. People with imposter syndrome (often high-achieving women) tend to attribute their successes to luck or their ability to fool others instead of to inherent talent.
The term usually applies to achievement at work. But I think I have it for parenting.
Here I am, pretending to be an adult capable of managing the care and development of another human being. And yet internally, I’m the emotional equivalent of a pair of toddlers stacked up underneath a trench coat. Despite the evidence that I am doing this parenting thing, day by day, I feel barely capable of taking care of myself, much less a child.
Parenting lends itself to crippling self-doubt. It’s the long-term results that really matter, after all, and we won’t know how those turn out for decades. The job itself is so vast, the goals so ambitious: handle all the needs of another person while preparing them to be a productive citizen of the world. Is it any wonder I sometimes suspect I am not adequate for the task?
And as a foster and then adoptive mother, I’ve had more training than most. I had to complete hours of coursework to prepare for parenthood. I had to undergo a medical examination, and a “home study” to make sure my radiators were covered and my cleaning supplies were out of reach. I had to answer probing question about my past and my psyche. I did worksheets and took classes that prepared me for the worst possible outcomes of dealing with a troubled child.
But at the end of the day, we all just get handed a kid. All first-time parents are attempting to excel at a job we’ve never done before. And some days, I feel like a fraud.
It doesn’t help that in a world of Pinterest crafts and elaborate back-to-school photo shoots on Facebook, I’m likely to compare my insides to other people’s outsides. While I’m paddling as hard as I can to keep my head above water, I can look at other parents and assume they’ve got it effortlessly together.
Before I got sober from alcohol in 2009, I used to look around and feel that everyone else had gotten a manual that I had somehow missed. They understood how to do things that felt insurmountably difficult to me ― things like how to join a gym and then attend it, or how to open their mail regularly.
Today, as a sober mom, I feel pretty much the same way about parenting. I do not inherently know the rules ― how often is he allowed to eat french fries? Is It OK to let him wear his pajama pants outside? I still feel like I’m struggling to catch up to the parents who know what they’re doing.
It never occurs to me that everyone else might be feeling the same way.
The thing is, there is no way to do parenting perfectly. Some days it’s hard to even do it well. Life with kids is alternately chaotic, joyful, exasperating and mind-numbingly boring. Maybe I’m not that good at it. Probably I’m doing better than I think in low moments, as people who love me would undoubtedly say.
But the important thing is that I don’t let the idea that I might not be good enough paralyze me with fear, or lead me into anxiety and depression, but instead keep moving forward, one doing-my-damn-best decision at a time. Even if my drawers are cluttered and we never find those glasses.