I remember how excited my husband and I were when we heard we were expecting out first child about seven years ago. I’ve always wanted to be a mom. My pregnancy went smoothly; there were no complications until the day of the birth. Fourteen hours of labour and an emergency C-section later, we finally met our baby. The experience was almost surreal, but also overwhelming. Despite the antenatal weekend I’d attended with my husband, and all the parenting magazines and books I’d read before the birth, I was completely unprepared for the reality of having this precious addition to our family.
I have no idea what I’m doing
The feeling of, “I have no idea what I’m doing” started almost immediately. I thought breastfeeding would come naturally but my son wouldn’t latch, even after I consulted with a lactation specialist (a traumatic experience in itself!). He screamed every time it was time for a feed. I couldn’t assess whether he was getting enough milk, so I would supplement with formula. He wouldn’t nap in the day. He wouldn’t sleep at night. (Silent reflux was eventually the diagnosis.) I was sleep-deprived, my breasts were big and sore and every day with this little person made me feel more incompetent and unqualified to be his mother. When a paediatric chiropractor finally revealed he had a hyperflexed neck at five months old, the guilt I felt was indescribable.
I felt like I didn’t belong
When I attended a mom and baby group and saw how relaxed and ‘in control’ the other moms were, how they were still breastfeeding months after their babies’ births, I felt like a fraud. I fooled everyone into believing I was doing okay but I didn’t feel I belonged in this group of competent, put-together moms.
I looked forward to returning to work after maternity leave. I was eager for the adult conversation and mental stimulation. But my self-confidence had taken a knock during my maternity leave. I mean, how could I be relied upon to execute my work when I was failing so badly at being a mom?
Returning to work after maternity leave
The first few months post maternity leave were an emotional roller-coaster. I felt out of place and struggled to return to the rhythm of work pre-baby. No other new mom I knew spoke about feeling that way. The transition from career-woman to working mom was not a smooth one. I was alone in this … or so I thought.
The Imposter Syndrome
I first heard about Impostor Syndrome following the birth of my second son. (Yes, I managed to survive, just barely, up until that point!). An incident at work involving my then 19-month old son sparked a conversation with one of the senior women in the organisation, a mom of four teenagers. She spoke about the realities of being a working mother; the trade-offs and choices we need to make and how they impact our career trajectory. She said, “… there will be times in your career when you will feel like a fraud, like someone is going to figure out you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s called Impostor Syndrome.” I thought she was joking – I had never heard of this. Subsequent research revealed it’s been around since 1978!
What exactly is it?
Impostor Syndrome refers to “an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be”. It is a level of self-doubt that makes you feel like you are a fraud … like you don’t belong. According to research, at least 70% of people, specifically women, will feel like an impostor at some point in their lives. If it was so prevalent, I wondered, why was no one talking about it?!
There’s not enough emotional support for mom returning to work after maternity leave
The transition from career woman to working mother is such a guilt-ridden and emotional time for women and I don’t believe there is sufficient emotional support given to first-time moms in the transition back into the work place.
There are some organisations, especially in the United Kingdom, that do recognise this turning point in a woman’s life and offer maternity transition coaching (MTC). Anxiety, self-doubt and low self-confidence are topics that come up during discussions with coaches. For me, becoming a mom amplified those impostor feelings. MTC is still new to South Africa and has been used successfully by a number of companies. I know I would have gained so much had I been exposed to MTC during this transitional phase of my life.
When I finally understood it and how it had affected me, not only during the course of my career, but also through the motherhood transition, I made it my ‘mission’ to inform and educate women about it.
I have an entire workshop dedicated to the topic. But it really is about recognising what the triggers are for you and then implementing coping strategies that work for you. The impostor experience never really goes away, but it can be managed.
Here are some pointers:
- When feelings of “I’m a fraud” or “I don’t belong here” start, try to determine what the trigger for those feelings are. Is it whenever you’re in a new role i.e. unfamiliar territory like motherhood, or is it when you’re around certain types of people i.e. subject matter experts, for example? Once you identify the trigger, you can start working on addressing those feelings.
- Don’t believe everything you think about yourself. In other words, get some perspective. Just because you feel like a fraud, doesn’t mean you are. Remember, impostor feelings are just a voice in your head.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I have no idea whether the moms in the mom group I attended were keeping it all together on the surface, but dying on the inside as much as I was. I was comparing myself to what they were showing on the surface. I’ve realised most new moms feel overwhelmed and out of their depth. We just don’t talk about it because we feel so alone in that moment and don’t want to be found out as the only ‘fraud’ in the room.
- Be vocal about how you feel. The more we allow ourselves to be vulnerable about how we feel, the more we can support one another. I have three young children and there are still days when I feel like I’m not equipped to do this. I’ve cried in the school parking lot more than once and I’ve hugged other crying moms in the same parking lot, too. I’ve learned to talk about my feelings with other moms and it’s in those moments that I realise we’re all in this together. They often provide the perspective I need.
- Be kind to yourself. Perfectionism is not an ideal state. As women we often feel like failure is not an option. Constantly striving for perfection eventually leads to burnout, resentment, anxiety and depression. Recognise you’re doing the best you can – your partner still loves you and it’s okay if you don’t mash your own butternut for baby each day. You’re not a failure if you don’t get it 100% right all the time; you’re human.
If you’re reading this, I hope that, if you were feeling overwhelmed and inadequate in your new role as a working mom, there is a sense of relief for you. If your company is open to it, or if you can afford it yourself, consider getting a coach to help you through the transition. To find out more about MTC for your organisation, or to find out about more services offered by Purposeful Woman, you can go to www.purposefulwoman.co.za or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Despina Senatore:
Despina is a wife, mother of three young children and a career woman. Her passion for empowering women resulted in her spear-heading a number of initiatives at her previous employer, including: the implementation of a Mother’s Room, CEO membership with the 30% Club South Africa, and a women’s development programme. In July 2018, Despina took a courageous step and left her (comfortable) corporate career to start her own company, Purposeful Woman. She is the only certified trainer in South Africa of RenewYou, a unique, transformative international one-day personal development programme for women.
1 Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241-247. http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf
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