Parental Impostor Syndrome

It’s one thing to pretend when you are a child, quite another when you are a mature adult trying to pretend you are the parent (though actually you are) of your adopted child. An article in The Guardian caught my attention – “Everyone knows you’re not a real mum.”

The parental impostor syndrome some adoptive parents have – that they are faking it, and will never cut it as a parent – is seldom acknowledged. The concept of an impostor syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and not feeling good enough. There are certainly quite a lot of adoptees who have felt they were not good enough in their adoptive parents perspective.

Ranee, 52, lives in south-west London with her husband and their two adopted children. Ranee is of Sri Lankan heritage and her husband’s family are from Mauritius. Because of this, it took a long time for them to be matched with their children as many councils are keen to match the ethnic backgrounds of potential parents and children.

Ranee says, “It was as if I had fake written on my forehead.”

During that time, Ranee and her husband went through a rigorous vetting process, yet when the process was complete and they were a family with children, she felt disoriented by how much she didn’t know. “I remember walking into the playground and thinking, ‘Everyone knows you’re not a real mum,’” she says, upon taking her five-year-old to school for the first time. “It was as if I had a siren above me, or ‘fake’ written on my forehead. Just trying to talk to parents on a playdate, or wondering what other kids would eat was tricky. My children were really picky eaters, and all of this made me think I didn’t know what I was doing.”

She says she had done courses and read books to try to prepare, but nothing quite readied her for the experience of becoming a parent. “I didn’t have any mum friends and I’d gone straight from working to being a stay-at-home mum. I kept thinking, ‘Does everyone feel like this? Is this how it is?’”

Ranee, a food photographer, says now that the adoption is completed, her impostor syndrome has largely gone. “Occasionally it comes back when we’re dealing with school issues, but I now have a network of friends who have also adopted and that has helped me gain some perspective.”

As well as the fact that she and her husband went from a couple to parents of two in one day, Ranee thinks anxiety about whether she was doing things “right” played a big role in feeling like an impostor. “I sometimes felt as if there was a model parent out there, but I learned to lower my expectations, and understood that my children don’t know any different. I now subscribe to ‘good enough’ parenting. I know I will make mistakes and I have to forgive myself and not get het up.

“I used to want to run out of the playground and hide under the bed. But I’ve learned that you just have to set your own standard. Trust that you will be a great parent, and fight your children’s corner. One day you’ll fail, the next day you’ll feel less of a failure, and so on, until it normalizes.” Years later, she says, things look very different. “I have two amazing kids who are teenagers, and I know they will forge their own lives, and I just want them to be happy.”

And parenting it doesn’t get any easier with more children, because each child will have a different personality requiring different methods of parenting. My sons certainly teach me that lesson all the time. One keeps to himself a lot but will eat anything I cook. The other one is socially outgoing but a very picky eater, I say he is a purest. And there’s something about being a parent in your 50s and 60s, you don’t have the physicality of your 20s or 30s.

When I was having lots of challenges with my older child, I realized it was a cry for attention. He had “lost” me to his younger brother who understandably needed nursing and diaper changing. When I realized this, I swapped with my husband when we were out with the family and even at home, spending one-on-one time with the older boy and the problems turned around very quickly.

We think we have to live up to other people’s examples but that can make us feel inadequate. All the parenting books are suggestions but you have to invent your own way of parenting, because every child is unique. Good enough parenting is a good goal. The mistakes we make give our children space to grow into better adults, things to rebel against, and it helps them forge their personality. We love our children but what is more important is to respect them. 

Don’t let your self-doubt define you. Enjoy your own parenting style because it allows you to display your authenticity to your children and gives them permission to have their own style.

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