‘I thought: “Everyone knows you’re not a real mum”’ – the pain of parental impostor syndrome

·11 min read

Feeling like a fraud is bad enough at work but even more corrosive when it comes to raising a family. How can parents overcome damaging self-doubt?

As a mother to three boys, there are many days when I question the decisions I make. Sometimes, the weight of that – the idea your child’s wellbeing and happiness rests with you – can feel crippling. At the same time, we are bombarded by parents publicising their own pride in their offspring’s achievements on Instagram and Facebook and in WhatsApp groups, meaning it’s easy to feel as if everyone else knows what they’re doing.

The idea that people sometimes feel like impostors at work is often discussed. Yet the parental impostor syndrome many people have – that they are faking it, and will never cut it as a parent – is seldom acknowledged.

The psychologist Linda Blair explains: “In 1996, two psychotherapists came up with the concept of impostor syndrome, loosely defining it as doubting your abilities and not feeling good enough. There is a lot of research around impostor syndrome at work, and this falls under that same umbrella. Now I am hearing about this a lot more in clinic, partly because of social media, and ‘fakebook’ parents.”

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.

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.

‘It was as if I had fake written on my forehead’ … Ranee and her husband, Sam, who have two adopted children.
‘It was as if I had fake written on my forehead’ … Ranee and her husband, Sam, who have two adopted children. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“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 her 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 normalises.”

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.”

Lucille lives in Suffolk and has five children. It’s hard to imagine someone with so much parenting experience could feel as if she were a “fake” who could be found out – but, she says, social media often leaves her feeling that she is not good enough. “I’m my own worst enemy because my impostor syndrome is self-imposed,” she says. “It’s so easy to scroll through perfect Facebook photos and Instagrammable moments and forget that a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. And nobody has everything that sorted.

“Growing up, I wanted children more than I wanted to breathe, so five children – and nine miscarriages later – in a lot of ways this is everything I dreamed of, but I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel like I’ve achieved enough.”

Blair says this is something she has heard before. “It is the job of social media to present your best face, so we get a skewed version of parenting,” she says. “One of the things I advise is to try to limit social media, or complement it with face-to-face conversation with other parents. This way you will get a real picture of what is going on, and people are more likely to be honest.”

Lucille is a jewellery designer and lives with chronic pain owing to a medical condition. Her husband works long hours, meaning much of the parenting falls to her. She is also home schooling her youngest because he is at risk of anaphylaxis. “For most of our waking hours, it’s me, myself and five. People look at me in horror when I tell them this, but it works for us.”

What has put everything into context, she says, is not just time, but the tough situations they have weathered. “Over the past 18 months, we nearly lost Elijah to his anaphylaxis, we all caught Covid twice – and my eldest, Alex, found an unexplained lump in his arm, which gave us an awful scare. The fear at times has been unreal, but, as a parent, all these challenges have helped me realise that I can hold it together through just about anything.

“With five children, I’ve had a chance to learn from my mistakes. I know that I can deal with just about anything thrown at me – but that doesn’t mean I feel like I’m nailing it. I just try my best.”

Blair points out that being a parent doesn’t necessarily get easier, even with several children: “Many techniques you learn are only temporary. They may work at first, but then children grow, circumstances change, and they stop being effective. You have to learn to forgive yourself because they change.”

My husband, Adnan, is 56. He wanted to make it clear that it’s not just mothers who can feel like impostors in their home life. “I had the fairytale illusion of what I’d be like as a dad,” he says. “When our first child was born, I had images of all this stuff we’d do together. It didn’t include pictures of sleepless nights, or every item of clothing being covered in snot and yoghurt.”

He also says it doesn’t get any easier with more children, because each child will have a different personality requiring different methods of parenting. “There’s a fine line between child management, focusing on health and safety, and being a present dad, trying to listen to all their voices,” he says.

“No one explains that you’re their protector as well as the person meeting their hygiene factors, feeding them, listening to playground politics and building their confidence. You’re the person who is the narrative in their head about how great they are.”

Adnan says that though he doesn’t compare himself with other parents, he still finds it hard to shake the fairytale that is firmly in his head, and compared with which he always comes up short. “The continuous refereeing, and the delegate decision-making goes beyond anything I’ve done in the workplace.

“I keep asking myself ‘Am I equipped to deal with this?’ I’m a father, a counsellor, a coach, autocratic and democratic. There’s also something about being a parent in your 50s: you don’t have the physicality of your 30s.”

Blair, who raised three children herself, says her advice in these circumstances is to spend time with each child on their own. “Find a way, every month, or week, to have an hour with just one child, one on one. Go to a cafe after school or something like that. They will remember that beyond everything else. I used to do this with my children, and it was just magic.”

Adam, 61, moved to the UK from Zambia eight years ago with his wife and their three children. Adam’s wife is an architect and spends much of her time in Zambia, while he stays at their home in Carterton in Oxfordshire to look after the children.

“I had my first child at 46, and I have a 20-year-old daughter who was five when I married her mum, and who I adopted when she was eight,” he says.

“Coming to the UK, I quickly started to feel inferior to other, usually much younger parents who seemed to be effortlessly successful in everything – careers, family, etc, and this continues.

“On a practical level there was plenty of help in the early years in Zambia, nannies were easily available, and there was lots of open space.”

In his calmer moments, Adam can be realistic about his own skills. “I do believe that I have done a reasonable job. The kids are all, thankfully, well adjusted, reasonably hard working, very sociable.”

Yet he says he is haunted at other times by thoughts that he could be doing so much better for his children.“Because I came to fatherhood later on and because we were mostly so far away I never really had the chance to share my experiences of parenting with my contemporaries here, so when we came to the UK most of them had moved on, with kids at university, and I felt quite alone. I have been suffering with depression on and off for 25 years and it often manifests itself through crippling lack of self-esteem.

“My children are truly wonderful. I like to think they would tell you that I am ‘the best dad ever’ – it’s just that often I seem unable to accept that myself.”

Blair agrees. “We need to figure out our unique identity. When we grasp this, everything becomes easier. We think we have to live to other people’s rules but then we feel inadequate when we don’t meet the mark. All the parenting books are templates. You have to invent your own way of parenting, because every child is unique.

“‘Good enough parenting’ theory is a great way of looking at things,” she says. “Perfect parents don’t actually produce the best children. The mistakes we make give our children space to grow into better adults, things to rebel against, and it helps them forge their personality.”

The psychotherapist Philippa Perry says that as a society we have become a lot more self-obsessed, putting ourselves at the centre of the relationship instead of our children, which is unhelpful. “We all love our children but what we need to do is respect them. We kid ourselves if we think that we have control. We haven’t got control, but what we do have is control over how we behave, and we need to behave in an authentic and respectful manner with our children. We need to be partners in our endeavours. Respect your children’s time and respect each other.”

Exhaustion can make us forget that we are no longer the most important people in our world. For those of us privileged to be parents, maybe we just need to simplify things as we navigate life alongside the little people entrusted to us, and see ourselves through their eyes.

The London-based therapist Michelle Qureshi has some words of wisdom, too. “Accept yourself as a human, ditch the comparing with other parents, say to yourself: ‘Overall I do a good job, and they do, too.’ Don’t let your self-doubt define you, let yourself enjoy your own parenting style, whatever that may be.”