I don’t know anything about imposter syndrome

©careerusinterruptus.com

Really. What could I possibly have to say about it? Nothing, obviously. Many people, smarter and better-researched, have written far better posts and probably books about imposter syndrome, than I ever could.

Although, I can tell you that academia is an excellent place to contract it. Brains are the name of the game, and it’s easy to feel like an idiot when you’re surrounded by smart people, with faster processing and/or better memories, who have read more and/or who just happened to have read that one crucial item that undermines your whole idea.

And in my experience, the vast majority of scholars are combative as all get-out. They’re dying to show that they know something you don’t, to challenge both the content of what you have to say and your right to say it. They’d much rather be right, than kind. Whether this stems from a terrier-like commitment to intellectual rigor, love of battle, competition fostered by a shrinking sector, plain old insecurity, or all of the above, is hard to say, but meeting the rare scholar who lifts rather than digs really highlights how keen everyone else is to put you in your intellectual place.

If you have even a skerrick of intellectual OE – that burning desire to know – this culture kicks you pretty regularly in what’s already a sore spot: the painful awareness that you will never learn all that you want to. That realisation, when I was about six, was my first true grief. Like any proper grief, the pain has never completely gone, so every time someone bopped me with something I didn’t know, it throbbed. That happens often enough, you start to wonder what, if anything, you do know, and what the hell you’re doing there. When my office-mate even challenged my sadness over a colleague’s death (“Did you really know him, though?”), I began to feel that perhaps my entire existence needed peer-reviewing to be legit. Okay, I didn’t really feel that. I just felt an enormous disconnect, a terrific sense that I was not a real academic. I did not belong there.

Of course, I knew that was imposter syndrome speaking, but everyone has that, don’t they? Heck, I even read an interview where Michelle Obama talked about it. She said, you get over imposter syndrome when you realise that those people aren’t that smart, after all. Hm, maybe — IF YOU’RE MICHELLE FREAKING OBAMA! I’m not that smart. Obviously.

But a funny thing happened after I left academia: Parenthood. I definitely knew nothing about that, so like a proper swot I researched my arse off, becoming more and more confused as book after book failed to describe anything remotely like what was going on in my house. Not how I saw the world, not my values, not how my kids behaved. (Free tip: don’t ever get me started on reward charts.)

Eventually, though, through reading, I found my way to teh gifted. (‘Back’ to teh gifted, I should say, since I was identified as a kid.) And these people! Oh, my goodness. Smart. Funny. Sensitive. Snarky. Passionate. Ambivalent. Crusading. And wrestling with the same issues: the screaming, the kids who’d happily die (DIE, I tell you!) before giving in to any authority they perceive as arbitrary, the anxiety, the perfectionism, the stubborn, the under-achievement, the big, tender hearts, the burning thirst for knowledge (STRICTLY on their own terms), the … imposter syndrome. Oh, yeah. I’d found my tribe.

I still don’t think I’m that smart. I’m pretty much always convinced that everyone is smarter than I am. Everyone has achieved more, done more, read more, and for sure, knows more about just about everything, than I do. I frequently wonder whether perhaps we’re not gifted, just, you know, really emotionally dysregulated, over-thinky, and a bit useless. There are 6yos out there who do calculus for fun, for goodness sake, while my kids at 11 and 13 spuriously insist they can’t tell time – and will hold their breath to prove it!

The lovely thing about the gifted/2e tribe is, they get that. There’s no pissing contest about whose kid is more gifted or whether you’ve read Silverman, Tolan or Merrill. We all know we are learning on a job where there’s no union, no OH&S, and no damn tea-breaks. We don’t really have a clue what’s going on (because these kids mix signals like nobody’s business) or if we do have a clue, we remember all too well the bruises from our own days of seeking.

So we tootle along, sharing, laughing, and crying, and when someone wobbles, wondering what the hell they’re doing there when their 13yo has read nothing but the same two book series over and over for the past TWO YEARS, they all just laugh, empathise, proffer gin and if you’re after it, advice. It’s that recognition that saves my sanity, every time. The knowing laughs when I complained about starting this very column two months early and twelve different times, the women offering the balm of their likeness, rather than a reference to fix that.

Sure, I have a long way to go to guru-dom. I should definitely read more University Press books, especially about giftedness, homeschooling, and being a good human, instead of books with curly embossed titles and drawings of teapots and frocks on the front. But I don’t, because my brain hurts from living it, and because I’ve come to realise that actually, that’s all the expertise I need, to write about what happens in my house. I do get us. And as long as I’m sharing something that might give you a glimmer of recognition, of connection, of feeling less alone in your confusion, then I’m on the right track. Perfectly entitled to my position and right to speak it.

Just don’t look to me as any sort of authority.

It’s a freaking miracle

©careerusinterruptus. Original art by CraftyFish

Have you noticed how, in order for a miracle to occur, a whole lot of smaller miracles have to line up first?

At time of writing, I’m 13 years and 17 minutes into a 2020 Mother’s Day miracle.

Which is to say: I’m in my home, alone, for the first time in at least 138 days. My first time alone, at all, in 56 days.

You cannot imagine how miraculous this is.

For this to happen, everyone in our house and the grandparents had to stay well through the first wave of COVID-19. Australia’s curve had to flatline and the Queensland government had to decide to allow the first tentative lifting of restrictions.

Quite apart from all that, we needed a whole string of tiny, personal miracles right here at home: we had to casually broach the idea of the Skeptic taking the kids to see their Omi without me, yesterday, mentioning it a time or two, so that no one felt either surprised or pressured by the idea.

Then the kids had to get to sleep at a decent hour. (This itself involved the miracle of CraftyFish having recently decided she does like reading after all, and choosing Harry Potter rather than a kung-fu rave haka for her pre-bedtime activity.)

They had to wake at a decent hour, too, not so early they felt tired and incapable but early enough to have a solid hour acclimating to Earth, before The Skeptic tried to move them out of the house. They had to be willing to go. This is always the most precarious moment, given that separation anxiety has its cruel claws deep in my kids’ psyches, entwined in their guts, and if I haven’t had any time off in 56 days, well, neither have they.

Spare me your ‘Mummies have needs, too’.

Of course we do. Gimme some credit, darl. I’ve been playing this gig for 13 years now and I was two hundred years old when I started. I’m fully aware of my needs – and of my kids’ need to learn independence and blah blah you know what? Hush up. I have been there, tried that. Bought the t-shirt so long ago, it’s now only good for gently polishing my gin bottles.

Because here’s the kicker: you know that thing about alcoholics, junkies, and bad relationships? About how, no matter what you know and however good your intentions, the person you want to help, has to want to change? Well, guess what? CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE TOO. Just like adults, they have to want to change – or at least, not be primed to full-body-contact fight to the death every single idea that didn’t originate in their own stubborn-as-fuck brains. And they will never, ever be un-primed if they’re feeling pushed.

Trying to get my kids to separate before they were ready has, over the past 13 years, earned me backlash you cannot imagine. I know that because in all that time I’ve only ever met one momma who said, “aw hell, backlash, I hear ya hon, pass the gin”. If you’re not that one momma, you’ll have to wait for the book. Meanwhile, please trust me when I say it took every minute of those 13 years for me to learn to leave it the fuck alone. My kids did not get their SAF genes from nowhere, no ma’am, so for years – YEARS – I pushed and they pushed back and I pushed harder and they threw things and I screamed and everybody cried. And then the next time I needed a bit of space, we’d do it all again.

Until I figured out that the struggle was not about my kids, it was about me. It’s about fighting my fear that they won’t ever get there and accepting that they’re doing the best they can. It’s about trusting that it is okay not to fight them. That it is not, in fact, my job to ‘make them’ anything, but to open the door and keep calm until they’re ready to go through it themselves. That last bit – the keeping calm part? That, my friends, is the fight, and I’m thrilled that these days, it’s one I’ve kinda sorta mostly mastered.

Not all the time, of course. I had a little cry about it last night, truth be told. Come on. 56 days without a break, and the chance that I still might not get the space I so desperately craved? ‘Course I cried. Duh. But just a little, and only at hubby. Does this make me some kind of patron saint of maternal patience? HELL, NO. Go back and re-read the part about the screaming and the throwing things. And the bit about the backlash. This is nothing to do with sanctity, and everything to do with practicing a hard-won skill.

But the fact that I’ve mostly got it – that I’ve learned (slowly, painfully) not to lose my shit when I’m not getting my needs met; to show my kids respect and tolerance instead of panic and anger; to not try and force them meet my needs; to instead nurse myself until I catch a break (to trust that I will catch a break, eventually); to let them know that sometimes, needs aren’t met immediately and while that’s no fun, it’s survivable; to be, in short, strong enough to hold space for them and show them how to do that – coming from where I was, that is a very big miracle indeed, 13 years in the making.

I would not be this person, without my kids. That’s the miracle.

Happy Mother’s Day, me.

The fear/anyway post

© careerusinterruptus.com

Two months ago, I was pounding out my next novel. Six chapters, bang bang bang. Every spare minute, the words flowed without repetition, deviation, or hesitation. I knew what was coming and whenever I sat down, there it was, just as every writer dreams.

Then, COVID slammed that door shut.

I’ve heard the same thing from many friends and in writers’ groups online. They can’t write. Not now.

Of course, it’s because anxiety. (Hello, you old bastard.) Once you’ve opened the door to imagination, who knows what will come waltzing through? Under this kind of existential stress, what-ifs turn fairly quickly from playful to perturbing: instead of characters’ voices, you hear sinister whispers: past hurts, failures, foretellings of disaster.

Even blogging, which is less about the what-ifs and more about the what-happeneds, involves more thought than I care for right now, since these days every damn thing – a meal, a hug, a walk round the park – has to be overthought; all the emotions are already overwrought. Please, don’t ask me to dwell.

So that sucker was nailed shut, I thought, for the duration.

Then last night, a good old-fashioned panic attack. I used to get lots, pre-kids, sometimes clustered closely enough to shed 10kg through stress alone. Post-kids (now that I have 10kg I’d love to shed), they’ve been faint, few, and far between. And although I’d like to claim new-found wisdom, in fact I think I’ve just been too bloody tired to muster up the adrenaline for a proper freakout.

But there I was, at three in the morning – just like old times – awake, mind racing with all the usual garbage, this time COVID-themed: I haven’t been careful enough, we’re all going to die and it will be ALL MY FAULT. Cue a mental re-run of every mistake I’ve ever made, all the way back to the secret I told Carla Wells in 1975. (Why, yes, I AM being completely rational and this global pandemic IS all about me, thanks for asking.)

Cheers, brain.

Well, I’ve been down this hole before. It doesn’t fool me like it used to, and anyway I’m still pretty frickin’ tired, so this time, the shock-waves didn’t leave me gasping. Just awake, and annoyed. I mean, who needs this shit?

And then I thought, well, clearly I do.

Because while I’ve been feeding monkey-brain – reading, listening and talking, trying so hard to keep up – I’ve dropped the self-care ball. Meds have been muddled, sleep slipped, sunshine skipped, veggies eschewed, exercise excused. No wonder I feel like shit about myself, I’ve been treating me abominably. I need outside, movement, sleep, more greens, less caffeine.

Above all, I need to let some words out. Writing has always been the best, the kindest thing I can do for myself; it probably sounds counter-intuitive, but writing escapes my brain. It makes sense of all the words pouring in. The flow found in writing relieves pressure, finds paths, forges meaning. Without it, inside my head becomes hopelessly overgrown and tangled – a mean and scary place.

Scarier, even, than opening that door to find out what I really think.

I wasn’t going to COVID blog. I figured, likely nobody needs any more of that. But it turns out, I do. Scary as it is, I need to write my way through this.

So bear with me. Better yet, join me. Let’s figure this shit out. What do your fears look like?