Impostor syndrome and being stretched too thin

Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.

Emily* is married with two girls aged 18 months and 16 years, and works in communications. We spoke about building a meaningful career, impostor syndrome and the very real challenges of balancing work, care, and relationships.

Crafting a career despite adversity

What are you most proud of?

“My career. I wasn’t presented with many opportunities to further my education during my upbringing, but I pursued the career I wanted and ended up exactly where I wanted to be.”

Emily had to drop out of university to support her family, and faced financial challenges that slowed her education.

“To get where I am today, I had to do things a lot slower and carry myself. I had to work multiple jobs, pay for diplomas up front (because there’s no HECS for those things), I had to pay rent, I had to support my family with paying for groceries. Whereas everyone I grew up with had the opposite.”

Impostor syndrome ramps up for new mums

Despite building a successful career for herself and overcoming hardships from her childhood, now that she has a one year old Emily battles with confidence.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

“Balancing a career and a baby. Having confidence in myself. I feel like I have imposter syndrome. Even when I’m doing well and I know I’m successful, I still feel like I don’t belong and I’m not good enough.”

Her feelings of impostor syndrome increased after having a baby (her oldest daughter is her step daughter).

“[Because of my upbringing] I’ve always feeling like I had to work harder than others to succeed. Since having my baby, that has amplified. 95% of my brain is occupied by her and the other 5% is work. I feel like I have to work so hard to do that 5% to the standard I would expect!”

“I feel like I don’t belong, because I’m so focused on something outside of work. It’s hard to balance that and it’s really hard to let go of being a mum when you’re at work.”

“I absolutely love my job, my career, those I work with, but I feel like I’m not doing enough and I have to work so much harder just to get to the baseline of [performance} I used to have.”

Despite her colleagues and boss saying she’s performing to a high level, Emily worries she’s dropped behind where she was pre-baby. It’s common for women to feel that they are falling behind – even when their performance is strong according to colleagues and supervisors.

In fact, the Motherhood Penalty shows that women take between 5 and 10 years post birth to recover their pre-child earnings, and mothers are more likely to be perceived as unambitious and not-committed.

For Emily, her work environment helps her with overcoming her feelings of impostor syndrome.

“You feel like a complete idiot, because you don’t sleep and then you spend all your time thinking about your child! Working with such a successful organisation that is so supportive of me and my career does help. It helps that I work for someone who’s constantly reminding me that I deserve to be here and it wasn’t just a favour.”

Being stretched too thin

How are you feeling right now about your ability to meet the demands of both your work and your family?

“Truthfully, not great. I feel stretched very thin. I feel like I’m failing both fronts at the moment, and I have a constant feeling of inadequacy.

“I have two girls I need to care for who need very different kinds of love and attention. And I definitely don’t pay enough attention to my husband. In my priority list of things and people, he’s at the bottom, and that makes me feel terrible.”

“I feel guilty at work worrying maybe I’m not pulling my weight and letting my team down. I’d rather be at home with my kids, but when I’m at home I’m thinking about work when I really should be in the moment with my daughter.”

“I want to be present at home, and I want to be present at work, and it’s really hard to compartmentalise the two. From the moment I get home to the moment she goes to sleep I’m with [my baby]. We are joined at the hip. Then by the time she goes to sleep, I’m exhausted. I’ve had this mental load all day of work, parenting. Then 8pm comes and my brain can’t function anymore and that’s the time I’m supposed to focus on my husband. Or Often I’ll pick up my laptop to see if there’s anything I missed for the next day.”

What do you wish more people understood about the experience of being a working mother?

“How hard it is. The mental toll of being a mum and carrying not just a household but also a small human whose existence completely depends on you.”

“I also wish more people understood and talked about a mothers mental health post-babies. It surprised me how common post-natal depression and anxiety is. A new mum might be returning to work with a smile on her face, but a lot of the time is struggling more than you think.”

“So many times I have seen mothers punished for not being able to work full-time hours, have their position levels downgraded, or judged for taking so much sick leave because daycare is the worst [for passing germs around kids]. Well guess what, being a parent is a full-time job – it is all-consuming. People need to recognise that.”

Career advice to live by

Especially post-baby, Emily is grateful for her current hugely supportive workplace. Overcoming the challenges of post natal anxiety, working and caring for a baby really highlighted to her what truly matters. When asked what advice she’d give to her younger self, she shared,

“Don’t kill yourself working for people that don’t value you.”

“When you do find that place where you are valued, when you wake up every morning actually wanting to go to work and caring about the people you work with and the work you want to do, and it genuinely brings you joy, you realise how much time you wasted working for people who are awful and don’t deserve your energy and time. Don’t settle for less, you’re worth more.”

You don’t have to do it all alone

If you’re feeling impostor syndrome, or struggling with work post-baby, you don’t have to figure it all out alone. Chances are, someone else before you has felt exactly the same way, and you can learn from their experiences.

If you want some help feeling like you’re top of your game again, let’s have a chat about my coaching services and how I might be able to help.

*Not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the fact that the state of women’s relationships directly affects the state of their lives and careers, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

If you would like to share your story, please send me a message!

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