Alice Kingsley: I’m not slaying anything. I don’t slay, so put it out of your mind
The Mad Hatter: …Mind?
[Hatter stops, puts Alice down on a log, and continues walking]
Alice Kingsley: Wait! You can’t leave me here!
The Mad Hatter: You don’t slay? Do you have any idea what the Red Queen has done? You don’t slay.
Alice Kingsley: I couldn’t if I wanted to.
The Mad Hatter: You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more…”muchier.” You’ve lost your “muchness.”
Alice Kingsley: My “muchness”?
The Mad Hatter: [Points to Alice’s heart] In there—there’s something missing.
In Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland, this statement by the Mad Hatter is in response to Alice’s expression of her own doubts about whether she is truly the slayer or champion many of the characters around her assume she is. This exchange struck a chord that resonated loudly with me because I have personally experienced powerful self-doubt as the “imposter syndrome,” a phenomenon I learned about in graduate school. With my inner imposter in control, I too had lost my “muchness.”
Experiencing the Imposter Syndrome
In the past, when my imposter syndrome reared its ugly head, I found myself wondering whether I was truly capable of things others insisted I was. It has typically surfaced when I was feeling overwhelmed by some unexpected and seemingly impossible challenge. Because this challenge was frequently central to my interests and potentially linked to my identity, the emotions associated with thoughts of failure were hard to manage. For example, the academic in me took on my demanding graduate studies with either keen interest or stubborn determination to not get too far behind. However, when my final task, completing my dissertation, proved particularly challenging, a nagging doubt resurfaced that made me question whether I had made the right choice in pursuing this advanced degree. At this point I looked back at the pivotal experiences that both fostered and fueled my pursuits in graduate school and questioned whether I had not only fooled myself, but had also managed to fool my enthusiastic advisors and supervisors in my Clinical Psychology PhD program.
Whenever these doubts surfaced during writing efforts, I was forced to remind myself that moving three thousand miles away to complete my internship made any communication about my dissertation inherently difficult. This reminder allowed me to continue doing what seemed impossible and keep plugging away at my task.
Experiencing the Imposter Syndrome while Parenting a Child with Medical Needs
Unfortunately, while my doubts about my capabilities still hovered overhead, I experienced an event that shook my perception of my abilities and my priorities to the core: my second daughter experienced unexpected complications during her birth that severely compromised her immediate survival and long-term functioning. I placed my dissertation writing on hold and quickly accepted my new role by her bedside in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and as caretaker of her big sister’s adjustment, likely because these roles easily fit with my natural status as a mother. However, within weeks it became clear that her kidneys were taking longer than expected to recover and would require peritoneal dialysis at home. When I was told that I was going to be trained to administer my daughter’s life saving dialysis at home, imposter syndrome struck again, silently screaming in my head that it would be impossible because I was certainly not qualified to be a nurse, let alone a Clinical Child Psychologist!
After meeting another parent who had mastered the task for her son, I told my daughter’s doctors that I was willing to be trained, focusing on the fact that it would mean I could bring my daughter home as soon as possible. I could only run back and forth between my house, my older daughter’s preschool and the hospital for so long. However, I did not hesitate to inform her nurses that there were good reasons why I never even considered a medical degree, including the fact that I was too klutzy to administer any medical procedure successfully. True to form, I gave the nurses training me a good laugh when I shrieked with every slip of my fingers, fearing that I had compromised a sterile environment. Thankfully, I surprised myself and quieted my inner imposter when I eventually learned how to safely administer my daughter’s dialysis. However, around the time I had mastered this skill, my daughter’s additional neurological testing revealed a severe brain injury that ultimately prevented her from being a kidney transplant candidate, so her dialysis was stopped.
More than ready to get out of the hospital environment and just enjoy whatever time we had with my daughter off dialysis, I put on my new nurse’s hat and brought her home. Thankfully we had a Hospice Nurse checking in on us weekly, because my doubts about my ability to be my daughter’s nurse temporarily resurfaced when I lifted her from the changing pad and her nasogastric feeding tube was pulled out, accidentally wrapped around a knob on her dresser. Months later when she was discharged from hospice and we were on our own, despite months of experience with a feeding tube, I forgot to unclamp her newly placed gastric feeding tube and shot red acetaminophen out the medicine port all over her crib bumper. By then my inner imposter was powerless because I had learned to laugh at my own careless medical mistakes, especially when my folly was clearly not life threatening.
Fighting the Inner Imposter
Because we did not know how long my daughter was going to survive off dialysis, there was a strong pull to just spend time with my family and focus on my daughters’ needs. Fueled by this conflict, my inner imposter still strongly doubted my ability to finish my dissertation with my university’s final deadline fast approaching. However, watching my second daughter fight against the odds to be with us gave me the courage to follow suit and ultimately mute my inner imposter by armoring up for one final dissertation battle. In addition, because my second daughter gave me strength by example, I also wanted to set a good example for my older daughter, demonstrating that when faced with two seemingly insurmountable challenges, it is worth gathering your wits and facing the conflict head on, even when it is much easier to run away.
In the end, with the support of my family and friends behind the battle lines, I persevered and finished my dissertation long distance just under the wire. However, it was definitely not the crowning moment I had originally anticipated when I entered my PhD program. Instead, I essentially exchanged my armor for three letters—that I hope to be able to use one day—and proudly returned to caring for my children.
Right around the time I finished my degree, my second daughter rewarded my disciplined efforts by smiling for the first time, at nine months old. Although we knew that she was happy by the way she relaxed into our arms when we held her, her smile itself was a powerful lightning bolt that jumpstarted my sluggish worried heart. It instantly served to both reawaken my passion and develop a new mission: to find ways to face seemingly impossible challenges while still experiencing the small moments of joy that surface while fighting for a purpose.
With my daughter as a source of inspiration, I find I do not doubt myself as much. I am less likely to wave the white flag and more likely to put on the appropriate armor when I am confronted with a daunting new role, support task or even another invasive medical procedure that seems outside of my repertoire. Indeed, several years ago I once again had to put on my nurse’s hat to learn how to catheterize my daughter multiple times a day.
Silencing the Imposter
Facing challenges head on while parenting a child with special needs has consistently taught me to trust that, like my daughter, I have the ability to either overcome or adapt to new and inconceivable conditions with the support of my family and friends, both in and outside the special needs community. Furthermore, witnessing my daughter’s basic powerful fight to survive and enjoy her family sparked a similar ability to focus on, fight for, and appreciate even the smallest accomplishment that signifies progress in a meaningful direction. The discovery of this ability has not only made it easier to silence my inner imposter but also—in the words of the Mad Hatter—allowed me to once again find my “muchness.”