Monday, September 29, 2014

Life as a phony fraud

This article titled "8 Practical Steps to Getting Over Your Impostor Syndrome" showed up on my Facebook feed today (shared by Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, which you should "like" if you're a girl or someone who appreciates smart girls), so I clicked on it.

Why? Because I didn't believe impostor syndrome was an actual thing and I wanted to get to the punchline.
A dog trying to be a person.
But there was no punchline. It's a thing. 

From Wikipedia
Impostor syndrome ... is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
And though it's not officially in the DSM, psychologists and other sciencey sorts "acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self doubt."

A princess trying to be a pirate.
Anyway, I'm pretty sure I have it. 

And not just me. I could name a whole slew of women who feel like (but aren't!) frauds. While the articles on Impostor Syndrome focus on professionals, I have to say that I know plenty of mothers who fit this description.
  • According to the pediatrician, our children are "growing beautifully" on the curve, yet we don't hear this as affirmation that we feed them well, instead focusing on what picky eaters they are and how they run in terror at the sight of a vegetable.
  • According to the strangers we pass at the grocery store, our children are adorable and/or well-bahaved, yet all we focus on is the cream cheese crusted on their upper lip or the tantrum they through 5 minutes ago. "They're not always like this," we reply. And while we blame ourselves for every millisecond of bad behavior, we fail to see our impact on their moments of sweetness and kindness to others.
  • According to the fact that they come over to our house, our friends might actually enjoy coming over to our house, yet we tell ourselves that they are probably judging the smallness of the house, our lack of decorating prowess, the stains on the carpet and the fuzzy spots on our kitchen floor. We never take their presence as a sign of affirmation, but rather a reminder of what is lacking or what still needs to be done.  
  • According to friends and family members, we are great moms. Our kids are lucky to have us. But we know (we KNOW!) just how mistaken they are. That if they only heard how often we explode at our kids or saw how much time we spent focused on our smartphones rather than on tending to their needs, they'd finally understand how terrible we actually are at this job. 
  • According to our kids, who offer unsolicited hugs, who crave being close to us, who miss us when we're not in earshot or eyesight, who love our macaroni and cheese (even if it's from a box) and who tell us so earnestly and often that they love us, we are more than adequate as mothers. Yet, we still think we're not good enough for them. Somehow not worthy enough.
Step two of "8 Practical Steps to Getting Over Your Impostor Syndrome" reads "When you receive positive feedback, embrace it with objectivity and internalize it. By denying it, you are hurting that person's judgement."

So each time I second-guess my friends, family, my own children -- roll my eyes at their compliments and offer only obligatory thanks without really believing it, I'm second-guessing their judgement. Devaluing their opinion.

And they're smart, competent people. The type of people I emulate. Maybe the type of people I already am. 

Of course, motherhood isn't the only place I'm often convinced I'm a fraud.

A baby trying to be a bunny.
My friend Beth* edited the first draft of my manuscript. She offered so much helpful feedback -- commenting on the sections she thought worked really well, highlighting areas of dialogue or scenes that made her laugh or cry, pointed out my overuse of dashes and underuse of commas and offered aha! fixes to awkward transitions and attributions. 

And she was so generous and supportive when she finished the whole story:
"Thank you for trusting me with your beautiful story, Sue! I love the parallels you’ve created—that seeing Daniel’s wasted life inspires Eleanor to seize hers, that the life growing in Mo carries her through the life she lost, that everyone has to decide in the end to let go of what is holding them back. It’s a story that sticks with people, one that we can all relate to…"
But. (Us frauds are always looking for the buts … we actually mentally fill in the 
'buts' before anyone ever gets a chance to add their own buts. We're kinda know-it-alls about buts) But, it wasn't perfect. 

That's not actually at all what Beth said. 

What Beth did was offer totally legitimate, constructive and spot-on advice on how to make the story stronger. 

What my brain did was morph that advice (the advice I'd asked for, by the way) into confirmation that I was a terrible writer. That the whole first part of her note where she was affirming my work, was just the pat on the head you give an incompetent person for their "effort." The latter part of the email, the part I fixated on, reflected her true feelings about my work, which was that I was redundant and had "had problem" (i.e. It would help the narrative to use a more active voice). 

Now, the former editor in me and the objective Sue knows that all her suggestions are manageable. That she's not calling for a complete overhaul of the story structure, but rather that I do some thoughtful editing to help the narrative move along at a better pace. 

The neurotic wannabe novelist in me spent the last week avoiding eye contact with my manuscript. And actually feeling embarrassed, mortified even that I'd shared it with anyone. I considered telling another friend to just stop reading it altogether so that he wasn't wasting his time. 

Who am I kidding, right? I'm not a writer.

A fake writer trying to be Cousin It.
Again, objective Sue understands this sounds extreme. And believe me, I'm not sharing this to beg for anyone's praise or reassurance. By now, it should be clear that I probably wouldn't believe anything you had to say, anyway. I'll work on that.

I'm sharing because my site's called "My Inside Voices" and my inside voices seemed an appropriate topic -- especially since my gut tells me that so many of us experience these same feelings.

"By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence. … Most people don't talk about it. Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out." ("Feel like a Fraud?"

The feelings we suffer in silence are the ones we should talk about. So here we are. 

When I read my short story back in August, one of the other winners approached me at the end of the event and told me about an open-mic he was hosting in Lancaster for fiction writers. He suggested I come and read something. 

In that moment … despite the fact that I've been writing stories for as long as I can remember … I felt like I was finally part of the tribe. For a minute. 

Just like on those days when my girls eat their dinners, clean up their toys and go to bed without extra shenanigans, I feel like I'm doing alright as a mom. So, you can guess how often that is.

Anyway, as I was writing this post I got a note from Beth:  

"So I know you and Eleanor* are taking a break, but I can't stop thinking of your story and I really, really want you to promise not to give up on it."

Some people make it really hard to be an impostor.

* just told me my copy of Beth's first book "Pack of Dorks" shipped today! If you have any 8 to 12 year olds or appreciate great writing regardless of genre, you should check it out.  

** Eleanor is the protagonist in my story. I should probably let Beth know we got back together. I started working on those big-picture revisions last night.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Now what? A novel question

So I finished my novel.

Now what?

Several of my friends, no doubt weary of having heard about this phantasmic work for years now, have asked me what I do next. When will I publish the book? As if they somehow want physical proof that all that whining and crying and groaning and optimism quickly followed by deep depression was for an actual thing. 

As if.

I've invented some admittedly uninformed response that involves having people edit it and then looking for a literary agent.

From what I've read about the process (which isn't much) after spending anywhere from months to years to an eternity querying agents, I then have the opportunity to face another gauntlet of rejection as said agent attempts to sell said work to a publisher.   

It's probably better that I haven't done any adequate research on getting published -- I feel pretty defeated with the minimal amounts of information I have. I can't imagine how any responsible wannabe novelist who actually studies up on how to get published actually follows through on any of it.

It stands to reason that only the most blindly optimistic of people enter into this journey. Which doesn't seem to describe writers at all. 

Anyway. Now what? I'll tell you. 

I found a few people who generously offered to read the first draft when they could be reading the final version of actual published books or watching the movie/TV spinoffs anyway.

And now that I've re-read it, I fully understand the depth of their sacrifice.

I also picked up a copy of Writer's Digest yesterday. So that's something. I have to say I felt a little pretentious and a lot silly doing it. I felt like I needed to tell the cashier that it wasn't for me -- I was just buying it for a friend. "Of course," she would've said winking.

There's a list of "28 agents looking for new writers right now!" 

And then I scan the list and realize I really need to nail down the genre for my MS (that's manuscript -- it says so in the "industry lingo" breakout box). I can do this by process of elimination -- it's not a mystery, thriller, young adult, middle grade, romance or sci-fi. 

What's the genre for book about regular people dealing with upsetting, though not especially unusual situations?

What's that invisible literary agent? You say there isn't a genre for that because those books don't get published?

Hmm. How 'bout we just call it new adult? 

I guess I should also spend more time developing a social media presence so I can stalk reach out to potential agents and "tribe" members. Because shilling myself to strangers online while trying not to make eye contact with the pile of dishes in my sink and simultaneously blocking out the pained cries of my children who would prefer my phone be used for endless games of Peekaboo Barn or, better yet, not at all, sounds totally reasonable. 

As much as I love to hate on the writing process, I'm pretty sure this next phase of noveling will be a sinkhole of despair. 

You've been warned.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A performance review (by Lily and Jovie)

Friday I dropped Lily off at preschool for the first time. 

She was unsure for a moment as she looked around the technicolor classroom. We hung her new Minnie Mouse backpack on a hook, washed her hands and then she hugged me and said "Goodbye mother," as solemn as a priest offering last rites. She did the same for Brad and we left. No tears for anyone.

Two hours later we picked her up. She was all smiles. I asked her if she had fun. "Yes!" she said. I asked her if she was excited to go back on Monday. "Yes!" she said.

And that's when I got teary. Because she was so confident … so ready for this first step to independence, and I had this realization that she wasn't all mine anymore. That the days that I witnessed all of her doing -- her eating and reading and playing and fighting and laughing and yelling and crying and cuddling -- those days that used to belong to me are going to start dwindling. Sure, right now it's only six or so hours a week … but it's only a matter of time before it's 30 hours a week. And then gone. Excuse me, I need to snivel for a minute.

With Lily's 4th birthday coming up this week, I amused myself by imagining what the girls would say if they did an annual performance review of me as a mother:

Annual Performance Review for Mom 

September 2014
In case you need a reminder of how far I've come mom, this is me, Lily, on the night I was born.
Remember that? It was 3:40 in the morning. I've always been an early riser.

Well mom, another year down at Lily & Jovie Inc. It's hard to believe it's been almost four years since you first came on board to what was then Lily Inc. We've been relatively pleased with your performance and contributions to our organization and look forward to helping you grow in the year to come.

To start with, let's discuss the many victories you had this year. 

Notable accomplishments include:

Here's Jovie on the night of the big Lily & Jovie Inc. merger back in 2012.
She's pretty cute, too, I guess. If you like squishy cheeks, dimples and big blue eyes.
  • Identifying that rancid smell in the trashcan -- I know you weren't able to crack the code as to what that tarry gooey substance hanging out on the bottom of the bin was, but we're grateful you were able to scrub it out. The aroma in the garage entrance is much less pungent now.
  • Mastering the appropriate voices for Melman and Luann the fishy puppets. We've been highly entertained recently by the fish puppets antics -- especially Luann's loud and insistent refusal to eat yogurt and Melman's propensity for screaming when we wake him up from his naps. We would like to note that we don't think the game of fishy puppets should be over when we start pretending to be sharks and bite the puppets and by extension your hands located inside the puppets. We're just demonstrating our knowledge of the food chain and feel you should embrace our methods of creative and educational play.
  • Removing Play-Doh from various tubes, toys, floors, furniture, and -- on one occasion -- Lily's nose. We would again like to submit our request that Play-Doh be kept accessible at all times -- as we never know when the urge might strike to smoosh tiny balls of it into the grout on the sunroom floor. (See note above about creative play.)
Opportunities for Improvement:

Time Management
We feel this is one of the strongest areas of potential growth for you. We both feel that you need to re-prioritize how much time you spend on various duties. For instance, we think you spend far too much time focusing on janitorial responsibilities (i.e.: laundry, vacuuming, de-cluttering, etc.) as well as meal preparation and not enough time on providing the proper stimulus for us. 

We propose (and by propose, we mean demand) that you spend less time cooking and cleaning (unless, of course, we want macaroni and cheese or chocolate chip cookies, or Lily's Sofia the First pajamas and Jovie's Cookie Monster shirt need to laundered) and more time focusing on our growth and development, by engaging in games of our choosing until we become bored, start needlessly beating each other or it's snack time again, whichever comes first. Our game preferences include:

1. Monster: You chase us around the tree in the backyard roaring occasionally (with gusto!). And no, we don't care that the endless loops around the tree make you nauseous and dizzy. 
2. My Little Pony: We flop around on Jovie's bed pretending to morph into various ponies while you act as Princess Twilight Sparkle, occasionally making up songs about us on the spot and chasing away the monster (i.e. Snacks)
3. Mickey Mouse: You pretend to be Goofy while Lily as Minnie Mouse and Jovie as Daisy Duck prepare for Minnie Mouse's birthday. Note, this is the only time it is permissible to use a voice other than your own. We really must emphasize your use of a Scottish accent during story time made us uncomfortable and angry. Please stop.

We don't mind putting together puzzles or coloring pictures, so long as you witness the placement of each individual piece or the drawing of each individual line while marveling at how amazing we are. We know you think these quiet-time activities are an opportunity for you to take care of your other duties, but we really feel all other duties should be delegated to between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., when we are sleeping. You can handle that, right? 

We understand that despite the fact that we are adorable, hilarious, sweet, intelligent, energetic, inquisitive and all-around amazing people, who any other person would be elated to spend their days with, that sometimes you experience stress during your day. We are going to go ahead and assume that we are not the cause of your stress, but rather that "other job" you do which requires you sit in front of the computer typing words rather than watching that creepy episode of My Little Pony where Princess Twilight Sparkle wants to marry her adopted brother or Parry Gripp music videos, (which is what we'd prefer you do on the computer, by the way). We know it can be difficult to juggle multiple responsibilities -- trust us. Just the other day, in fact, Jovie had to decorate cookies for Lily's preschool class while simultaneously tasting the icing and eating all the sprinkles -- multitasking is difficult work, yet she managed to do it with a smile. We know it's impossible to smile all the time (especially when we require that you open your mouth and say "ahhhhh" while we shove the otoscope down your throat during our many sessions of "checkup"), but we do request that you limit your heavy sighs, eye rolls, annoyed grunts, foot stopming, heavy-handed buckling and all-out ranting for the moments that really require such extreme reactions -- like when the dog knocks over Lily's block tower or Jovie spills applesauce on her shirt. We're often confused at your dismay and frustration while performing your child-rearing duties -- did anybody ever tell you parenthood was easy? 

We know you've expressed that it's more practical and comfortable to stick with your rather shabby looking uniform of jeans or shorts paired with a nondescript, ill-fitting  solid colored T-shirt. We'd like to use the opportunity to encourage you again to wear more dresses, sparkly jewelry and tiaras to work. We'd be happy to act as wardrobe consultants each morning if that would help. In the past you've said dresses aren't really suited for chores like scrubbing the kitchen floor -- we'd like to point to Cinderella, who managed to scrub the foyer of an entire chateau while wearing a dress (and a smile, we might add!).

Recently, you've been refusing to purchase items we've requested during our frequent trips to Target. While Lily appreciates the 25 cents allowance you started giving her each week, and really enjoys playing with the coins in her piggy bank, we don't believe these little play circles should serve as a replacement for the items we really, really want at Target. You've told us that you're trying to prevent a sense of entitlement in us and teach us how to value a dollar. We're not really sure what any of that means, but we want to assure you that we aren't entitled. We just really, really want the toys we see and feel that we should be able to have them the moment we see them for no other reason than we really, really want them.

Meal preparation
While we know you feel pressured by society, the pediatrician and all those moms whose kids eat things like sashimi and foie gras, we believe you should focus on making things we will actually eat. Let's face it, you can put green beans, carrot sticks and baked chicken on our plate all you want, but you know and we know we're not going to eat it. So why not just go ahead and make a week's worth of macaroni & cheese every Sunday night (after 8 of course!). We'll just supplement that with yogurt and cereal and call it a day. Haven't your stress levels gone down already? It's really a win-win.

Musical selection
We'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that we'd prefer you allowed us to make all decisions as to what sort of music we listen to while in the car. Our preferences here include:

1. The soundtrack to "Happy Feet 2"
2. "Jake and the Neverland Pirates" music
3. Dad's Jimmy Buffet mix

Don't feel that you constantly have to switch CDs -- we're perfectly content with listening to the same album several days in a row. And we ask that you limit your singing to only those times we request to hear it -- so basically, no singing. At all. Ever. Please. It's awful. (Unless, of course we need a repertoire of songs before bedtime.)

Here's an AV aid in case you need a reminder of how to be happy
 (and how to appropriately dress the dog).

Mom, we see so much potential in you and really think the upcoming year could be your best yet! Thanks for all your hard work this past year -- especially all those times you took us to get ice cream, let us watch extra cartoons and resisted the temptation to sing along with the soundtrack of Disney songs you grew up with. For 2014/2015 we hope to see you smiling more and worrying less, which will ensure maximum profitability of Lily & Jovie Inc.