Let me just get this bit out of the way before I launch into this blog post. I am not a proper mum. As in, I didn’t give birth, I have no experience of Huggies or buggies and the last pre-school programme I watched was Button Moon.
However, I’ve been a parent for over a decade. And I am currently sitting on the sofa with my stepson, Sam, typing this post whilst discussing which uni accommodation would best suit an aspiring ecologist with a love of live music and world travel.
Luckily, he’s only moving about five miles down the road. But it shouldn’t bother me too much anyway, right? After all, it’s not my umbilical cord that’s being stretched…
The thing is, regardless of the fact that he’s 6ft 4 with olive skin and I’m 5ft 4 and pasty white, we’ve got a lot in common. Because being a mum is about more than just DNA – even when you’re one of three parents.
Sam has his dad, his mum and his step mum (me). And I’ve been on the scene since he was just seven years old. However, it doesn’t stop the imposter syndrome sneaking up on you from time to time. Even today.
I’ll never forget feeling completely out of my depth when Sam’s dad/my husband, Chris, left me to look after him on my own for the first time. Chris had popped out to get a new tyre for the car, but the moment he left, Sam’s lovely olive skin turned a lovely shade of grey-green and the projectile vomiting marathon got off to a speedy and surprising start.
Now I might have seen many a girlfriend puking up outside a dodgy pub back in the day after one too many Blue WKD’s, but there’s a whole different feeling about things when, as an inexperienced childminder, you are presented with a vomiting child and no idea what to do.
Should I follow him into the bathroom? Should I hug him? Should I put him to bed with a bucket by his side?
I’d heard Calpol was the answer to everything – but I had no idea if I had any right to pour medicine down his neck.
And then I saw the sick. It was red. Like blood. The panic that shot through my body was palpable – until I saw the empty Strawberry Ribena carton in the kitchen.
This was my first experience of feeling completely out of my depth. Even though we both survived it completely unscathed (well, apart from the bathroom carpet).
But there was far worse to come….
There isn’t anything quite as terrifying as an inexperienced anxious step-parent dropping their confident and bubbly step-son at the school gates for the first time.
Will the other mums and dads know that I am an imposter? That I have no experience of the school run? Am I meant to kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him like the others parents do? What if he ignores me?
Luckily, just like the vomiting incident, Sam made it all run rather smoothly. And off he skipped into class with a smile on his face.
But the whole imposter syndrome thing never left…
Years later, when we dropped Sam off at the train station for his first camping trip with his mates (no parents allowed) I felt suddenly awkward. I didn’t look like the other mums.
I was convinced that all other mums had an air of sophistication and authority that I could only dream of. In fact, during a therapy session (yep, combine step-parent imposter syndrome with generalised anxiety disorder and you’ve got especially shaky ground) I did some work on transactional analysis. Do you know the one? It’s a psychology model that looks at different behaviours we display based on three ego-states – the child, the parent and the adult.
I had to give my parent, child and adult names. And I distinctly recall naming the adult after one of Sam’s friend’s mums.
Because I was convinced that other mums – the ones who had been doing it since their teenagers were mere embryos, had oodles of confidence, knowledge and clarity running through their motherly veins. Proper grown up adults!
But I fell into that trap that we all fall into in life. A colleague recently summarised it nicely for me – we compare the insides of ourselves to the outsides of others.
Now that certainly hit home. How was I to know that under that confident exterior at the train station, the other mums weren’t getting back into their Renault Scenic (that’s what real mums drive, right?) and sobbing their hearts out into the exploded airbag?
Or that behind those confident and loving waves and kisses at the school gates, that the mums and dads weren’t secretly praying that teatime would be easier than breakfast time was that morning – where they’d given in and let their little angel of delight enjoy a chocolate milkshake instead of a healthy bowl of Weetabix following a major temper tantrum that would give Phil Mitchell a run for his money.
Sam’s leaving home soon for university. And of course, I am full of regret. Regret that I didn’t spend more time playing on the Wii with him. Regret that I didn’t cuddle him more. Regret that I shouted too much. Regret that I wasn’t a real parent.
I trespassed onto his childhood as a fake mum with a bundle of nerves who couldn’t bake cakes, identify the cars on Top Gear or make sense of long division.
But then I realised….in many ways, I’m the same as all the other mums and dads. And in many ways, unique. Again, just like all the other mums and dads.
Perhaps instead of reflecting and regretting I should look at where we are today. Applying for uni accommodation with smiles on our faces whilst keeping one eye on Holby City (the show that only hits our screens when Chris is out) and simultaneously cursing the low battery alarms on our laptops.
That’s probably as much as any parent – natural or otherwise – could ever wish for.
Lucy Nichol and Sam
A Series Of Unfortunate Stereotypes, my book about mental health stereotypes and self-stigma, published by charitable mental health publisher Trigger Press, is available now.