Overcoming Motherhood Imposter Syndrome

Casey Wilson learned to trust her parenting instincts after her son received a surprise diagnosis.

Credit...Rozette Rago for The New York Times

This story was originally published on Nov. 4, 2019 on NYT Parenting.

I consider myself a confident person. I had an assistant when I was an assistant. I was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” I still suck my thumb and don’t care who knows it.

But becoming a parent shook me. My motherhood experience began with crippling prenatal and postpartum depression, which resulted in my casually asking other moms if they, too, had searched Amazon for gigantic inflatable slides that could be attached to their child’s bedroom windows in the event of a home invasion? They looked at me, alarmed. “Well, I can’t afford a panic room,” I explained.

Even after I got over the worst of my postpartum depression, I had a list of worries that grew as my son did: Was I doing this right? Was I doing that right? Why wouldn’t he latch? Was the fact that I listened to Kanye West’s “Only One” over and over while wailing going to affect him long-term? Why did I pick a preschool he hated? So much crying. So much doubt. Peppered with moments of soaring elation and gratitude that the universe would deliver me such a perfect, dear, empathetic, funny, smart, odd, darling child.

Anything that went wrong was my fault, and anything that went right (quite a bit) was in spite of me.

I examined my every moment with him for flaws. It always felt like I was hovering outside of my body, watching and judging my performance. It didn’t help that I also felt deep within myself that something was actually really wrong. Not with me. With my son.

At 2 years old he seemed … depressed. Melancholy. I would often find him lying on the ground, gazing into the middle distance with such a sense of longing it made my heart physically hurt. He slept 14 hours a day, sometimes 16. Even after all that rest, his teacher would report that while the other kids were playing he would lie on the couch and watch, as though he hadn’t slept in days.

At times he would have huge bursts of energy and joy, but quickly they would give way to lethargy, intense tantrums that seemed unending even for a 2-year-old and reactions to transitions that were so outsized they would leave us struggling to console him.

Play dates were tense because I was eager for him to connect and have fun. I watched with envy while the other kids played their hearts out. Usually he would ask to go home the second we got there, or if we stayed he would not engage. I would drive away in tears, demoralized.

In the car after one such afternoon I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he replied: “A stranger. A stranger who sits alone in a movie theater eating popcorn and no one talks to them.” Huh. Now obviously this is my dream career as well, but for a 2-year-old it implied something was off. I just didn’t know what.

My friend, a child psychologist who knew my son well, called me around that time. In a genuinely loving way she asked if she could ask me something hard. “Case, do you think maybe he’s autistic?” she said.

We got him tested. He wasn’t.

He was just sad, he told me. Just sad. Sad because Teddy pushed him. Because his tummy hurt. Because he felt angry. We read our favorite book, “When Sophie gets Angry,” about a girl who gets so angry at her little brother that she runs away into the woods. Then she climbs a tree and looks out at all below her and, the last page says, “The wide world comforts her. And Sophie isn’t angry anymore.”

I felt angry, too, and helpless. I jokingly told a few moms at his school that living with him was like living with an abusive alcoholic. “I’m terrified of him!” They didn’t seem to find it funny, and again I thought: I’m having a different experience than most moms are having.

I hated myself for the excuses my husband and I would make for our son. He didn’t get a good night’s sleep, his blood sugar’s low, he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, he’s a little shy, he’s a loner, he’s an indoor cat.

What really bothered me was not that this was his temperament — which really would have been fine if that was the case — but more that I wasn’t sure this was actually his temperament. Because a few times a day, my husband and I would see moments of wholehearted engagement and imagination.

He would yell, “Look, Mama!” so excited to share and connect over every new thing, his face shining with pride. And he was a comedian. He did pratfalls and copied our cadences for a laugh. And he impersonated inanimate objects, which is simply a good bit. “Mama, who dis?” he’d ask, then would freeze his face into a very stoic, distinctly sharp expression and with amazing timing, reply, “It’s a desk.”

We were left wondering which version of our child was his true self. And I was left wondering if I had somehow managed to dim his bright light. Soon he was 3, and the excuses I had been using to tide over my worry weren’t working as well.

We sought out bi-weekly occupational therapy, which we were lucky enough to be able to afford, and he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, and fine and gross motor issues. The therapist told us he couldn’t jump. “Well, white men can’t …” my husband joked. But inside I was reeling.

Then he fractured his leg from a fall that couldn’t even be described as a fall. He caught himself, actually, but was in so much pain he screamed for days if we even looked at him. Then, he had a seizure while we were speeding down the highway after a preschool camping trip. I turned around to check on him and found him lifeless in his car seat. I couldn’t find a pulse.

My husband got us off the highway in under a minute while I screamed to 911 and tried to remember CPR (another failure for not remembering it from my baby class). We hit another car in order to get up onto the sidewalk, where we drove for five blocks to find an address where the ambulance could meet us. For a moment, we had the worst experience a parent could endure. We thought we were losing him.

Mercifully, he was O.K. It was a febrile seizure, apparently common for kids under 6 but terrifying to witness.

But because it came on the heels of the fracture, and was followed by a rapid weight loss, my worries reached a fever pitch. “All toddlers are picky eaters!” friends told us. But this was not that. His shoe size had not changed in a year. The words “failure to thrive” leapt to my mind. I beat myself up mercilessly, a stream of cruelty in my head: If you hadn’t been so focused on your career, you would have learned to cook beyond rudimentary fish sticks and buttered pasta! You didn’t breastfeed long enough! You got an epidural at ZERO centimeters dilated (a Cedars-Sinai Hospital first)!

Our doctor ordered blood tests. Kids are not supposed to lose this much weight. Something was indeed really wrong. He all but stopped eating. We waited.

My wonderful husband and I went through this together, but separately. He was optimistically convinced we just needed to figure out what was going on, and then we would fix it. Done and done. At no point did he look inward and blame himself. I maintained the situation was absolutely dire and it was my fault, that what needed fixing was me.

But then in January of this year, the results from our son’s blood tests were back and we got a call from our doctor. He told us our son had celiac disease. It was a shock, followed by unimaginable relief. We finally had a diagnosis, and in the grand scheme of things it was a very manageable one.

As we found out when we frantically Googled celiac disease, it is a genetic, auto-immune condition, where eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction damages your small intestine’s lining and prevents it from absorbing nutrients. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, intense fatigue, poor bone density, depression, weight loss, failure to thrive, and neurological conditions like lack of muscle coordination and seizures — basically everything our son had been exhibiting for the past two years.

There’s no cure for celiac disease — but for most people, following a strict gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms. We felt lucky it was not something worse.

The tricky thing is some people with celiac disease experience these symptoms and some people experience none of them. Studies have found that the majority of people who test positive for celiac don’t know they have it. It can be a very silent disease. And maddening if you can’t figure it out. The doctor who diagnosed my son had a connection to one of the country’s celiac experts, and when we got in to see her, she said, “The bad news is he has celiac.” She continued: “The good news is everything you’re describing can be placed under the umbrella of celiac. Every. Single. Thing. It’s all textbook. And he has the highest numbers I’ve ever seen.”

Finally, something he was ahead at! “Give it six months without gluten, and I mean not one particle of a particle on a pan or in a toaster or on a cutting board, and you will see a different child,” she said.

She was right. In six months, almost to the day, his truer self emerged. His essence is the very same. But he is now an outwardly thriving, happy 4-year-old who is exploding with creativity and bursting with life.

Now, I don’t mean to make this about me, but it wasn’t about me! It wasn’t about my failure as a mother. And that’s something I have had to reckon with. Why was I so hard on myself? Why are we mothers all so hard on ourselves?

With each passing day as his health improves, so too does my mental health. I am doing my best, and have always been doing my best under challenging and painful circumstances. And I’m comforted by the fact that following my instincts got us here. Can my instincts often be wrong? Sure. Like when I asked the single women at my wedding to do a flash mob dance to “Single Ladies,” essentially shaming them for their singledom? (They politely declined.)

But in the case of my son, I kept asking why and searching for the answer. I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of all moms, who attempt this debilitatingly difficult-slash-searingly magical journey called parenthood. We’re all doing our best. Even if we have to suck our thumbs to get through it.

Casey Wilson is an actress, writer and director.