When my second child was born, I started to feel like a fraud
Lisa Bryn Rundle talks about the internal struggle of being the mom of a child she didn't birth herself
This story was originally published on June 15, 2018.
In a personal essay, Out in the Open producer Lisa Bryn Rundle reflects on feeling like an impostor as a mother:
About four years ago I gave birth to my first child.
The experience of growing a person inside my body was... intense.
I'd be working away at my computer and my mind would drift into marvel at the fact that I'm also making an eyeball today. A brain that's not mine is growing inside me. This is weird.
My partner was having a different experience altogether. When she'd tell people "I'm about to have a baby!" people would scan her non-pregnant body and look back at her, perplexed.
And then... it was my turn.
Three years after I gave birth... it was my partner who got pregnant... and I was the one that confused people.
Admittedly, that's not something that typically bothers me, but in this case it did.
Anxieties began to bubble up that I couldn't quite talk down.
Would I be able to feel secure as this baby's mother when someone else was growing him and birthing him and breastfeeding him?
What about when someone else's DNA became so obvious in his gigantic, mesmerizing, ocean-like eyes?
It's embarrassing to admit that insecurity. I didn't doubt my partner's mother status with our first child, even as she struggled.
And intellectually I'm clear -- mothering is a verb. That relationship is created. With or without biology or birthing or breast milk.
My definition of motherhood has always included all the different ways that people become mothers.
But somehow that message hadn't reached the place in me that felt heartbroken and lost every time I wasn't able to comfort our new little infant.
He needed the all-comforting, all-nourishing breast of his mother. So what did that make me?
And then I went back to work. Our infant couldn't be my primary focus.
This wasn't the experience of being a mother that I knew. It was a much scarier, more fragile state and I couldn't quite place why.
Part of it had to do with the world outside our family, sure:
The awkward questions around how the birth was (Painless!)... how I was recovering (So good!)... "When are you back at work? After 3 weeks? Really??"
You can only go so far with that before those fraudy feelings set in.
So I've decided to go on a journey to confront these feelings.
I call up a dad I know, Jonas Spring is his name. He's got a five-year-old daughter who's adopted and Spring feels like a total fraud.
"You know, I feel that, when she gets really mad at me and she says you're not my real dad or my real mom, that kind of stuff," he said, "I remember when we were adopting there was a class you take called 'Pride'. One of the things they would do is talk about all the different types of feelings that you are going to have and things are going to run into it when you adopt. One of the things they said was you'll think of your kids as your own and you'll never think of them as adopted and I actually don't agree with that at all.
"I think about her as adopted all the time because I'm worrying about her identity as she grows up and I'm worried about what the right balance is so if I'm thinking about it, it's not like it just disappeared."
For Spring, the fact of non-biological connection is just a part of his experience as a father. And we get chatting about the casual privileging of genetics.
I tell him I've lost count of how many times I've been asked if both children are mine in the neighborhood. What is that code for? Because you can see that they're both mine, you see them with me all the time, you see them both on the stroller, like, they're clearly both mine. But what they're really asking is who gave birth to these children.
"Yeah and I think that a lot of it is just curiosity and nothing more," Spring said, "But it can be hurtful and it can be invasive, like it can affect you in different ways depending on your mood, on your day, on how you know what's going on in your life at that moment.
"Ultimately your kids are going to find your red buttons and your weaknesses and your vulnerabilities and they're going to exploit them. If your hang up is that you aren't the biological parent then they'll figure it out pretty quick.
"You know, she stubs or toe or scrapes her knee, she runs to daddy or mommy if she's there. So in that sense that's when you truly are just dad right?"
Talking to Spring has been helpful. I think I'm getting somewhere with all this. But I've also heard that what I'm feeling might not have as much to do with genetics as I think and, in fact, that lots of biological dads experience a similar set of feelings.
I call up Micah Toub. He's a journalist and a dad who's written about parenting his young son.
"I've had friends tell me that you felt left out of that and they weren't sure what their role was," he said, "But my experience has been different, and supposedly men react differently if it is theirs or not, biologically. I personally feel like that's just terrible that we would be so worried about that."
By and large he said he slipped pretty easily into his role as a father.
He felt super engaged and pretty equal to his partner. He didn't like having to go back to work and leave his infant, but their bond remained strong.
And he said yeah, it's fun to look at his child and think about who he looks like that day, more like mom or dad. He's not sure how important biology is. But he said yeah he thinks about it.
Still there is one thing he had to overcome.
"It is the breast feeding thing, I guess," he said, "And maybe you experienced that with your second kid. I don't know what that's like, you do. And so occasionally when my son was little I would like hold him up to me as if he was breastfeeding. And it became a little game with us. I actually found it was quite pleasurable just to mimic the motion. And I think he kind of got a kick out of it. We called it 'daddy booby' as a joke, but it ended up being kind of like a serious thing.
"I think I felt this longing maybe to have a little bit more of some connection with him that way. But I got it. Through the mimicking of it, through the sense of humour and the playfulness and through the feelings of love that it elicited. It's not exactly like fake it till you make it. I mean you are the kid's parent, but you can be like a biological parent to them so much that you just are, on a more kind of profound level. This baby of yours is growing up next to you. You're not breastfeeding it necessarily but you're loving it, holding it, feeding it. On some level you are so physically connected to that baby that it is biological."
On Mother's Day, I saw a video about two French Bulldogs who adopted a tiny piglet. The big twist was that one of the adoptive bulldogs spontaneously lactated to feed her baby piglet. And this bodily miracle was fuelled by the deepest of maternal feelings for the pig.
And my maternal impostor syndrome just boiled over.
I haven't lactated a single drop for my second child — at times to his dismay and confusion.
A French Bulldog had bested me in overcoming the divides of non-biological parenting.
But since I talked to that first dad — Jonas Spring — I do feel more secure in at least admitting that it feels different this time around. And that's OK.
I found myself thinking too about how a genetic connection does not guarantee a good parent-child relationship by any stretch.
And after my chat with Micah Toub, I was left thinking about — well, daddy boobies, to be sure — but also... the feeling that these things can be overcome with creativity and humour and love.
So right now, I feel a little less like an impostor.
I'm the kid's mother. I'm one of the kid's mothers. I'm the mother of two kids, in two different ways and that's fine. There's no need to compare and contrast.
Maybe my younger child will find my buttons and push them, just as our first child has found those buttons on my partner.
I'm becoming more solid though in a parental connection without the easy supports of genetics. And in being a mother without all the body-sharing physical intensity of my first experience being a mom.
I'm left feeling there's a fair bit of unexamined entitlement, in fact, that comes with genetic connection to a child — perhaps taking for granted that they are "yours".
So I'm grateful for chance to dig through all that and get to the root of what it means to me to mother this child. This particular child, which is good, and beautiful... and real, in its very own way.
This essay has been edited for clarity. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Impostors".