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A Chicana Mother-Scholar with Imposter Syndrome in a Doctoral Program

Last year in my writing course, the professor asked the class to write and perform a “90-second thesis statement” about our dissertation research. This is similar to the 3-minute thesis competition or “elevator pitch.” The following week, we were going to perform our statement in front of the class and were going to be judged and scored on our “pitch.” The “thesis competition” activity made me extremely anxious. I am an “eternal” student—I have been part of the program for more than 5 years. For years, I personally decided to isolate myself from school activities, socials, and classes. I felt too embarrassed to “still” be in the program. Being asked, “What year are you? When are you graduating? How’s your dissertation?” gave me much anxiety. I had recently armed myself with courage to enroll in a writing class to help me write and defend my dissertation proposal. In my mind, this class was going to ease my isolation and program anxieties. I wrote and re-wrote my statement. I rehearsed as I drove my son to daycare and walked to class. Before performing, I was so nervous. It was a class of over 15 students and they all looked at me and wrote down their score. After, they gave their score and comments to the professor. She read the scores and comments out loud. I don’t remember what they were but these are the words I wrote down in my journal after class:

I can’t believe that is what she wrote. Isn’t she like a 10th year and can’t even put a 90-second paragraph about her research. What a fucking joke. A total waste of my time. I feel sorry for her. She’s been here all this time and still doesn’t even know what to say. Maybe she should quit. Stay at home mothers are practically saints in this state. She should be dedicating more time to her kid. Anyways, who is watching her kid? Honestly, I feel sorry for her. I am going to give her a “2” for standing up and facing us. It’s like the kids in team sports where everyone gets a trophy for participation. She made us want to care but I was so confused that I checked out. My “cart” on Amazon has more action than her 90 seconds. She shouldn’t fool herself. She just ain’t Ph.D. material. It requires a level of sophistication and thoughtfulness. If she applies herself, maybe she’ll get there. Maybe she should study more, read more, so she can learn the “art.” Because right now it’s more like caca than anything Ph.D.-like. If she really wants to make it through this program and actually graduate. She has to do a lot better than this…

These are not words that were said to me, but they are thoughts that I constantly have about my "legitimacy” and “productivity” as a scholar while balancing motherhood. After this activity, I stopped going to class.

Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose define the imposter syndrome as individuals unable to internalize and accept their success. The imposter syndrome is described as “high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” Individuals, such as doctoral students, attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than their ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud. Doctoral students with impostor-related feelings suffer from anxiety or depression. They tend to work longer hours and seek perfection.

As a mother/scholar/partner in a doctoral program, the imposter syndrome manifests itself as feeling like I do not belong because I am a Chicana and mother. It is about not feeling accomplished as both a mother and scholar. I am constantly doubting my ability to complete my doctoral program after so many years. I am fearful that I will be exposed as a “fraud.” There’s also the daily struggle to claim space and time to think, read, and write as a scholar. I yearn to grow professionally and intellectually in my profession and area of expertise while maintaining and sustaining my identities as mother and partner. What does the Chicana mother imposter syndrome look like for me? It is the constant struggle to confront the discourse of “mothers as self-less.”

I am often asked, “Where is your son?” This question is not benign. The subtext of this question is, “Why aren’t you with your son?” I wonder how many times my partner (who is male and a professional) is asked this same question or if his inability to start a new administrative role as a new father was questioned. I am a full-time doctoral student/adjunct and he is a full-time employee. The answer to their question is simple. “School,” I say. Some ask: what daycare does he attend? Is it full-time or part-time? Do you like it? Others have said, “Poor Emiliano. He’s at school all day.”

I constantly fight back the need to justify my decision to have and pay for full-time daycare, enrolled full-time as a doctoral student, and teach part-time. Deep down I know why they feel this way and expressed their concern. Gendered expectations say that a mother’s place is with their child. I constantly feel “guilty” for dropping him off and when I am home and not “writing,” the feeling of being “guilty” for not writing also eats me inside. What individuals that “ask about my son” do not know is that on days that I leave the house to write or go to class, I look into my son’s eyes and say, “Mama will be back, see you in the morning.” He answers, “You go study in the coffee shop.” I say, “Yes, be good with papa.” I kiss him and do the sign of the cross. I wave goodbye. I know he will be okay with my partner. They will be visiting the local park to feed the ducks. My partner will bathe him and put him to bed. Having his support has been essential in my process of writing and moving forward with writing my dissertation. I am privileged in having a partner to co-parent with and having the ability to pay for full-time daycare. Nevertheless, it is the internal and silent fears that paralyze me.

Healing from the imposter syndrome as a mother/scholar/partner means reclaiming space and the gendered expectations of mothering. It is more than “self-doubt” as a student but the gendered expectations that render our bodies outside of academia. I look back at the words I wrote down that day in class and spite of these fears, I persist/push forward/make space for others like myself.

Andrea Garavito Martínez is a mother to 3-year-old Emiliano José. She is an educator and doctoral candidate in the Department of Education, Culture, and Society at the University of Utah. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and Jocotepec, Jalisco, Mexico. She enjoys hiking adventures with her compañero, Emiliano and dog Chava.

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