The Good Enough Mother
Let’s make a list of things that are generally difficult or uncomfortable but still widely accepted. I’ll start: Spaghetti noodles. Pantyhose. Fitted sheets. Critical feedback. The one I’m thinking of today: Parenting.
The pressures that come with child rearing can be crushing – and not always in a happy “carbon materials into diamond” kind of way. The continual message of “do more!” and “be better!” for your kids can beat parents down despite their best efforts. British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott saw this struggle in the 1950s, and let the people know that the way to be a good mother is to be a “good enough mother.”
Now, make a list of words that come to mind when you hear the term “good enough.” I’ll start again: Mediocre. Passable. Fine but not fantastic. We often use the term to communicate that we are unimpressed but willing to accept.
Not Dr. Winnicott. He was not using the phrase “good enough” to describe the way to dejectedly resign yourself to subpar results. He worked with a full understanding that we cannot parent outside of reality, and reality is often difficult and uncomfortable. Delusions of perfect performance are unhealthy. Here’s what is healthy: accepting our imperfections and adjusting expectations and actions to make room for faults and limitations. We will never have the complete answer key – in raising children or in any other pursuit. Learning as we go (without quitting, mistreating ourselves, or taking it out on others) is the only way to do it well.
Winnicott practiced medicine and mental health in a time when women/mothers were almost exclusively serving as primary caregivers. The theory is also relevant to non-mothers, men, even various disciplines like software design, physician training, and finance.
This is the same man who introduced the idea of the holding environment. (I guess I’m going to just keep writing about him until they let me be his fan club president.) The “good enough” parent will hold on and stay put to meet the child’s basic physical and emotional needs, caring, sacrificing and sticking around when mistakes are made or things are tough. They don’t cling or micromanage, but let go in small and safe ways so that the child doesn’t feel “dropped” or abandoned. They allow their child to be challenged without swooping in to remove every obstacle. They tell the truth about their emotions. They apologize. They introduce the School of Hard Knocks without overwhelming or terrifying their child.
When caregivers let their humanity show in manageable ways in the safety of the family circle, children learn big lessons: The world still turns when it doesn’t revolve around them. Parents should be safe but cannot be all-powerful. Do not be surprised by your own shortcomings. Be patient, be prepared to problem solve, and be aware of your own responsibility.
Acceptable. Adequate. These are good; they are enough.
“Good Enough” isn’t just passable – it’s the only real option. The “Best Mother” bill of goods begins in fear of pain or failure, vulnerability or lack of control, feelings of inadequacy or uncertainty about personal worth, pride, comparison and incorrect assumptions about others, unobtainable standards, or impossible expectations. In truth, no one is either a) perfect or b) surrounded by and steeped in perfect circumstances. Shame, disgust, or denial in response to honest human mistakes is misdirected and unhelpful.
So what does help? To go anywhere from here, we have to know where we are right now. Examine your reactions to hard things. Think about the lessons you learned in your early life about failure and imperfection. Be honest about your unhelpful assumptions and reactions. Consider your ideas on self-worth – what makes you or anyone important? Go to your people – your holding environment – and allow yourself to be held, challenged, and anchored while you ask these questions. And know that you are good. You are enough.
Art by Saar Manche