The Good Enough Mother

Posted by on Sep 12, 2012 in Mental Health | 3 comments

The Good Enough Mother

One of my favorite concepts from all of the theories and therapy models and treatment methods I learned about in the course of my education as a Clinical Social Worker is the Good Enough Mother. Say it with me – Good Enough Mother.  Doesn’t it just make you feel a million pounds lighter to string those words together?  This mother, well, she’s not perfect, she doesn’t do everything right, she makes her fair share of mistakes, she has to give herself grace and acceptance for her perceived shortcomings, even her children aren’t perfect, but she’s good enough. Good Enough.  I think I can be that mom.

There’s something about mothering children that tends to make women feel not good enough. Every mother I know, even those I look up to as seeming to have it all together, feels it at times… a sense of guilt, a nagging insecurity, a feeling of failure in at least some area, self-doubt. Why?  I don’t know, exactly.  I have ideas…

I think in general we live in a society that strives for and celebrates the appearance of perfection…

Mothers struggle under the weight of information overload – there are a million billion trillion books that spell out, step by step, exactly how to be the perfect mother, so why, why, why can’t she get it right…

Mothers are more isolated than they have ever been before – we raise our children primarily in solitude, then look around at our friends and neighbors and, from the outside, they look to be making easy work of raising children…

Mothering is just freaking hard – it’s a lot of work, and the costs of messing it up seem so high…

And so arises the exepctation, pressure, and drive to be the Perfect Mother. The Perfect Mother is not nearly as nice as the Good Enough Mother – not to her children, not to the other mothers around her, and certainly not to herself.  With the drive for perfection comes the expectation for perfection.  Those who let the Perfect Mother down with their messy imperfections spark anger, resentment, bitterness, and judgement. Most often it’s her that’s letting herself down, and herself she finds on the receiving end of her own enormous anger, resentment, bitterness, and judgement.  And it’s no wonder – being perfect is even harder, more impossible work than being a mother. And being the Perfect Mother requires a relentless pursuit of something that can never be acheived.

Let me introduce you to D.W. Winnicott, who conceptualized the Good Enough Mother. Winnicott was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who pioneered many prominent psychological ideas between 1930-1970.  He worked extensively with mother/child pairs and based his ideas on decades of experience. His work revealed that what a child really needs from its mother for optimal development is just an ordinary ability to respond to his or her basic needs.  In infancy this looks like intense responsiveness to needs for food, bodily care, and comforting of difficult emotions, but as the child grows and moves more and more towards independence, it looks less like total self sacrifice from the mother in service of meeting each and every need, and more like a mother preserving a sense of herself while helping her child to experience both the general satisfaction of met needs and occasional frustration of unmet wants.

“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother. .. starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.” (Winnicott, 1953)

Well there it is, failure, right there in the explanation of what good enough mothering entails.  The Good Enough Mother fails.  Not only so, but her periodic failures in the overall nurturing and secure relationship she has with her children are actually to be embraced and celebrated as valuable moments in her parenting.  Despite what we’ve been led to believe, our children are not meant to experience us as being perfect mothers – what a horrible set up for failure in the world outside of our homes.  It’s enough for our children to be generally satisfied with what we offer, but at the same time frequently frustrated with our inability to give them everything they want. The frustration our children experience as we meet their needs quite imperfectly is, in reality, something important that helps them separate into being their own person, develop a sense of self and autonomy, and gain independence and self control – isn’t that the goal of parenting in the end?

Can we collectively agree to kick the Perfect Mother to the curb?  To stop putting the pressure on ourselves to achieve perfection, and stop casting judgemental glances towards the women around us who we think aren’t quite perfect enough either? It’s enough to be Good Enough.

 

3 Comments

  1. I agree with kicking the perfect mother to the curb. Even now with my “grown” children I feel the pressures of what I should shouldn’t have done and “other” mothers still make you feel like they are perfect and your ways are wrong….
    I enjoy reading your blogs you write beautifully, I can relate to many of them.

    • Thanks, Carolyn! I am in the trenches with little ones so it never occurred to me that all of this continues even after they’re grown. It’s hard to remember that our kids have free will and the choices they make aren’t always a reflection of our parenting.

  2. that was so right on!! Your blogs are so awesome!! Any Mom could relate to this one!! Thank you!! It was very encouraging!! I so appreciate you taking the time to share your insight and wisdom!! I love you friend!! Shari

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