We have all heard the term “good-enough mother”. We explore the meaning behind these emotionally provocative words.
Recently, on a girls’ night out, the topic turned to motherhood. Several of the mothers were rather vociferous about not feeling they were good enough. In fact, a few explained that “good enough” didn’t seem enough in their eyes. They were striving to be the perfect mom who tends to the needs of their children and family, sometimes feeling resentful and burnt out in the process. Sound familiar?
Let’s face it, motherhood is a time of intense responsibility. After all, we are enabling the development of another human being. The demands are high and the challenges tough. For most women, it is a time of highs and lows, which can be difficult to understand and accept. Added to this are your many roles as spouse, career woman, friend, homemaker – leaving you pulled in every direction. Friends and I like to call it the daily juggling dance, a dance which requires absolute dexterity and endless patience, exacerbated by the desire to do it all perfectly (or at least, “perfect-ish”). Can you relate to this?
Today, more than ever, mothers seem driven to be the “perfect mom” or supermom. With the end goal being standards of perfection, it’s no wonder mothers complain of feeling frazzled and worn out. We are consumed by a never-ending list of “musts” that not only drain our energy, but also leave no space for ourselves. Moms are often heard muttering, “We must breastfeed, we must take our kid to moms and tots’ groups and we must only offer healthy, balanced meals.”
How realistic or parenty is this? Not very, right? Just as there is no perfect job or relationship, the same applies to mothering – and setting perfection as your end goal only paves the way for disappointment and unnecessary guilt.
Perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on your own childhood and the impact of your parents’ style of parenting on your personality and subsequent adult style. Setting the bar to perfection can only lead to disappointment.
A much healthier alternative is aiming to just be a good-enough mother. The term “good-enough mother” was first expounded by paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott in the 1950s. He cautioned moms against trying to be perfect and proposed the idea that aiming to be the “perfect” or “best” mother can lead to issues for both mom, dad and the kids. Winnicott clarified that you don’t need to be the best mother to raise a psychologically healthy child. You just need to be a good-enough mother.
What does “good-enough” entail?
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.
Good enough involves providing a nurturing environment for your children, where their needs are taken care of. It’s also important that the father is supportive and available in the background. As mothers, we need to feel the anchoring presence of a supportive partner. This will assist our mothering capacity. Children who feel loved and safe will be able to tolerate and forgive our shortcomings and grow and benefit from these experiences.
They do not benefit from a mom who panders to their every need and lives her life according to the perceived expectations of her parents and society. So, the message is: cut yourself some slack, free yourself up and sometimes attend to your needs, too.
If we are good enough – which I believe most of us are – then we mostly get it right. Granted, we all experience parenting failures from time to time, but then it’s about picking ourselves up and forging on, knowing that the next day will be different. When we move the goal posts to focus on being good enough, life is a lot less pressurised and exacting.
The good-enough mother recognises the need for herself, including the need for self-nurturance, time out and pampering. She values the importance of me-time, devoid of guilt and self-attack. Does she have all the answers? Of course not. She acknowledges that each child brings to the family its unique quirks and difficulties. Thank goodness for that! Imagine having a carbon copy family, where the same rules and boundaries apply for all human beings!
The good-enough mother does not aim for perfection or adhere to the critical gaze of society. She shares the wonder of childbirth collectively with other women, but reverts to her individual style when parenting. There is no textbook approach with clear-cut answers. She relies on her personality and instincts to listen to both her needs and the needs of her children. If relatively balanced, she will be doing more than a perfect-ish or good-enough job in managing her family in a healthy way – and good-enough is all it needs to be.
So, let go of your expectations and trust your “parenty” intuition to guide you. The road will not always be smooth, but you will surely see the good-enough signposts dotted along the way.