February 28, 2017
In Defense of The Good Enough Mother
“Every life is a piece of art, put together with all means available”. -Pierre Janet
Before I begin this post, please know that I am not a child psychologist, and I have no training in child development. I am simply a mother who wants to do the best job of parenting my children that I can. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about attachment theory and the concept of the good enough mother. The idea, put forth by psychoanalyst David Winnicott in the 1950’s, argues that there is no perfect parent. I believe that so many of us have been hoodwinked into believing that if we fall short of perfect, our children will be developmentally traumatized, but the science simply does not support this. So much of this underlying (and often unspoken) belief is a major contributor to mom guilt. Maybe if we can relearn what separates perfect from good enough, we can free ourselves and our children from this unnecessary burden?
In the book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, discusses the serious effects of developmental trauma on children. The research and data is clear: abuse, neglect, and insecure/anxious attachments have the power to completely alter a child’s personality and life trajectory. Trauma is stored not only in the brain, but in the body. It has a negative impact on a child for the remainder of their life. But after presenting the importance of a healthy and secure attachment for infants, he goes on to say this:
“Conscientious parents often become alarmed when they discover attachment research, worrying that their occasional impatience or their ordinary lapses in attunement may permanently damage their kids. In real life there are bound to be misunderstandings, inept responses, and failures of communication. Because mothers and father miss cues or are simply preoccupied with other matters, infants are frequently left to their own devices to discover how they can calm themselves down. Within limits this is not a problem. Kids need to learn to handle frustrations and disappointments. With “good enough” caregivers, children learn that broken connections can be repaired. The critical issue is whether they can incorporate a feeling of being viscerally safe with their parents or other caregivers.”
I can definitely relate. I learned about attachment theory while seeing my own therapist, and instantly began questioning every action I had ever taken with my daughter. What about the time I was stuck in traffic and couldn’t get home to feed her in time? What about our “sleep training” attempts with nights spent standing at the door with a timer while she screamed, in a desperate and excruciating attempt to help her get to sleep on her own? The guilt was overwhelming. I couldn’t go back and change my choices in those moments. Most of the moments were either situations out of my control, or attempts to control outcomes in my very early stages of parenting (boy, have I learned a thing or two about control since then). Was my incompetence traumatizing my child?
Every single time I met with another mother, she expressed this same exact fear. She simply wasn’t sure if she couldn trust her own decisions. She read every book, every article, and every parenting forum. She had advice coming from all directions- her pediatrician, her parents, her friends, long lost aunts and cousins, moms in Facebook threads. But she still wasn’t sure that anything she was doing was right. She worried, constantly, that she was somehow damaging her child psychologically. Her mistakes haunted her, constantly reminding her that she simply wasn’t cut out to be this baby’s mother.
Enter the good enough mother theory.
It isn’t simply about meeting your child’s basic needs, but trusting yourself to do so: this mother “learns best how to look after her baby not from health professionals and self-help books but from having been a baby herself.”
Wow. What a novel idea. Mothering from our own intuition. Trusting ourselves. Listening to our gut.
The good enough mother also knows that to meet the child’s every single need, forever, is simply not a healthy way to introduce them to the realities of life. “To achieve this shift from the baby’s total dependence to relative dependence the good-enough mother has, by a gradual process, to fail to adapt to her baby’s needs in order that the baby can begin to learn to tolerate the frustrations of the world outside of himself and his mother” (Winnicott, 1965).
As I began to research further, I saw my own natural inclinations being spelled out in black and white. I wanted to provide the most secure attachment possible for my children, and I knew that 99% of the time I did that. I also felt confident that I was emotionally attuned to my babies, and continued to learn their cues and needs as they grew. But so much of mothering felt like a constant push/pull- following my daughter’s lead, listening, paying attention to her cues, and at times taking the lead myself to guide her toward the best possible scenario for us both. In the early days this revolved a great deal around the two basic needs (for both of us)- sleep and food. But now that she is older, I see this ongoing tension and balance continuing to play out on a daily basis.
My therapist also confirmed this to me when he said that no matter how amazing our parents are, we will always have issues. It’s simply inevitable. There is no perfect family, no perfect parent, and no perfect child. We are human, we are broken, and we choose to love our children in the mess of it all. Trying to be perfect is a waste of time.
It has been a long process, and involved a great deal of healing on my own part. But now I feel that I can say with confidence, that no, I have never “traumatized” my kids. Yes, I have made mistakes. Big ones. I’ve lost my temper, my patience, and my sanity at times. But my kids know they are loved. I am not only good enough, I am the best possible mother my girls could ever need.
Respecting the gravity of childhood trauma means being clear about what it is, and what it is not. Neglect and abuse are never okay, and making light of it does a disservice to anyone who has actually endured it. Sometimes parents find themselves in situations where they simply cannot be the best parent possible- they may be walking through grief, or dealing with their own trauma that causes them to be less emotionally available. This is the reality of life. After my second daughter was born I endured a deep, deep depression. I couldn’t have changed this scenario, and although I am sad about what that season stole from my ability to experience joy with my daughter, I know that she always felt loved and protected in the midst of it.
So as we mother, as we heal, and as we love our children and ourselves, can we make each other a promise? That from now on we will proud of being good enough? That we will ditch the perfectionism, guilt, and fear that is trying so hard to drag us down? That we will quiet the voice inside that tells us we are failing our kids, and know that we ae doing the very best we can with what we have, right now? That we will trust our instincts? That we will continue to work on our own healing so that we can be the best possible mothers to our precious babies?
Here’s to being good enough.
It's time to thrive, mama.
Enter Your Email Address for A PDF Download of the first three chapters of The New Mystique: Reimagining Motherhood and Work by Hilary Barnett