Don't Be The Perfect Mother, Be "Good Enough"

12:33 AM

Many mothers have the desire to be the perfect parents, doing everything they think they should do to give their kids the best chance in life. But for some psychologists, this approach is neither desirable nor realistic. Instead, mothers should be focused on being “good enough” for their kids, allowing their children to do the majority of their learning by themselves.

The theory of the good enough mom is based on the work of Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician who was interested in the level of care parents should bestow on their children. After observing hundreds of children and parents going to and from his office in the 1950s, he began to form a theory about what parenting should be. To the relief of mothers all over the country and the world, he didn’t say that they had to be “perfect” - whatever that means. Instead, he said that they had to be adequate for the child’s growing needs and nothing more.

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But what does that mean in practice? Winnicott points out that mothers (and fathers) are neither good nor bad. Instead, they are simply a separate entity from their children with their own independent needs. Early on in childhood, mothers do everything they can to meet the needs of their helpless infant, helping it to adapt to a strange and hostile world. Over time, however, the infant grows in both strength and capacity. Winnicott points out that it is perfectly natural for the mother to be less and less involved in the child’s needs as the child grows and learns to adapt to the world around it. Over time, the need for the mother’s involvement dwindles as the child gets used to her mother “failing” to protect her from the world.

Winnicott doesn’t use the word “failure” in a negative sense - as if the mother has somehow failed the child by not tending to their every whim. What he means by this is that as the child grows up, mom is no longer able to fix everything that is bad about the world and make it better again. This, he points out, is the natural state of the world. Moms can’t do everything, and neither should they try. Sometimes they won’t be able to make everything better again, and that’s okay.

Knowing that being a good enough mother is good enough is an important message for moms. Often moms panic when they have to find a nanny to look after their children because they feel that they have to abandon all notion of self-interest. They put unnecessary pressures on themselves to perform when they don’t have to, increasing their emotional burden and causing them an enormous amount of stress.

Kids Benefit From Imperfect Parenting

Imagine for a moment if mothers didn’t “fail” and that they met all of their kid's needs. Would those children be rounded and confident individuals? Almost certainly not. Those children would never learn to rely on their own strength to deal with the difficulties of life and would emerge into adulthood, totally unprepared for the world ahead of them.

Second, it’s simply not possible to sustain the level of care and attention that mothers give infants forever. Over time, that attention wanes, and ultimately children have to find ways to solve their own problems. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should completely take a back seat and not intervene in difficult situations. But both parents and children should get used to the idea that mom and dad can’t solve everything.

In practice, this means failing your children in “tolerable” ways. It doesn’t mean neglecting them or letting them fend for themselves. It just means opening them up to the possibility that the world does not revolve around them. Practical examples include things like making them sit and eat at the dinner table instead of watching the TV or not responding immediately to their demands for service from the kitchen. Though they might get upset that their needs are not being met, this process teaches children an important lesson. In life, they will feel regularly frustrated and will have to deal with that emotion without the help of others. If children never have these emotional experiences, they’ll never learn that it’s okay to experience negative emotions which may cause them to lash out at others in the future. Kids who experience tolerable levels of disappointment, sadness, and irritation develop the emotional tools to deal with them. Ultimately, you want to build the child’s resilience - something which takes particularly strong parenting.

Don’t Strive For Perfection

Needless to say, striving for perfection isn’t possible. There will be times when you can’t meet the needs of your children. But imagine for a second how they would turn out if you could. You’d end up with a fragile child, unable to deal with the pressures and complications of the world, endlessly looking for other people to rescue them from dire situations.

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That child would grow up without the ability to act independently. Instead, they’d constantly gravitate to other people. All of their romantic relationships would devolve into parent-child role playing at the expense of the grown child and their partner. And the children themselves would be unable to tolerate even the slightest disappointment, making it difficult for others to spend time with them. The ultimate result could easily be a deeply unhappy child with no close personal relationships and a personality built on sand.

If you’re a mother who feels pressured to be perfect, don’t be. Imperfect parenting is not only the only feasible way to parent, but it’s also the best. Striving for perfection is unsustainable and leads to crisis points in family life which can be difficult to recover from. It’s important to remember throughout the process that you’re a parent who wants what’s best for your child. Even though you might feel as if you haven’t lived up to your own expectations, children are robust creatures and able to overcome their own obstacles. Every time we “fail” our kids, they get a little bit stronger. And that’s what good moms want.

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