Before having children, I’ll admit I had a much different picture of what motherhood would look like. I just knew that I would be the quintessentially perfect mother. Many women think this way before having a child. They tell themselves things that I call “Nevers”. Some of the “Never” favorites I told myself included “I will never plop my child down in front of the television to occupy them”, “My child will never be allowed to behave that way in public”, and “My child will never throw a tantrum because as a perfect mother I will attend to their every need”. By telling myself the “Nevers” I was able to convince myself exactly how perfect I would be as a parent and how perfect my children would be as a result.
Then I had children. Want to talk about huge reality check? The “Nevers” quickly went away and what took their place was a nasty experience known as Postpartum Depression.
At first I was too afraid to talk about it. I had been so self-assured that I was going to be the perfect parent, and in reality I wasn’t handling motherhood very well at all. I was convinced I was crazy and people would take my baby away from me. It wasn’t until I received a phone call from an old friend that I realized I wasn’t alone in my experience. She had been my best friend for years and could tell by the sound of my voice that something was wrong. I broke down and told her everything. Through the sobs I could hear her reassurances and when I eventually calmed down, she explained she knew exactly what I was dealing with because she had also experienced these terrible feelings and thoughts after having her baby. She gently encouraged me to seek help. I am so grateful that I listened to her. Seeking help was the catalyst that eventually lead me to return to school and fulfill my dreams of earning a masters degree in counseling.
What’s all this have to do with being ‘good enough’? I’m glad you asked! Although I was getting help for the symptoms associated with postpartum depression, I still couldn’t help feeling like a failure as a mother. Why? My “Nevers” had become acceptable. I was plopping my kids down in front of the television to occupy them long enough for me to get something done around the house. I let them act out in public and ignored their tantrums. I was as far from perfect as one could be. I didn’t want my children to grow up viewing me as a failure or having the feeling that I had failed them.
During my first quarter in graduate school, I took a course on the history and evolution of psychodynamic theory. It was then that I was introduced to the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who, in the mid 1950’s developed his theory called the “Good Enough Mother”. It is exactly as it sounds. He believed that to be a good mother, you simply have to be a good enough mother.
Winnicott compared a mother to a gardener. She tends to her child with love, care, patience, and that takes a great deal of effort. She is not perfect. She experiences pressures and strains. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-absorbed. She runs toward her child and runs away. She is capable of both dedication and resentment. She is a human being and cannot hide this fact from her child. She has failures and tries again. The child observes all of this. They see her get knocked down and get right back up. They see her failures and struggles but they also see her brushing herself off and trying again. They watch her adjust to life. In turn, they learn to stand back up, brush themselves off and adjust to life.
The long and the short of it is this, perfection is not likely attainable. Even if it was, allowing your child to observe only perfection from the most important person in their early years sets them up for great disappointment when they learn that the world and the other people in it are far from perfect. Therefore, being good enough is much better than being perfect.
Obviously, I took this message to heart. Donald Winnicott is a hero! His theory provided me with relief. Am I perfect? NO! I no longer want to be…I only desire to be good enough. My children will be better for it.