This article explores the concept of ‘the good enough mother’, recognizing the many pressures, ideals and challenges which can be placed on mothers from family, friends, themselves, their culture and the wider societal norms and expectations. It explores the parenting role beyond the sole responsibility of a mother. It also creates space for rejecting expectations and claiming kindness and patience with oneself while carrying out one of the most rewarding, but demanding roles known to humankind.
Mothering & juggling a career
Being a mother of 6 children and a medical doctor, my life has been a challenging balancing act to meet many different needs, my own, my patients, my partner’s and those of my children.
In the early years I struggled a lot with ideals of what a mother should be. I regarded my role as a mother with unrealistic perfectionism. I mean, I am a doctor, I went through medical school. I am an achiever. Possibly an overachiever. I took the same attitude into parenting and motherhood. I should be able to ace this. I achieve well in my professional life, it should translate into my family life.
However perfectionism, unrealistic expectations and ideals left me unhappy, always striving but always ‘underachieving’, never being satisfied with my interactions with my children and chronically thinking I was not good enough, and was somehow failing my children. These experiences had a negative impact on my mental health.
What has helped me most has been understanding that I am a good enough mother.
What is ‘the good enough mother’?
Donald Winnicott a British pediatrician and child psychotherapist who coined the term ‘the good enough mother’.
At birth, infants are completely dependent upon their caregivers to meet all their needs, which initially are basic; food, warmth, safety, connection and love. Much of these needs are connected to task oriented activities required to care for an infant; nursing/ feeding, dressing, changing, snuggling, rocking, washing.
These tasks are not mother specific. They are caregiver specific and can be taken care of by any parent, mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparents, siblings, cousins and supportive friends.
Mother’s do not need to bear the burden of completing every infant related task and every house orientated task. In many traditional societies around the world, one adult is not burdened with the task of childraising alone, while a partner is in the workforce 8+ hours per day. This is a product of industrialized society.
We are social creatures and infant care giving is intense. Again, you do not need to meet all those needs and perform all the tasks of infant care. Your child needs good enough care which does not all need to come from you.
Although Winnicott was speaking of the good enough mother during an era where all child developmental theory revolved around child-mother relationship, we can expand his term today to mean the ‘good enough parent(s)/caregivers’ to recognize the wider caregivers roles and family structures into which children are born and raised.
According to Winnicott, the good enough parent is “one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate results of frustration.”
Winnicott observed that mothers who attended to their child 30 percent of the time, while providing a safe secure environment had children who were healthy and happy. This doesn’t mean ignore your child 70 percent of the time.
It simply suggests that mothers can breathe, take a step back and take the pressure off themselves to constantly be taking care of every need, immediately 100 percent of the time. We can accept our efforts to parent, alongside the input from family, friends, teachers as collaboratively good enough to build healthy resilient humans.
What is good enough parenting?
Firstly. All parenting is imperfect parenting. There is no perfect. There is only good enough. Every parent-child relationship is unique and requires adaptive responses. There is no cook-book parenting. It is definitely a learn on the job experience.
Good enough parenting indicates empathy, compassion, sensitivity and warmth. In those first months it creates a continuity of safety experienced in the womb, with quick, warm responses to the baby’s needs.
Good enough parenting tolerates a breadth of difference in parenting styles as long as the child feels physically and emotionally safe, contained and held.
The good enough parent rejects the ideals of the perfect parent, the best parent, and certainly the comparative parent. Constantly measuring yourself to an external standard is a sure way to feel unsatisfied, burnt out as a parent and not enough. It also makes it hard to feel warm and compassionate when worrying if what you are doing is appropriate or enough.
The good enough parent accepts they have limitations, that they alone are unlikely to be constantly capable of meeting every need of their child. That no human or group of humans are superhuman enough to prevent all pain and sadness and anger in their growing child. That it takes a village to raise a child, to grow a family. It’s a collaborative team effort.
Good enough parenting accepts that frustration is a part of their child’s growth and development. Incrementally they make space for this by not meeting every immediate need for the child, helping them to learn and explore their world. Making space for their little one to stumble, but being there to respond, again with the warmth and safety their child needs.
Good enough parenting does not mean you make the best choices every time for you children, it’s simply a willingness and consistency to be there for them.
Parenting as a practice of self-compassion
When you create a safe environment for your child, they feel safe to explore their surroundings via rolling, crawling, shuffling and eventually walking. As parents we observe these moments with awe, excitement and celebration, despite the stumbling, the tears, the owies, and the sheer frustration we can see the effort and forward momentum is worth it.
As a good enough parent we need this same kind of reflection, and generosity towards our own parenting. We would never berate a child for not learning to walk fast enough or falling after taking a single step, yet many of us berate ourselves because we couldn’t get the baby straight back to sleep, keep the house clean, cook the dinner, soothe the baby, and feel super happy and satisfied while doing it.
Mothering can be exhausting. It’s a fact.
It is hard work. When children are small it can be physically exhausting and emotionally exhausting. As they develop their own personalities and are working out their identities, values and gifts it is emotionally intense for a parent as older children teens also need a lot of emotional support as they grow into independent adulthood.
Embracing the gift of the good enough mother (or the good enough parent)
- Let go of other people’s expectations for your mothering/parenting. You will learn and grow as a parent alongside each child you parent.
- Seek support from non-judgmental others. Parenting is long and hard. You need some great cheerleaders.
- Fill your own cup. It is not selfish to have time out with friends, a trip away, a walk or some type of time out each day without your child. Maintain a hobby or an interest that helps you feel like you and allows you to let go of your parenting role for a moment.
- Accept your role for safety, warmth and compassion while at the same time acknowledging there is much you cannot control as a parent and you will make yourself miserable trying.
- Have self compassion. That same love that you shower on your child, shower yourself with it. When you’re having a bad day, be especially generous, kind and patient with yourself.
- Know that your child will be fine if you do not do every single thing for them, and they will experience the process of individuation in increasing increments (the process of developing their unique self-identity).
- Accept that what you can do is enough. You are enough of a mother, (or of a parent) just the way you are.
- Reach out. See your family doctor, your therapist, social worker or support group if things are overwhelming you.
Love your children, love yourself and open your heart to good enough parenting. xx
Maternal Mental Health USA
Maternal Mental Health Australia/NZ