No, I’m not about to tell you that you must try harder. In fact, quite the opposite. I think most of us are trying far too hard, and that isn’t sustainable or healthy for us or our children.
There’s such a strong narrative of striving and self improvement in our culture that settling for just ‘good enough’ might seem a bit defeatist, or even dangerous when it comes to parenting.
Let me reframe this for you. Because being ‘good enough’ IS the ideal when it comes to raising psychologically well adjusted and resilient children. And trying to live up to an image of ‘perfect’ motherhood is the opposite and potentially very damaging, for you and for them.
The concept of ‘good enough’ parenting is derived from the work of Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst who first identified this term in 1953.
Winnicott was concerned about the rising influence of so called ‘parenting experts’ giving advice and often undermining the child’s own parents. He also wanted to counter the idealisation that occurs when we have a fantasy or archetype of what a ‘good’ mother is.
Although this was back in the 1950s, arguably both of these themes are dominant today. We still place a great deal of faith in ‘experts’ telling us everything from how and where our baby should sleep, how we should feed and wean, and how we should educate and discipline. We also, both consciously and unconsciously, are often trying to live up to an idea of what a good mother should be. The image that appears in my mind (and I expect in yours too) is that of a mother as present, loving, available, self-sacrificing, and completely attuned to the needs of her children.
Contrary to this perfect image, based on hundreds of observations of mothers and their babies, Winnicott came to realise that there were many moments when infants’ needs were not met immediately or perfectly, but that this was necessary to help them adapt to their environment.
Children need their mother (or primary caregiver) to fail them in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they can develop resilience and learn to live in an imperfect world.
Before you think this promotes a kind of ‘life is tough, get over it’ message, it’s much more subtle than that. And the key word is ‘tolerable’ failure: these are instances of misattunement or disconnection, not of deliberate abuse or neglect.
As mums (or primary caregivers) I think we all know the delicate dance between connection and separation with our children. In those very early days postpartum, there are millions of micro moments in a single day when you are either in synch with your baby or more often are not. You are both learning the dance. Then, as your child grows, there are always new steps to learn in that dance. Of tuning into their world and trying to anticipate and meet their needs, and of backing off and allowing them to develop and make mistakes.
All of this ‘good enough’ parenting is necessary to build a healthy relationship and enable age appropriate development of your child. It’s also very much connected to the concepts of a ‘secure attachment' and ‘rupture and repair’ which I will cover in separate blog posts.
Even if intellectually we know that perfection is unattainable and not very helpful for us or our children, the deep pull to be perfect remains strong. Most of us are socialised to be ‘good girls’ and this seamlessly feeds into much of what we believe we need to be and do as ‘good mothers’.
Trying to be perfect is also about trying to control things so that we don’t experience discomfort or anxiety. We think that if we just ‘get it right’ we won’t mess up our children. Or we think we somehow need to fix or make amends for times when we ‘got it wrong’.
In this way, a difficult pregnancy, traumatic birth experience, problems with feeding, coping with a hard to soothe baby, or postnatal depression can lead to heightened expectations to be a perfect mother. This can lead to a vicious cycle of failing to live up to standards that you think you should be achieving, and burnout when you believe you have to try even harder.
Even without a difficult or traumatic background to early postpartum, the sheer magnitude of change that comes with the transition into motherhood can leave you wanting to control this new and uncertain territory.
So the narrative that surround us of striving and self improvement preys on these vulnerabilities. It’s hardly surprising that you think you need to do a better job.
My hope is that if you are still here reading this, and from the steady drip, drip, drip of my social media posts, you are beginning to absorb the message that you are already ‘good enough’ as an antidote to all the other messages telling you that you are at fault in some way.
But I know that the desire to be a better parent is also a very heartfelt and positive one.
You may be seeking to repair after a period of time (such as postnatal depression) when you ave been unable to be present for your child.
Or you may be keen to find ways to manage your emotions and stop reacting and flying off the handle.
Or perhaps you simply want to enjoy being a parent more.
Working with me can help you to figure out what you do want to change and improve about your relationship with your child. Whilst valuing what you are already doing and finding a deeper level of self compassion and acceptance.
I offer 1:1 counselling/coaching packages. I’m also running some workshops on the themes that I hear again and again in my work - how to get away from what society tells you that you should be doing and start parenting from a place that feels authentic to you.
Please get in touch if this resonates with you and you’d like to find out more.