Updated: Jun 5, 2019
Because I'm a mother, I spend a lot of time thinking about mothering. What does it mean to be a good mother? Am I doing a good job? How bad did I mess up today? Can I try again tomorrow? Are my kids okay? Do they have what they need? I also think about all the women out there who want to be mothers but aren’t yet or will never be. And the women out there who help us moms do what we do, mothering the mothers in a very real way. This mothering thing is all-consuming. First the hoping, wishing, praying for a baby. The tears and the smiles. The joy and the pain. And then, if we are lucky enough, the very active and exhausting 24/7 job begins. Once you strap yourself in to that roller coaster, it never stops.
The crazy thing about this roller coaster is that many of the highs and lows are our own creation born out of fear, judgment, shame and unrelenting expectations. As I ride this ride and over-analyze every bump, I am constantly reminding myself of Donald Winnicott’s phrase “the good enough mother.” A British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, he coined this term in 1953. After observing thousands of mothers and babies, he determined that children actually benefit from their mothers falling short in manageable and tolerable ways. This doesn’t mean abuse or neglect but rather the shortcomings that result from basic humanness and human error. As mothers we try to meet our children’s every need – let no cry go unanswered. But in reality, this is impossible. There will be times that we mistake what the cry is for. Or we have another child to tend to. Or we know that they are okay, and we really just need to sit down and take a thirty second breather before going on. In essence, the good enough mother concept means that superhuman is not the goal. Regular human is just fine and actually necessary. We are trying to teach our children to not only survive but to thrive in a very difficult and imperfect world. If we somehow, some way, are meeting their every need and preventing them from falling down or messing up, then we are impeding their ability to learn how to get back up or clean up the mess. There will be no resiliency, no understanding that a full life includes disappointment. And in fact, it’s the bouncing back from disappointment that can be the hallmark of a life well-lived.
Don’t get me wrong, I still try very hard every single day to be a really good mother. But there’s a relief in knowing that my imperfection will be a minor scratch and not a permanent scar. I can breathe a little easier knowing that my showing up and loving hard is what matters. I don’t have to have the cleanest house, the most perfect cookies, throw elaborate birthday parties and hand sew my kids’ clothes for them to be well loved and well taken care of. Of course it’s fine for them to have those things too. But the most important thing is that I mother with intention. This means knowing my limits, my strengths, my boundaries and my weaknesses. This means asking for help and sharing honestly with my village of other mothers and mother supporters. There are so many ways to be a mom. And for all the ways, the only requirement is to be good enough.