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How to Be a Good Enough Mother

Developing more realistic expectations of ourselves

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

As mothers, we want to be perfect. We want to be all things to all people, especially our children. We want to give our kids all kinds of joy and spare them all kinds of pain. We don’t ever want them to feel unloved, unwanted, needy, frightened, hungry, or lost. And yet we also know that we must set limits, disappoint them, make them wait, insist they share, and—heaven forbid—pay attention to the needs of others, never mind our own.

All mothers feel the pressure of these cascading needs, made all the more challenging with the added pressure of a career or without the help of a partner. Stay at home moms, working moms, single moms—in all shapes and sizes—put on their supermom capes every day, secretly knowing that it is utterly impossible to live up to these ideal expectations.

One of my missions in life is to bring the helpful wisdom of my profession—psychoanalysis—to ordinary people as they live their everyday lives. I have a special heart for helping mothers because they, in many ways, do the world’s most important work. The work of mothers is crucial because the kind of care that children receive in their early lives shapes everything that will come later. The most important gift I want to offer mothers is to help them develop a more balanced approach: to lean into the challenges of motherhood with intelligence and devotion while also giving themselves grace, compassion, and understanding when they do so imperfectly. Because imperfectly is the only way it can be done.

Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined a term that captures this more balanced approach to mothering; he called a good mother a good enough mother. He described her in an admiring, respectful, yet down-to-earth way. A good enough mother is sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She pays attention to her child. She provides a holding environment. She offers both physical and emotional care. She provides security. When she fails, she tries again. She weathers painful feelings. She makes sacrifices. She tends her child with love, patience, effort, and care.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

But that is not the end of it, for Dr. Winnicott’s good enough mother is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She has mixed feelings about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication yet she is also prone to resentment. She gets frustrated, depressed, and tired; she loses her temper, acts impulsively and regrets it. She is not perfect. She is not superhuman. She is real.

If we can develop more realistic expectations of ourselves, we relieve ourselves of the greatest pressure of all: the unnecessary pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect. Good enough is as good as it gets when it comes to mothering—and it is as good as it needs to be. Accepting this reality can lead to an emotional shift inside. If our lives are seasoned with compassion, patience, and understanding, then our emotional load will be lighter. And that is good for everyone.

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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