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The Good Enough Mother

Just as mothers aren’t perfect, neither is life. Resilience is necessary.

It’s when I have felt most unsteady within myself that I’ve wanted to be the “perfect mother” … when feeling more confident, I knew that by being a “good enough mother” I could give my children what they really needed.

I handed the parking attendant $30 and pulled out onto Charles Street.

“That parking was expensive,” Elli shook her head. “But now at least you can pay for it! Do you remember that time in New York when we didn’t have enough to get out of the parking garage?” There was a familiar tightness in her laugh. “We had to search under the seats to find money.” Elli, now 25, was chuckling, but I could hear, and still feel the pain, both hers’ and mine, about that day, years ago.

“Actually, honey, we didn’t have to search under the seats for money to get out of the parking lot. It was $15; I had $14.76, and the guy was very nice, letting me pay that to get out,” I smiled at her. “It was after we were out that I told you and Sam, who must have been 8 at the time, that we needed to have a treasure hunt to see how much money we could find under the seats.” I needed to know how much I had before I got onto the Turnpike, so I would know how far we could go before the money ran out.

“We had just enough to get us over the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Then we took non-toll roads the rest of the way.” Elli laughed, the high pitch still felt like a needle piercing my heart.

“I remember. Sammy started to get upset, but he calmed down when you made it into a game and told us to think about it as us being on an adventure. I hated it whenever you said that!”

As my daughter spoke, I was transported back to that time 14 years earlier, right after Charles and I had separated. My confidence in myself as a wife, a parent, and a woman was badly shaken. I was a mess. I had been in an emotionally abusive marriage for years, but the two years before we separated, when I was being treated for aggressive breast cancer, Charles’ need for control, his sadism and emotional abuse had gotten much worse. Although I was a psychologist, I wasn’t working. I had to close my practice when I was hospitalized for a stem cell transplant. I had no money and was sick; there was no way I could leave then. But when my treatment ended, the sadism continued and it had gotten to a point that there wasn’t a choice about leaving. My attorney had said, “Based on everything you’ve told me, remaining in the same house puts you in real danger that your illness will recur. You can leave on the grounds of constructive abandonment. It would be destructive for you not to leave; this is for your protection.” I could still hear his voice as his blue eyes looked directly into mine.

That fiasco in the parking lot came shortly after the separation and shortly after my father’s sudden death. It was one weekend when the kids and I had driven up to New York for the Bar Mitzvah of the son of my childhood friend. Charles had told the kids that they really didn’t have to go, because they didn’t know the people that well. It was my weekend, and this time I said they were going, not allowing him the control he usually tried to usurp. Nevertheless, feeling, as I always did back then when I asserted myself, that I was doing something wrong, I promised we’d go to our favorite “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant in Chinatown for soup dumplings, an inexpensive treat! Elli and Sam were elated.

After eating, we passed a store and Sammy asked for a game he saw in the window, and we were having such a good time, I said “Yes.” Usually, I was always having to say “no.” I felt bad that I was broke all the time. Charles and I hadn’t gotten a court date yet, so he was able to get away with giving me $20 a week in child support. But as we walked out of the shop, Sammy excited about his new game, I suddenly realized I didn't have enough money to get the car out of the parking lot nor to get us home. It took everything in me not to melt into a puddle of tears. Sammy was great and we went back into the shop to return the game. Unfortunately in Chinatown, no returns, even when it’s five minutes later. So, my attempt to have my kids feel like we weren’t on the brink of financial disaster totally backfired.

“You know, Mom … you worked so hard to have everything turn out perfectly for us …”

Elli’s words brought me back to the present. “I guess I did. I felt very guilty that you didn’t have the ideal family and that I wasn’t able to give you and your brother the things you had lost. I felt as if I had to make it up to you …”

“Mom, that’s ridiculous! You just do the best you can do … that’s what you taught us!”

I smiled at Elli. Her statement reminded me of Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and child psychoanalyst who coined the expression "The Good Enough Mother" in his landmark book, Playing and Reality.

Nowadays, when speaking to parents, I often say that Winnicott didn’t talk about "the perfect mother," only the "good enough mother." Having some room for error gives kids room to grow, it gives them the chance to learn to tolerate frustration and to solve problems and to be human. It helps them to become resilient … and if there is something I want for my children, and for all children, it is for them to be resilient. Just as mothers aren’t perfect, neither is life. Resilience is necessary.

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