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Barb Cohen

Are You a Good Enough Mother?

Parents of children with special needs struggle to judge their own competence.

"Tender Moment"/Jeffrey Kontur/CC BY-ND 2.0
Source: "Tender Moment"/Jeffrey Kontur/CC BY-ND 2.0

Sunday is Mother’s Day, the day when more phone calls are placed than any other day of the year. Mother’s Day is the day our children make sure to tell us we’re doing well, the day they reaffirm that we are good-enough mothers. That is, unless our children do not, cannot for whatever reason, offer us their critical validation. How can we then validate ourselves?

A friend, a teacher in her professional life and mother to a daughter who is both autistic and mildly cognitively impaired in her personal life, drove the point home. “I know I’m a good teacher,” she asserted. “My students tell me so, and I see all the progress they are making. But with my daughter, I just never know. I never feel like I’m doing it very well.”

In 1953 the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott coined the term “the good-enough mother.” For him, the good-enough mother

starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

In other words, a mother responds immediately to her infant’s cries and smiles. Over time, however, she gives the child more space to explore and fail, beginning as early as the child’s efforts to roll over independently. Instinctively, the mother is supporting the child’s growing sense of competence to create an independent life.

Even though this description of the process may suggest that parenting requires constant deliberation and mindfulness, Winnicott was actually trying to reassure mothers. Almost all of us help our children to grow in a safe and secure environment without making a conscious decision to do so. With the exception of mothers who were raised themselves in an impaired environment, every mother is good enough.

On a practical level, most mothers know if they were good enough only after their children are grown. If the adult child can establish meaningful relationships, hold a job, and find contentment with some aspect of life, we assume we were good enough.

Until our children are grown, we look for other kinds of evidence that we are doing well:

"Summer Knees"/Jessica Lucia/CC BY-NC_ND 2.0
Source: "Summer Knees"/Jessica Lucia/CC BY-NC_ND 2.0

knee scrapes which reflect a willingness to explore; acts of generosity toward friends; parent-teacher conferences that begin with, “I love having your child in my class!”; reminders to clear the kitchen table that, one shocking day, lead to a child clearing the table without prompting; the ear to ear grin when a child pedals for the first time down the sidewalk without training wheels; hugs and “I love you’s.” At these moments, we know we’re good enough. Not perfect, for sure, but good enough.

Some of our kids, however, cannot provide us with these acts of reassurance. Their scraped knees may reflect an underdeveloped vestibular system or a dangerous degree of recklessness due to impulsivity. And some of our children will not master the bicycle or recognize that we need a hug when we’ve had a bad day. Most of the parents with whom I spend time, both socially and in my work as an advocate, dread parent-teacher conferences. Instead of hearing our children’s praises sung, we settle in for, at worst, a litany of criticism, and, at best, the tortured optimism of comments such as, “I’m pleased that your daughter only had to leave class twice this week,” or “He only has five missing assignments right now. Quite an improvement over this time last quarter!” Regardless, the conferences feel like an indictment. Some of our children will not spread their wings and achieve the adulthood we imagined during pregnancy.

I think it is inevitable that we wonder if we could have done something more or different. Quit work? Work harder to pay for more interventions? Move to a different school district? Perhaps try vitamin supplements, or play therapy, or biofeedback, or intensive speech intervention at an early age when we should have realized some missed developmental milestone indicated. . . something. We will probably never know. It’s easy to respond that all parents commit missteps, but the fact is that ours seem more consequential. Is being good, good enough?

The truth is that none of our children have “reached their potential.” No human being has ever realized that maximum potential of uninterrupted focus, drive and dedication. Moreover, no parent has ever “done the best that I could.” Every day we let our kids eat too many cookies (some might argue that one is too many!) or stare vacantly at a screen instead of practicing an academic, athletic or social skill that could use work, we are not doing the best we could. “Reached their potential”” and done the best we could” are both standards that ensure failure. Winnicott understood as much. Good enough is helping our children to feel secure and valued, and good enough propels us forward.

The challenge for mothers of children with special needs (one of the many challenges) is that we cannot utilize standard criteria to validate our competence. We have to rely on our support networks and on our faith that our mothering instincts are as good as those of the other mothers on the playground. Our instincts are good enough. Our children do grow, and they do have moments of joy and competence. To all of the mothers reading this, those moments are our proof. We are good enough.

Happy Mother’s Day.