The Good Enough Mother

Aiming to be the “perfect” can cause problems for both you and your child

Motherhood requires a uniquely intense responsibility. You’re caring for — and creating — a human being. Many women tell me that they feel that this is the highest stakes job of their lives: “I’m shaping a human being!” So it’s understandable that some mothers ask me: “This is my child, why would he/she deserve anything less than perfect?”

The work of pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott introduced the idea that aiming to be the “perfect” or “best” mother can cause some unintended problems for both you and your child. He coined the phrase “good enough mother” in 1953, and decades later we’re all still trying to digest and accept his cautionary wisdom. Winnicott’s message is that you don’t need to be “the best” mother to raise a psychologically healthy child who feels loved and nurtured. You simply need to be a “good enough” mother who takes care of your baby’s basic physical and emotional needs. If your baby feels overall safe and loved, she will be able to tolerate and forgive your imperfections.

Easier said than done, I know, but let’s talk it through. For some of us, “good enough” sounds like settling. You’re working hard at being a good mother, and making a daily choice to give your baby the best, so why lower the bar? You’ve likely made financial, personal, even professional sacrifices after all, so shouldn’t the results be better than just good enough?

But you and your baby are both human, and perfection isn’t possible in any human relationships. And it’s more than just accepting that perfection isn’t possible; we need to stop thinking of motherhood as effortless all-giving, because the healthiest approach preserves room for the mother’s own physical, emotional, and social space.

When some women think about allowing themselves to be “human,” they feel a sudden panic that they will slide into behaviors of selfish or “bad” motherhood. But, you have to trust that if you love your baby, you won’t just stop caring for him, love will win when you just go with the natural flow.

New motherhood is also a good opportunity to reflect on what may be a lifelong pattern of critical perfectionism. Sure, no one wants to “fail” at motherhood, but who’s judging you here? Yourself? Your mother’s (or worse, your mother-in-law’s) voice in your ear? An imaginary (or not-so-imaginary) cabal of critical women? I’m here to tell you: perfection is an impossible goal; it’s not possible in any job or human relationship, and it’s certainly not possible in parenting.

Some days this means seeing the triumph in keeping your baby fed, clothed, and (mostly) clean. Other days this means accepting your stumbles and moving on without beating yourself up.

So, what can you do about it and the feeling that you’re failing? Rather than spending time judging yourself and wondering if you’re getting an “A” at parenting, try to aim for compassion and authenticity when you’re with your baby. That compassionate and authentic parent is the person your baby is going to love, and the model that your child will learn from as she grows up. Since motherhood is such a hard job, we’re all going to fail at it sometimes. But to be good enough, all you have to do is to brush yourself off and try again. It’s your effort and caring that your children can feel and need most. Trust me: they need the hugs (and the dinner, and the bath, and the shared giggles) and they’re not grading you on the quality of your performance.

Besides, that perfect mother isn’t a healthy model for them either, because she’s so self-depriving. Would you want your own child to learn that neglecting her basic needs in the context of a relationship is something to strive for? Sometimes you have to put yourself first — and you should. Self care is not selfish — it’s simply a requirement for psychological (and physical) survival. There may be times you have to go to the bathroom and leave your baby crying for a few minutes in her crib. As soon you pick her up and hug her, she’ll forgive you. I encourage you to also try to forgive yourself.

A marker of psychological wellness is being able to accept that none of us are perfect. Even if your child is perfect in your eyes, he’s also human. The sooner you accept that you’re not going to be a perfect mother, the sooner you can start to prepare yourself that your baby is not going to be perfect either.

As Winnecott noted, since you are bringing your baby into an imperfect world, it’s more useful to accept that you are human too. A perfect mythic goddess might not help her child to hack it in the real world with people (like teachers, siblings or friends) who don’t treat him like he’s the center of the universe. You want your child to become an independent person, and if you’re perfectly meeting his every need 24/7, that won’t happen.

An imperfect mother helps her child gain the skills to tolerate frustration, become self-sufficient, and learn to soothe himself. These are the hallmarks of what psychologists call “grit”, a personality trait that can help your child succeed in life.

My #matrescence call to action is to teach women that healthy mothering is good-enough mothering, because perfect mothering is not a realistic option. If we could all truly give ourselves permission to be good-enough, I think that women would start to speak more openly to normalize the natural emotional tensions that swirl during matrescence. This might even reduce the shame and social isolation that contributes to many cases of postpartum depression!

Read my other posts:

Reproductive Psychiatrist / Parenting Contributor @NYTimes / Book Author “What No One Tells You” | Podcast Host @GimletMedia’s “Motherhood Sessions”

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