Being a Good Enough Mother

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by Angela Hedges

“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity.” – Donald Winnicott, 1953.

Image and photo courtesy of Angela Hedges

I’ll admit it: I want to be the perfect mother. Even though I know that the perfect mom is a myth, deep down I want to be one. I left the working world so my kids could have my full attention. I read parenting books and parenting blogs and decided on a discipline style. I enrolled them in baby gym classes and dragged them to weekly playgroups. I limited television and insisted on healthy meals. And yet they still throw temper tantrums, refuse to pick up their toys, knock over kids at the playground and tease one another to tears. All my perfect parenting flies out the window and I switch into screaming mama mode, threatening to throw away their toys and impose week-long timeouts. Go supermom!

Then the guilt. I was after perfection and ended up doing things I vowed I never would. I felt like a failure. Until I came across a simple idea: the good-enough mother. Donald Winnicott, a pediatric psychoanalyst, developed this concept in the 1950s after watching countless mothers and children interact. He found that mothers who were attentive to their children’s needs but didn’t always meet them actually served their children better. “Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities,” Winnicott stated. Children raised to expect some failure and disappointment learn to cope and develop healthy independence.

What a freeing concept. We can be loving and attentive moms, and when we make mistakes it actually helps our kids learn about life’s unpredictability. Messing up is good thing! Last night, after an hour of bedtime resistance, I screamed at my daughter to “JUST STOP WHINING AND GO TO SLEEP!” Not my best parenting moment. But she knows I love her and this morning she bounced into my arms like nothing had happened. I’m a good mother, so I don’t have to be perfect. If I yell, or never sign them up for Music & Movement class, or feed them corn dogs three nights in a row, they won’t be ruined. They’ll adapt. They’ll be just fine.

“Feeling guilty seems to be a normal condition of motherhood. So let me assure you that feeling guilty does not mean you are guilty.” Elaine Heffner, psychotherapist and author of Good Enough Mothering puts it so well. We are plagued with guilt over the choices we make for our children. But we aren’t guilty of anything. Making mistakes is not only inevitable, it actually helps prepare our children for life. Perhaps the best Mother’s Day present we can give ourselves is permission to be good-enough mothers. Good enough is perfect for me.

Angela Hedges put aside a career in social media to pursue her passions: family and writing. As a mother she is inspired to explore the struggles and joys found in the ever-changing landscape of modern parenting. Her blog With Fail chronicles her journey as a writer. Angela also dead-blogs about the remarkable life of her grandmother on the aptly-named My Dead Grandmother.