The Good Enough Mother
The phrase "good enough mother" was originally coined by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott. The phrase “good enough mother” refers to a mother’s (or other caretaker’s) “changing attentiveness and availability to the needs of a baby.” According to Winnicott, the "good enough mother" refers to a mother whose behavior towards her baby changes; initially, we’re [assumed to be] all in and we go running at the slightest sound our babies make. As time goes by, however, a mother allows the baby to experience small amounts of frustration. Mom is empathetic and caring but does not immediately rush to the baby's every cry. She is not "perfect" but she is "good enough" in that the child only feels a slight amount of frustration. There’s a lot of things in this theory that I, a modern feminist, take exception with. But the gist of this, I think I like. And I want to share with you about how I’m a good enough – not always great – mother.
I was at a continuing education (CE) course recently which focused on mindfulness. As part of the course, we did a lot of recapping of psychological theory – attachment, parenting, motherhood – and all throughout, there seemed to be a common theme, one which after years of study, I’m all too familiar with: it’s all moms fault. Sure, I’m being a bit sarcastic here. And sure, the term “mother” was magically made all-inclusive by the caveat of “Oh, and by ‘mother’ we really mean ‘caregiver’ but we’ll just refer to mother for consistency sake.” Either way, it took me right back to my post-graduate training days where I rolled my eyes while actively listening and taking copious notes. All the while, dreading my inevitable fail as a mother to my future children. Sigh.
The mindfulness training turned out to be, all in all, just ok. Maybe the material got lost for me amidst the heap of guilt I, and other women and mothers in attendance, griped about to one another during the lunch break. But here’s where things really got interesting for me.
One of my kids had been complaining for the last week or so of headaches and stomachaches without other “sick” symptoms. In particular, during the school day. So about a week in, I reached out to the teacher to check in. Is my kid actually sick? Was there a pattern here? Does she not like math? Does she love the school nurse? Is she tired? I felt as though I was doing my due diligence with this reach-out. I asked my kid if she felt she needed to see a doctor? No, of course not (doctor = shots). I asked the teacher if she thought something was going on here? Maybe. Turns out, the teacher said, lots of my kids’ little friends were having the same symptoms at around the same time every day. It’s turned into a bit of a game even, to see who the first one is to make it to the comfort of the nurse’s office. Hmmm. Sounds suspect.
GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER ALERT! My gut tells me my kiddo is not actually sick. Her teacher tells me this may be a competitive game. I’ve given her the option of seeing a doctor, of making this better – and I’ve come up with nothing. My job is done here! Bases, covered.
Back to my CE course. On the second day of training, I take out my phone during a lunch break and you can imagine my horror when I see an email – you all know the one – with the subject line “*Lauren is ok’ from the school nurse. Once my initial panic subsides (I both appreciate and loathe these subjects, which imply that EVERYTHING IS FINE, while also implying THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG), I open up the email from the school nurse. Here it is, copied and pasted:
Dear Mrs. Hochstadt,
Just letting you know *Lauren just came to see me and said she’s had a stomach ache for about a week and she doesn’t know why “my Mom and Dad haven’t taken me to a doctor”. Her temperature is 98.6 😊
I have no reason to send her home and not sure about the time frame or if she has mentioned it to you, but as an FYI, did want to let you know that if she continues to have a stomach ache, there have been cases of strep with no sore throat or fever, but an extended time of stomach discomfort.
I’ll let you know if anything changes.
Knife. In. Heart.
School nurse judging me.
Strep without a sore throat?!?!?! WTF. (Also, I seem to remember a case of this from a few years ago. Why didn’t I remember this sooner!???) I’m the worst.
And onto the moral of my story.
You see, I consider myself to be a good enough mother. I’m not the best. I’m not the most fun. I’m not the most easy-going. I yell. I punish. I threaten. I go back on my threats; I enforce them at times. I dote on my kids. I let them stay up late sometimes. They watch tv. I cuddle with them. We are silly together. I make them what they want for dinner. We do homework. We have fun. I love them endlessly and I tell them so, often.
“Don't be so hard on yourself. The mom in E.T. had an alien living in her house for days and didn't notice.”
- Pinterest Mom
I do it right, enough of the time to make the times I do it wrong, ok. I think. And yet, sometimes, no matter how good enough I am or think I am, inevitably, it’s the times I come up short that ring most clearly for me in my innermost thoughts.
But on the other hand, I’m good…enough. And sometimes, per Winnicott, that’s all I need to be.
*names have been changed
Julia holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Columbia University, advanced Clinical Certificates from NYU, and certification in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. Julia can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website www.therapywithjulia.com.