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Being a ‘good enough mother’ (parent)

happy mum and toddler
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Being a ‘good enough mother’ (parent)

happy mum and toddler
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The language used in this blog is heavily gendered. The good enough mother concept was written in the 1970s, and whilst Winnicott was breaking parenting norms, his gendered ideals were very much of his day! The good enough mother is a concept that can apply to people of all genders, or none. It is about the importance of humanity and imperfection in parents, and carers; in any attachment figure, in fact. So please do take these gendered pronouns, and terms as they are intended, to mirror only Winnicott’s language, rather than as a judgment or normalisation of engaged parenting as a ‘women’s’ role. Jen (they/them)

The pressures of being a parent seem to pile up all the time. All those ‘shoulds‘ sitting in your mind. My child should read more, eat better, do more classes, be more advanced. I should cook better, clean more, shout less, know more. What does being a ‘good’ mum mean? And how can you be the good enough mum?

Mum and toddler lying on the grass

What is a good Mum?

If you asked 10 people what being a good mum means you’ll probably get a wide variety of answers. Someone might say a good mum is one who is always there at home making sure everything runs smoothly. Another might say a good mum is the one who’s child knows that they can always talk to them. Yet another might say a good mum is the one who has instilled proper manners and respect in their child. Ask enough people and those different answers can feel wildly overwhelming.

Does good Mum = perfect Mum?

Does being a good mum mean being a perfect mum? Can the perfect mum in your mind do all of the things good mums do but better? Do they play more with their children whilst having a career? What makes them perfect?

The idea of the perfect mum is worth unpicking further. What is perfection? The idea of doing something with no mistakes? Of being able to tackle everything effortlessly and with joy? Is that a reasonable expectation to put on your self as a mum?

definition: Perfect

adjective

1. having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.

“life certainly isn’t perfect at the moment”

2. absolute; complete (used for emphasis).

“a perfect stranger”

verb

make (something) completely free from faults or defects; make as good as possible.

“he’s busy perfecting his bowling technique”

noun

the perfect tense.

The good enough mother

The concept of ‘the good enough mother’ was coined by Donald Winnicott in his book ‘Playing and Reality’ in 1971. Winnicott was a paediatrician and psychoanalyst who specialised in developmental psychology. His regular BBC radio broadcasts in the ’40s and ’50s, made him a household name in the post war period, and he suggested parents, mothers in particular, throw out the rulebook and parent according to their instincts. In a time where rules and schedules were emphasised to ensure early independence, this was counter cultural, and Winnicott did a great deal to change the attitude to parenting and to young babies.

Mum with baby in sling crouching down to toddler

Winnicott’s concept of the ‘good enough mother’ is one who is initially devotes herself to her child. She fulfils their every need, sacrificing her own needs to meet those of her child. However, as time moves on, she begins to allow her child to feel small amounts of frustration. She may finish making her cup of tea before sitting down to feed a hungry baby, for example. She is kind and empathetic to the feelings of her child, but she is no longer meeting all of their needs instantly. The relationship becomes more balanced. These periods of frustration are always short. She isn’t perfect but she is ‘good enough’.

Why is ‘good enough’ perfect?

Winnicott connected the gradual change from meeting all needs instantly, to reduced immediacy to important development in a child. He believed that the initial phase of coming to know their parent would always be there for them was important for babies, and that from that certainty they slowly begin to understand that sometimes there is a delay. In time this delay begins to feel more tolerable to babies, and again, gradually babies begin to exercise independence from a place of dependence.

His theory was that children need both responsivity and delay in order to develop fully; both the mother who meets all their needs and the mother who allows them feel that frustration in the delay. Initially, they learn that the world is safe and secure and subsequently they learn that there’s delay, discomfort, hunger, but in tolerable amounts. They learn to cope with this. Children need both of these expereinces to develop fully.

The final element to this not so ideal ‘good enough mother’ is modelling. A child with a perfect parent will never observe them deal with failure or disappointment, nor apologise. A child needs to see that. They need to see that people fail sometimes, and that this is acceptable, and that you then pick yourself up. They need to see that you make mistakes and then make amends. The way that you model these is key to their own interactions with the world as they grow.

The good enough mother, therefore, is the ideal mother, perfection is less than ideal!

Top tips for being the ‘good enough’ mother parent

  1. Give yourself some slack— Being a parent right now is hard. Society doesn’t give you a lot of support and taking a break can seem like a complicated mess of moving parts. You are doing your best to be there for your children. You will make mistakes but how you deal with them becomes your children’s model for their future
  2. Find space to be you — Find a way to be who you are apart from a parent. Whether that’s through a hobby, work, exercise, friends or anything else, give yourself that time to not be ‘mum/dad/zaza’ occasionally. You need recharge time too.
  3. Hold their frustration— empathise with their upset and tears. Rather than shushing away the big emotions of your little person/people, name them, recognise them and empathise with them.
  4. Find people who get it — Look for people in your life who support you and get how you want to parent. Perhaps that’s family, or friends who believe the same things, a church community or an online one. Find the people who listen and build you up.
  5. Do it with love Whatever you do, do it with love. When you make mistakes or choices you wish you hadn’t, apologise with love. Make repairs to your relationship with love. Play games with love, enjoy your time together with love.

You are ‘good enough’

Humans, because they are humans, aren’t perfect. We have emotional responses, we get touched out, we fly into rages when we have nothing left. But we can be good enough. You are good enough. Being a good parent isn’t about achieving perfection, it’s about loving your child and doing the very best you can to be good enough.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Baby development, Being a parent, Calmer relationships
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