Good enough mothering. What does that mean? Why does it matter? Don’t mothers think they are good enough?
I am Dr. Elaine Heffner, and in my experience as a parent educator and psychotherapist, I see mothers trying to be perfect. “Good enough” doesn’t feel good enough. How did that happen? I am opening this space for parents so that we can have a conversation about this question, and about the many other questions mothers have asked me over the years.
Let me start by saying that mothers’ worries that they may not be doing a good enough job come, in part, from the children themselves. Children want you to be perfect (that is, to do whatever they want you to do and to make them happy all the time), but that doesn’t mean you should be. . . . or that it would be good for them if you could be.
Perhaps, deep down inside we all wish life could have been perfect for us as children, and so we are too ready to agree with our children that we should be able to make life perfect for them. But we can’t – and that makes us feel guilty. Feeling guilty seems to be a normal condition of motherhood. So let me assure you that feeling guilty does not mean you are guilty. Those feelings do not mean you are not doing a good enough job.
So, just what is “good enough?” To answer that question we have to think about the purpose of child-rearing: what our goal is as parents. We know children are dependent creatures who have to be taken care of – sometimes it seems forever. We know we must provide them with food, shelter and clothing. But we also have to prepare and teach them to live in the world they will live in. That means becoming self-sufficient, while at the same time knowing how to get along with others. They have to learn to meet their own needs while still considering the needs and wishes of others. This is the art of living. Teaching this to children is the art of mothering.
Unfortunately, a great deal of energy has gone into trying to turn this art into a science. Mothers too often try to be scientists raising perfect children. And the real purpose of child-rearing has gotten lost.
Children begin life not only dependent on adults for survival, but also with limited means of expression and self-control. They are primarily concerned with gratifying their own needs and wishes. As they grow and mature they will gradually acquire the skills they need to function independently while also learning to consider others. As parents, our role is to teach and guide them while they are learning.
Over the years, child development research has given rise to many theories about how mothers “should” do this job (for mostly the job has been assigned to mothers.) Several messages have been delivered through these theories:
One is that a good mother will put the needs of her child first.
A second is that not meeting a child’s needs will be damaging to the child.
A third is that there is a right way and a wrong way of responding to a child, and that a child’s development depends on doing it the “right” way. Doing it the “wrong” way can harm a child.
These messages have given mothers the idea that they have great potential for damaging their children. So mothers search for the “right” way to do things and think they must be to blame if there are any bumps on the developmental road.
But there are always going to be bumps . . . and mothers don’t cause them. Nor do they mean you did something wrong. They are part of life and of learning to live in the real world.
We are going to look together at some of those bumps, think about what they tell us and how to help our children over them.