Last month I received an email from a man in Mantova, Italy, which he gave me permission to share with you. His name is Dario Ferrari and he identified himself as a 58 year old male with two university degrees, living a middle class life in Northern Italy. The subject line of his email says: “A personal experience with a Good ENOUGH parent.”
Mr. Ferrari explained that when he can, he tries to watch the TV program, Open Mind on the internet, and saw an interview with me about my book. He explains:
“I was very attracted by the title (goodenoughmothering) because one of my family’s key events to define my childhood’s history or peculiarity regards the fact that when I was about 6-7 years old I had a long period where I used to address my father as ‘my good enough father.’ And I used to pat him in the back while I said it, or just as a greetings gesture.”
He explains further: “I made this long premise because in my opinion, I meant what I said at 6 years of age. Not that he was GOOD enough, but good ENOUGH; what I would like to emphasize is the enough. My recollection of that word or of that ‘gesture’, the feeling I recall while I was doing it, the recollection of the period is that of a sense of serenity.”
Mr. Ferrari goes on to describe his own internal journey establishing his goals and values in life, and then writes, “Finding out (perceiving) that my father was ‘good ENOUGH’ also implies that I had sensed that he was not TOO good, he was real, I could say IT to him, I could say to him that he was ‘enough’ and he would accept it; he was ‘one of me’, my size, I could speak to him, speak my mind to him without running any risk. He was fine. Serenity . . . I could even joke about feelings with him. No trouble.”
I was so moved by this communication because the writer expresses in such a personal and heartfelt way, the meaning of a concept I have been trying to convey in my own writing. Mr. Ferrari adds, “Good enough is something ‘else’ than the literal meaning of enough. It has three dimensions, it also has ‘depth’; it is good enough like when a father or a mother can be good enough.
It is wonderful that he writes about this concept in terms of a relationship with his father. Although a long history makes the idea of “good enough” relevant for mothers, fathers are increasingly joining the search to become the “perfect” parent. Both fathers and mothers can undoubtedly find gratification in the email writer’s description of his feelings about his father, particularly the idea that not being too good made him real and accessible to his son.
The idea of a “good enough mother” was introduced by the psychiatrist D.W. Wnnicott in the 1950s, when the role and expectations of mothers was quite different than it is today. His central idea, however, is still valid, namely that mothers should not be expected, or expect of themselves, to be perfect. The main point is not only the impossibility of achieving perfection, but the undesirability of such a quest for a child’s development. It is the reality of children having to start meeting some of their needs themselves, and increasingly having the skills to do so, that propels maturation.
It is so interesting that the writer’s feeling that not only did his father being “enough” make him real and accessible, his ability to accept being “enough” made him “one of me, my size.” I think what that means is that the son could identify with a parent who could accept being not perfect. Children are only too aware that they are not perfect themselves. If the parent can accept being not perfect, that makes it possible to “speak my mind without running any risks.”
I particularly like the idea that “good enough” has something other than the literal meaning of enough, that it also has “depth . . . like when a father or a mother can be good enough.” What ‘enough’ may mean, is a parent doing his or her best to understand a child on his own terms. Not necessarily to do what a child wants on his terms, but to understand where he is coming from, to be his “size”. This is also what makes it possible to “speak my mind without running any risks.” The lines of communication are open.
We try our best to match our expectations to a child’s abilities, his developmental level. We will never read our children perfectly. That can serve them well when we are able to accept our own limitations, when we do not make perfection our objective – our children’s or our own.
When we nurture our children to the best of our own ability – not measured by some idealized vision – we are good enough.