Do you feel like you’re constantly comparing yourself or being compared to the ideal of a perfect mother?
With so much information and advice out there “helping” us to get things “right” so that our children will be the most intelligent, happiest and the most emotionally and physically healthiest children around, it certainly seems like there is a perfect way to do this motherhood thing.
Do you feel like you’re nearly there or do you struggle with guilt and feeling like you’re constantly falling short?
No matter which answer you just chose, I’d like to invite you to consider something really important today.
Your children don’t need a perfect mother, they need a good enough mother.
Ok, be honest, did you just physically recoil at that thought?
When I first came across this concept, I had a reaction to the words “good enough”. I thought “why would I aim for good enough when I could do better?”. Good enough felt mediocre or like I would be settling for something less than what I was capable of.
I didn’t even equate good enough mothering with being a good mother. Because a good mother would surely do better than “good enough”. I mean, the stakes are high, and I love my child so much. Don’t they deserve something closer to perfect?
Even though I had come a long way in overcoming my perfectionistic tendencies, being perfect (or close) sounded a lot more appealing than good enough.
Perfection isn’t possible or real
Here’s the thing. Perfection isn’t possible.
That’s not just for you.
That’s for everyone. There is NO perfect mother out there (no matter how perfect her instagram feed looks).
We are human. We are emotional beings who make mistakes and get triggered. We fail and respond to others in ways we would prefer not to.
When we hold ourselves to the ideal of the perfect mother, we set ourselves up for failure because we can’t reach that standard. We compare ourselves unfavourably against others who we perceive have reached that standard. Then we end up feeling guilty and doubting ourselves. We become paralysed by our inner critics, fear of making the wrong decision and fear being judged by others (when we are judging ourselves).
When we strive for perfection, we put our children first, at our own expense. We neglect our own basic needs and interests outside of mothering. Perhaps our needs sometimes make it onto the to-do list, but we rarely get to them, because our lists are never ending and our children’s needs are constant. There’s always more we can do in the pursuit of perfect. Not only that, but according to the perfect mum ideals, we’re meant to want to do this to ourselves and enjoy it.
Constantly striving for perfection is exhausting and can create resentment. It can lead to burn out and significant health issues. Now that doesn’t sound so perfect, does it.
Children need a good enough mother
The funny thing about the pursuit of perfection, is that it can seem so necessary and justifiable. Why wouldn’t you do your best? Why wouldn’t you want to give your child everything you can?
If this is where you’re at (and I’ve been there), let me share something that may help you consider giving yourself some grace.
The term “good enough mother” was first coined in 1953 by English Paediatrician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott.
Winnicott thought that a good enough mother was better than the perfect mother. This is because children ultimately need us to prepare them for living in an imperfect world.
When our babies are born, we adapt nearly completely to their needs. We respond quickly and learn to read their cues. When we snuggle them, feed them, or attend to their physical needs we’re teaching them that they are safe and cared for, which is a necessary and beautiful foundation. But over time, as their needs become more complex and diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet every need of our children in every moment. They can’t always eat a whole box of cookies, leap off the kitchen bench, or stay up until whatever time they want. We can’t always feed them their favourite meals, or buy them new toys every time we go shopping. It’s inevitable that sometimes we will misunderstand, miss the cues, not hear them right away when they call, not listen as well as we could, or not be able to give them our undivided attention when they want it.
This isn’t tough love, and we’re not talking about neglect or abuse. Winnicott is referring to small tolerable failures that inevitably happen in the normal course of life. Using Winnicott’s language, we are “failing” in these little ways even when we’re trying to be perfect.
Through these small (to them they could seem large) moments of disappointment, children learn that:
- The world doesn’t always revolve around them.
- They can’t always have everything they want.
- What they do impacts others.
- Even when things don’t go as they would like them to and they experience uncomfortable emotions, they will still be ok, loved and cared for.
This is how we teach them resilience.
Children learn to tolerate frustration, soothe themselves (at the developmentally appropriate age) and become self-sufficient. They learn to have grit, which can be defined as having courage and determination despite difficulty.
Through our imperfections, we show our children that we are whole people – complex and deep. Just like them. The way we treat ourselves shows them how acceptable that is. We also show them that we accept them in their imperfections, so that they can accept themselves and be self-compassionate when they make mistakes. This is necessarily for thriving in the real world.
So you see, being good enough, really is good enough. It is what our children need.
When you make a mistake, repair
Research shows that we don’t have to get it right and be attuned to our children’s needs 100% of the time for them to be happy and healthy, or for us to have a solid connection with them.
So, give yourself grace when you do make mistakes.
A growth mindset is important here. This means you believe that your intelligence and capability is not fixed and you are constantly learning and growing. So, when you do have moments that you’re not proud of, you don’t descend into “I’m a bad mum” self-talk, but you forgive yourself and see this as an opportunity to learn. (Note: Your first thought might still be “I’m a bad mum”, but this automatic thought is often the result of a deeply ingrained pattern, or a judgement you’ve felt from others in the past. Let that thought go, knowing it is not the truth, and focus on the next more conscious thought).
If there’s impact on your children, be open about your mistake. Apologise and admit that you wish you hadn’t done that and you want to do better next time. You can even involve your child in coming up with what you could do differently next time.
For every rupture in your relationship with your children, always repair. You can teach this concept to your children as you role model it for them. My son understands this and will come and tell us “I need to repair”. Children are resilient and full of love and will readily forgive you and contribute to your efforts to do better.
Looking after ourselves helps us be a good enough mother
I can’t talk about good enough mothering without addressing self care. It’s really hard to attune to our children when we don’t look after ourselves. Looking after our wellbeing actually makes us better parents.
If you’re in the habit of putting yourself last, I know this can be a challenging shift. Mothers often believe that if they aren’t prioritising their children they are selfish or they won’t care for them properly. Incorporating self care into your life (real, meaningful self care that impacts your wellbeing) doesn’t require you to stop prioritising your children, rather it requires you to prioritise yourself too.
Motherhood isn’t about giving everything at the expense of yourself. That isn’t sustainable and for many mothers it leads to burn out, breakdowns or significant health issues. Your wellbeing is important. When you do prioritise your wellbeing you are also teaching your children that they can look after their own needs as adults, and that they don’t need to neglect their key needs for others.
So, start really small, and ask yourself what it is you really need right now. I’ve written more about how to make this work in this article.
Good enough involves getting it right and getting it wrong
The good enough mother gets it right some of the time and wrong some of the time. When she gets it wrong, she forgives herself, adjusts and repairs. She keeps on connecting and loving her children and she allows herself to be imperfect. She does the best she knows how with what she has and that’s all anyone can reasonably ask of her (including herself).
The good enough mother truly is good enough and not only that, she’s unavoidable, because perfection in motherhood is unattainable.
It seems that even when we don’t expect ourselves to be the perfect mother, many of us are not immune to feeling the pressure of the expectations of others. I hope that understanding the benefits of good enough mothering helps you to stay strong in your resolve and focus on doing whatever is best for you and your family. It can be helpful to remember that when people expect you to be perfect, they are likely to be holding (or have previously held) themselves to the same (very stressful) standard. It’s really more about them than it is about you.
Lovely, the research is clear, your children need a good enough mother. And you are truly good enough.
Take a moment today to consider:
What would it be like if you really believed that being a good enough mother was good enough?
If you did really believe that being a good enough mother was good enough, what would you do differently? How could you start to incorporate that into your life in small ways today?