Happy Mother's Day to Every "Good Enough Mother"
For many of us, Mother’s Day brings something deeply loving; for others it brings ambivalent feelings. You see, after working thirty-five years in the counseling field and drying the tears off many faces, I can confidently convey that not every woman feels she had, was, or is the perfect mother. That’s why I’d like to give a cheer for the “good enough mother” a term used by the English pediatrician, Donald Winnicott, M.D., an influential psychoanalyst who believed this type of mother is a different kind of mother because she doesn’t hold perfectionism as her model. Good on you, Doc Winnicott; that’s a “like” button over here for sure. Honestly, I never realized that perfectionism in motherhood was even a possibility. Maybe it’s a new app.
But what did Dr. Winnicott really mean when he spoke about the “good enough mother”? Briefly he meant that the primary figure who raises the child (the mother in most cases) allows for a slow separation between mother and child which must occur for the child to grow to be independent. He also meant that not every need of the child must be met by an omnipresent mother. In other words, do enough, but don’t become obsessive. But babies don’t want to hear that, Dr. Winnicott. For instance, when I tried to wean my children off the breast and onto a bottle (at what I felt was the appropriate time) they refused by yanking their heads to the side or worse - taking a little gulp of formula then throwing up all over me!
These necessary separations are not just difficult for the child; they can be hard on mothers, too. In my first weeks of motherhood, if anyone even mentioned my new babies’ names, my breasts would gush like the Trevi Fountain. Oh my God when I look back I realize how little I knew about motherhood even in circumstances as simple as cutting corners like using Pampers instead of washing my own cloth diapers. And, as every mother knows, babies need lots of them. But, no designer Pampers for this mother because both children were allergic to the plastic coating. Plus, my perfectionist mindset was allergic to the idea of doing something easy when I could do it the old-fashioned way.
Another example of not knowing what a mother was supposed to do occurred when we brought our infant son home from the hospital one gorgeous April day. As I stood over his crib I thought how cute he was but geese he must be really sensitive to the sun because he was getting tan. That’s when I decided to keep him in a darkened bedroom all day and night. After a few days with the shades pulled down his skin darkened even more, so I took him to the pediatrician who said, “He’s getting jaundiced, not unusual, just put him in the sun and his skin will lose the yellow color.” So it wasn’t a surprise that this poor little guy had his days and nights mixed up after being in the dark followed by being in the light. After an additional week of sleep deprivation for him and for me, I returned to the pediatrician who, incidentally, looked like Antonio Banderas.
“I can barely stand, Doctor, and I’m taking care of our twenty-month year old in addition to a new baby. I feel like I might go insane any minute!”
Shaking his head the pediatrician looked at our chubby happy infant, then back at me. “I can’t understand why that son of yours isn’t sleeping through the night at four months.” Then he narrowed his eyes, suspiciously leaned in, and asked, “You’re not giving him the breast and playing with him when he wakes up are you?”
That’s when I went mute and stared straight ahead. After a minute of uncomfortable silence I looked into the eyes of this young Doctor McDreamy as he tilted his head, narrowed his own eyes, and continued his incredulous questioning but now in a considerably louder voice, “Who wouldn’t want to wake up, have a little nuzzle and play? Next time this child wakes up crying, just give that baby boy water from a bottle and he’ll never get up again in the middle of the night!” Ladies, I think there’s a lesson for us in there somewhere!
When the children started middle school I had finally completed my undergraduate degree and wanted to try my hand in the counseling field. The problem was I felt guilty doing something in addition to motherhood. What to do? Oh, what to do? I perseverated for hours with my ambivalence before I called into a popular radio psychologist (I really did!) who helped me explore my consternation about working in front of the entire Delaware Valley listening audience! Let’s hear it for desperation! This psychologist then gently asked me had I considered a part-time position? I blew my nose and said I hadn’t, then laughed at my perfectionism vs. being a “good enough mother.”
Soon all was well with this more rested mother of two growing children with a part-time job. I smile now remembering those early August days in the sun watching my toddlers splash around in a thirty dollar plastic pool with pictures of rainbow fish on the side or pointing to my cheek for a kiss whenever the urge fell upon me. I smile now remembering grammar school Sundays when buying a dozen donuts after church and eating three because “the kids like donuts” made me feel so happy. I smile now remembering the children laughing at me catching a scurrying field mouse in my bare hand and feeling like I’d gloved a fly ball in the 9th inning of a Philly’s game.
So to every sleep-deprived and exhausted mom allow me to offer a little looking back advice: Don’t worry so much about how things look or being perfect or who has what. Don’t worry about making every kid’s practice and game while hurrying to work, cleaning up after the dog, or cooking from scratch for your mate -Yikes! It’s simply too much for any woman, any mother! Instead, take a deep breath, buy some Oreos, book a facial for yourself, and just do the best you can being the loving and devoted, dare I say it, “good enough mother” this Mother’s Day and every day.
Published in The Sandpaper, May 6, 2015
Aronimink & Greene Country Living Magazine May 2016