Mothering Without a Map

As a mother, strive to be 'perfect enough'

The Chicago Tribune
May 9, 2004

This Mother's Day I'm rethinking the label "good enough mother." For more than half a century, since the venerable British pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the phrase, it has comforted many an overworked, harried, well-meaning mother; in other words, most of us. Over the decades, though, it has suffered what a marketing expert might call "image creep."

"Good enough" suggests "second best," something like "good enough for government work." These connotations are useful if we're discussing, say, buying a car or doing the dinner dishes. But mothering? Not only is second best not what Winnicott had in mind, it's not what most of us women have in mind for ourselves or our children. Plenty of youngsters endure and even triumph over second-rate care, but even the most hard-nosed among us wouldn't advocate aiming for the low road when it comes to parenting.

Words matter; they can change us. What if we saw what we do for our children every day as being not merely adequate but nearly perfect--not without flaw or fault, but aiming to be full, complete.

"I am trying," Winnicott wrote late in his life, "to draw attention to the immense contribution to the individual and society that the ordinary good mother with her husband in support makes ... simply through being devoted to her infant."

Note, he did not say, through listening to 37 rounds of knock-knock jokes or through maintaining Teletubby good cheer all day long or through supplying preteens with their own DVD players. His prescription was devotion-abiding, affectionate attention. Lead with your heart. He maintained that every infant needs a mother whose faithful care literally keeps her baby alive. Then as the child grows and develops, the mother in a natural way meets her youngster's needs less completely, thereby allowing the child's self to emerge.

This is what Winnicott meant when he said good enough. Too little devotion, and the infant cannot live, too much devotion as the child grows, and you stifle him. What's needed is the just right dose. And we're more likely to discern the right measure if our intentions point high instead of straight toward mediocre. Were he with us today, I think he would look at what has become of good enough and write instead the "perfect enough mother."

With this in mind, I began to move through my days of juggling the tasks and concerns of motherhood aware of that "immense" contribution Winnicott saw in my daily mothering. I began to see my packing of the lunch boxes with nutritious foods (and a tiny sweet treat) as being part of the dedicated care he spoke of. Am I a perfect mother? No. Am I perfect enough? Oh, yes.

Goodness knows mothers don't need to be burdened with guilt. But ditching good-enough mother throws out the second-rate connotation that now goes with it, dragging us down. This shift in words promises not only a shift in attitudes, but the pull of its powerful concept might well help us, even a tiny bit, to be better mothers. This language adjustment has the potential to lift our spirits and our aim and to elevate our role in the eyes of the wider culture. Just thinking of myself as the perfect-enough mother makes me stand a little straighter, step a bit more firmly. Winnicott would approve.

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