Perfection and motherhood are a dangerous combination

by Elizabeth Conaway, LCSW on May 16, 2011 · 3 comments

in parenting

I have a confession. I am not the perfect mother, and I never will be. The bad news is that I am not even striving for perfection in mothering.

This may shock some people who have been caught in the wake of my self-proclaimed perfectionism. It is true that in most things I have a difficult time letting go of the glossy ideals I hold in my head, but in this case I make a continual and constant effort to just be “good enough.” I believe that this is one area where my training as a therapist has been beneficial to me.

In the world of psychoanalysis there is a wonderful theory about the “good enough mother.”¹ This is a theory, developed by Donald Winnicott, I hold close to my heart. Among other things, Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In his time, psychoanalysts were primarily Freudians, Klienians or part of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He found himself in the last group with the likes of another favorite of mine, John Bowlby.

A theory to live by

Winnicott’s theory describes “the ordinary devoted mother … as an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby.” The beauty of this theory lies in its simplicity and attainability. He is basically saying that all an ordinary baby needs to develop into a healthy separate being, who is capable of mature object-relations, is an ordinary mother who can respond to her baby’s needs.

This I can do. I can listen to my instincts and be good enough to help my daughter navigate the complicated world of self formation. I am imperfect and my daughter will be imperfect. I hope to embrace this about myself and her so that she develops a sense of grace and forgiveness toward herself and others.

“Good enough” in other realms, too

I have applied this theory to other areas of my life as well. Last year we celebrated the “good enough” Christmas, one that was scaled down from Martha Stewartesque grandiosity to a more realistic family gathering. Because I was able to let go of that ideal of the perfect Christmas, I was able to be attuned to my daughter’s first Christmas and everything she was experiencing. If I had been racing around in last-minute preparations, I would have missed so much.

In addition to having a very full professional and personal life, I am also an avid volunteer in my community, and this year I’ve become the “good enough” volunteer. I have let go of some of the groups that I previously gave my time to and have selected the few that are most meaningful to me. This allows me to really focus on the time I am give to these causes as well as the friendships of those who serve with me rather than begrudging the time away from my other daily tasks.

Just as in rearing children, sometimes our efforts to be perfect cause us to miss the point, and our extra effort is not necessarily rewarded.

I hope my friends who are new moms can embrace this theory as well. The world makes being a woman hard enough. I have watched friends struggle with trying to live up to so many different ideals as we traverse different stages of our lives. Most of these we have successfully navigated, and I feel so blessed to have a network of strong females in my life.

As many of us begin the new role of parenting, I see old anxieties coming back. I see everyone working so hard to get it right and to be such great mothers. I wish I could tell them that they already have what it takes to be a great mother and that they are already doing what it takes to be good enough.

Reference

¹Winnicott, Donald W. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected Papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 300-305). London: Travistock Publications, 1958.

 

 

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Roger Verdon May 18, 2011 at 11:16 am

Very bold stance and quite healthy. I have long been an advocate of Dr. Karl’s advice to all of us that if we only learned to forgive ourselves we would be much healthier. So I suppose Karl’s advice is a great pre-emptive philosophy for adopting a good enough approach. You might think that forgiving ourselves gives us a long leash that might lead us astray, but I find it does just the opposite. It keeps me mindful of my actions in a sober and thoughtful way. I will now strive to be good enough to be good enough. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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