How to Be a Good Mother: Why Imperfection Is the Only Way

Perfectionism. Oh, the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect! Or at least, if not “perfect,” then definitely Good. The phrase “I feel like such a bad mom” bounces off of the walls in my office every day. It echoes after the women with whom I work leave my space. These words sometimes seem to follow them down the street, into their cars, and back home with them to where they haunt these mamas throughout the night. These. Are. Powerful. Words.

But, what do they really mean? What, exactly, is a “Good Mom” anyway? Is a good mother the one who breastfeeds her baby until he is two? Is she the mom who never ever loses her patience? Is this good mom the one who stays home with her kids? Or is she the mom who returns to work and manages to juggle both with grace and ease? 

Is a good mom the one who cooks all of her meals from scratch? Is she the mother who always puts others before herself? Is this good mom the one who is constantly smiling, has a perfectly clean house, home made (organic) cookies on the counter top, and clean, folded laundry put away before anyone notices it was even dirty? Or is she the mom who never feeds her kiddo sugar or lets her watch TV? 

Is a good mother the one who manages a totally happy marriage that includes frequent sex and date nights and also manages to keep happy and loving siblings from fighting? Is she the one who is always happy, never sad or angry, definitely not anxious, and seems to know exactly what to do with her kiddo at every developmental stage? Is she the one whose baby is never crying? Is she the one whose children are always happy too?

I’d like to meet one of these “Good Moms.” I need her autograph.

While these are extremes, these are also the phrases that I have heard many times in the work that I do. This is no joke, people. Most of us carry at least one of these expectations with us into our definitions of “Good Mom.” And, the catch is, usually these definitions of good motherhood are not ours: They are society’s. Or our own mothers’. Or they are the definitions from the books on our bedside table. Or they come from our pediatrician, neighbor, husband, or woman we sat next to at music class.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) is a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who, in my opinion, has nailed this dilemma on the head.  Winnicott studied child development and has been a leader in the field of child psychological health. He believed that perfection simply is not perfect. Winnicott spoke and wrote at length about the concept of the “good enough mother”: a mother whose mistakes and imperfections lead to the psychological health and important social and emotional development of her children. 

From this perspective, mothers actually need to be flawed and imperfect so that they can teach their children the importance of repair; so that their children learn not to fear mistakes and so that they learn the value of repairing—or bringing resolution to—situations or interactions that are flawed. In this way, if a mother were always perfect and never made mistakes, she would never give her child the opportunity to learn how to forgive, apologize, learn from mistakes, love unconditionally, and be human. In other words, this child would never learn how to be his or her most true self. Imperfection is good.

If a mother were always perfect and never made mistakes, she would never give her child the opportunity to learn how to forgive, apologize, learn from mistakes, love unconditionally, and be human.

Hear, hear.

So, with that definition, I have a project for you:

  1. On a piece of paper, write down everything that comes to mind when you think about your own definition of what it means to be a Good Enough Mother. I encourage you to be mindful of what comes at you. Are the pieces that go into your definition yours, or are they someone else’s? For this exercise, give yourself permission to own this definition, regardless of what others might say or think. What do YOU believe goes into being a Good Enough Mom?
  1. Go through your list and ask yourself if you are doing or being anything on your list. Try your best to think of at least one thing or one time that you have met each piece of your definition. For example, if “being loving” is on your list, what exactly does that look like and how have you “been loving” to your baby?
  1. Place your list next to your bed. Each night, ask yourself if you have engaged in any of the Good Enough Mom elements that you have noted. My guess is that you have.

In fact, I can bet most of what I own on the fact that each one of you reading this is a darn Good Enough Mom.  You just might not have been noticing.

Kate Kripke, LCSW