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.
So, with that definition, I have a project for you:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
I have been struggling with perfectionism for years and it's worse now that I'm a mom. I do feel judged for not being good enough. My main issue? Sleep. I feel like if my child is not a good independent sleeper, then I'm not a good mom b/c this is what the books and people say. We try to be perfect parents from day one & it's exhausting and defeating. I love the point about letting our kids see our mistakes and flaws so that they don't feel pressured to be perfect.
This. Is. Awesome.
Know what my main concerns were when I reached out for help? #1. I didn't love my son and #2. I was not a good mom. Yes despite losing my mind I was only worried about those two things.
I'm a perfectionist and it's hard to let go of the notion that there isn't a "perfect mom". But I'm learning and accepting.
More women need to hear this.
OMG. Perfectionism is a constant companion, one I try very hard to shake, but she's a stage 5 clinger! I'm going to do this exercise and print this post out so I can read it daily. Adding it to my toolkit of wellness.
Trying to be perfect is exhausting. It keeps me from living. But I'm working on letting it go and accepting the imperfectly beautiful me and mom that I am.
THANK YOU for this.
Love this article so much. I will definitely do this exercise. I too struggle with the trap of perfectionism. All it has done for me is stress me out and make me exhausted.
I knew y'all would love this. How empowering and comforting is it to know that your mistakes are actually good for your kids? I'm so happy to know I'm teaching them through the things I do well AND the things I do not-so-well.
I am just back from 4 days away from work, computer, and phone. I want each and every one of you to know how moving it is to hear that these posts reach you… YOU ALL make every moment of this work that I (and so many others) do incredibly worthwhile and honoring. So, thank you.
And thanks, especially, for all of your "imperfections."
This is awesome. I love this and I think I will give it a try,
Came here from Baby Love Doula Care (proprietress is a schoolmate's wife), and want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this piece. Never suffered from PPD, but boy oh boy do I suffer from The Good Mother syndrome. I'm going to do the exercise tonight! [Right after I put my boy to bed, sort through his outgrown clothes, check the RSVPs for his 2nd birthday party, clean the kitchen, make lunch and dinner for tomorrow, fold the laundry, pay the bills, etc etc etc…. 🙂 ]
Love this, thanks!
I am so very grateful for this post. My son is four months old, and PPD has been a constant companion the whole time. Unfortunately, my daily battle cry is "I am a terrible mother!!" and I spent at least an hour yesterday crying over the fact that my son now has GERD and somehow it was because I did something wrong.
I am going to print this post and hang it on the pantry door so I can see it every day. I am really, really hoping that I can finally let myself be a "good enough" mother instead of June Cleaver or a "Norman Rockwell mother".
One thing that has become my mantra as a mother: I MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOMAN THAT I AM BEHIND THE ROLES I DO.
That means I do a Girls Night and leave the husband and kids to fend for their dinner while I go out to dinner with friends and actually get to eat food while it's still hot, and have conversation with someone who is a peer and not someone in my charge. That means I delegate household tasks to one of the four kids (ages 2-18). That means I take up a hobby and pursue it. That means I teach my kids how to do their own laundry before they leave elementary school, how to tend house by the time they're out of middle school, and they can follow basic cooking instructions by high school.
Why? Because I'm only one person. Because these are basic life skills that they'll need when they leave my nest. Because it's my job to put myself out of work as a mother. Because when they leave my nest, I can spread my own wings and fly too, and NOT become that meddlesome mother in law that someone talks about on an internet forum. I don't want my kids to be put in the awkward spot of having to tell me "mom, you need your own life." Thankfully, I've been building one of my own for several years now. My kids need to see me doing things for myself so they see that there can be joy found in what interests us, and how to go about finding it on their own.
Thank you so much for this. I have really been looking for a way to recognize in myself that I am a good enough mother according to my standards. This really helped me put things together,
Hi Cathleen I’m a mama seven and today I find your words so comforting as I questioned myself as a mother I knew just confirm to me that I have done a good job thank you for being there this time when I needed information of been a good enough mother .