I’ll never forget the day my friend Marit told me I only had to sweep once a day. Until then, I’d been following my toddlers around cleaning up their wake of debris, so that my home looked like a commercial for educational toys. My goal was to get as much art, music, physical activity, reading, and socializing into the day as I could, and still maintain a charming home. I fit this into a structure of breakfast, lunch, dinner and two healthy snacks, capped by a comforting bedtime routine with baths and flossing. All this with a soothing voice, a natural beauty, and an indefatigable enthusiasm. Failing that, I thought I was defective, since the magazines must be right. Finally, women began to level with me. Cynthia flat out told me that swimming counts as a bath.
It’s better to be just good enough. Donald Winnicott was the British pediatrician and psychoanalytic researcher who coined the term “Good-Enough Mother.” The good-enough mother completely focuses on her baby’s needs at first, and when the child feels discomfort, she does her very best. But, being human, she falls short at times, and the baby feels cold, hungry, lonely, or sad. At this point, the good-enough mother tries again, and usually comes through. Each day the good-enough mother mostly meets her child’s needs, and sometimes doesn’t. Because of this, the child gradually builds a faith in mom, and a tolerance for her imperfections. Her occasional shortcomings aren’t so unsettling. The child learns to roll with it.
At the same time, the child is gaining a tolerance for his or her own failures. She is learning it’s okay to fail, and that hard times are temporary. She is becoming flexible. People whose mothers are too good, however, are somewhat fragile. When they make mistakes, it’s hard for them to dust themselves off and try again. They don’t let themselves take reasonable risks. In fact, the effect of “perfect” mothering can resemble the effect of “bad” mothering, where a child’s needs are usually not met. Both can lead to an inability to trust oneself and others. Both keep children feeling on guard. Adults whose mothers were not perfect, but good-enough, know how to deal with a C-minus day. They can give themselves a break. They know when to take a vacation. Children of good-enough mothers can self-soothe. They sing, read, and play solo to calm themselves and find joy. They are resilient.
So in this moment now, give yourself a break. A good mom is good enough. If you blow it, repair, and begin again. Every blue moon, you can take your kids to the movies for dinner. Popcorn is a vegetable.