In search of the good enough mother
by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.—
It is that time of year again. The kids are back in school — back to all the activities and back to that relentless, unforgiving and complicated schedule in which, as a mother, you feel that you can never do anything quite right. The truth is that being a mother is one of the impossible professions.
It is not how you want it to be. You want to be the kind of mother with unending, tender love and care, never losing your cool and never getting in your own way. You want to be patient in all circumstances. You want to find that perfect balance of being your child’s comfort, guide, disciplinarian and friend. You want to be all that you wished your own mother had been, but was not. You surely do not ever want to make the mistakes she made. Yet we all know that no mother can live up to such expectations.
Idealization is the fancy psychological term for the pressure we put on our mothers and the kind of pressure we put on ourselves as mothers. We want our mothers to be perfect, and we want to be perfect mothers. We come by such idealization honestly. After all, in a way, the relationship between mother and child is a kind of primal love affair. Mother is the first person every baby girl or boy falls in love with.
As psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, mother is felt to be the source of all beauty and goodness, the wellspring of life itself. She is the center of the baby’s universe — the baby’s first love, first savior, first provider, first comforter and first hero. We like to believe that it is a mutual love affair, that mother adores the baby in the same way that the baby adores mother. The trouble is that, while this may be our most basic fantasy, it rarely actually happens.
So what shall we do with reality? What shall we do with our actual mothers and our relationships with them? What shall we do with our view of ourselves as the mothers that we actually are — when we fall short of our own ideals?
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott had a lot to say about real-life mothers. As a pediatrician at the Paddington Green Hospital in London, and then later as a child psychoanalyst and consultant, Winnicott interacted with literally thousands of mothers and their babies. Through these experiences, he came to believe that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. For me, that is the key.
Winnicott’s good enough mother is sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She pays attention to her child. She provides a holding environment. She offers both physical and emotional care. She provides security. When she fails, she tries again. She weathers painful feelings. She makes sacrifices. Winnicott’s good enough mother is not so much a goddess as she is a gardener. She tends her child with love, patience, effort and care. And she does so imperfectly.
What I like about Winnicott’s picture of the good enough mother is that she is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication, yet she is also prone to resentment. Winnicott even dares to say that the good enough mother loves her child but also has room to hate him. She is not boundless. She is real.
Real mothers are the best kind of mothers (and the only kind). It takes an imperfect mother to raise a child well. You see, children need to learn about life through real experiences. They need to learn to deal with disappointments and frustrations. They need to overcome their greed and their wish to be the center of the universe. They need to learn to respect the needs and limitations of other people, including their own mothers. And they need to learn to do things for themselves.
If you have or once had a good enough mother, you are most fortunate. If you are a good enough mother, you are to be celebrated. If you have a painful, troubled relationship with your mother — or with being a mother — you are among friends who understand. Motherhood is a most wonderful and dreadful thing. It is a mixed bag, a wild ride, a great adventure. Rather than idealizing motherhood, we do well to honor the complexity, find reasons to be grateful, forgive the failures and use the disappointments to grow ourselves.
Perhaps as you enter into this challenging autumn season, you will be able to hold this secret and treasure it in your heart: Being good enough is really good enough.
Dr. Jennifer Kunst is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified psychoanalyst in private practice and author of Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself From the Inside Out. She is a senior faculty member at the Psychoanalytic Center of California and an adjunct associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she has taught doctoral level courses in psychoanalysis and psychological testing. centralrecoverypress.com/books/wisdomfromthecouch.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 33, Number 5, October/November 2014.