I remember my first year of parenthood. All the tiny moments I likely missed because I was so afraid to make any mistakes. The messages from social media, my previous (and unfounded) expectations of how I should be and even the comparisons to other moms made me forget that the biggest gift I could give my baby is showing up, fully, as I am.
The idea of being good enough, initially triggered a visceral reaction from the part of me that is a perfectionist. The fear of not messing up my kid overrode what science tells us is actually important. The strong desire, almost obsession of parenting better than I was parented confused my brain into thinking that meant natural fiber onesies, breastfeeding against all odds, and getting him into a Montessori preschool while still in the womb.
The funny thing is, I should have known better. When I had Otto, I was eight years into being a therapist. I told hundreds of mothers about the theory of being a good enough mother. In 1953 Winnicott, a psychoanalyst, coined the term “good enough mother.” Obviously, motherhood looks a bit different than it did in 1953, but the spirit of the theory holds true today. I am not sure where we came to see the word “enough” as a failure. The very definition of enough means to the required degree.
A good enough mother means that you do what is required to take care of your child’s emotional, physical, and psychological needs. A good enough mother creates a safe holding space for her child to be seen, accepted, and curious. A space where they are acknowledged and validated. As they grow, so does that holding space. Where they can be free to explore, make mistakes, and figure out their own personality. They learn to be independent, tolerate disappointments, and self soothe. They learn that people are imperfect and make mistakes and with that they learn to say they are sorry and to forgive.
So, what does a good enough mother look like? She knows her own requirements for self-care and prioritizes it. She reaches out for support. She finds an amazing supportive group of mothers who are authentic and transparent, and lets her know that mothering requires on-the-job training. She gets messy with her kids. She shows compassion to herself and to others. She shares her feelings with her kids—good and bad. Likewise, she can tolerate both the positive and negative emotions and feedback of her children. She asks for forgiveness and admits her mistakes. She might also be balancing her job, social connections, and obligations to other things that give purpose to her own life. She is unconditional in her love, and praises effort—not results. And, she tries her best.
Parenting is about nurturing a human being to be a strong, well-integrated, healthy individual. We are carefully supporting an emotional, spiritual and physical growth. We are co-creating a relationship with another human being—a relationship where both people’s needs are met. Those vital and beautiful messages won’t be transmitted when a mother is anxiously distracted, trying to live up to an unrealistic expectation.
If you are so inspired to shape your daughter’s seeded nut bread sandwich carefully into a dinosaur, more power to you, mom. As long as you still have the time to ask her about school. If she is making friends. If she feels safe. We aren’t just growing a baby. We are shaping a person that will share space in this imperfect world. That will be an almost impossible transition for the kid who had a perfect mom.
Don’t aim to be perfect. Aim to be good enough.
Kierstan Streber, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach, who specializes in anxiety, depression, trauma, and life transitions. Known as “the International Therapist”, Kierstan provides therapy around the globe. Connect through her website and follow along on instagram.