Why good enough parenting is good enough
What kind of parent are you striving to be? What kind of expectations have you set for yourself as a mother? Are you striving for perfection? To be the absolute best mother you can be? Someone who never makes mistakes and gives motherhood her all every moment of the day? Or are you aiming for good enough parenting?
What would you say if I told you I wanted you to aim for good enough? That I wanted you to lower your expectations and embrace your imperfections as a parent?
If you’re like most parents I talk to, you’d probably look at me in disbelief. After all, parenting is the most important job in the world, right? And as mothers, there is nothing we take more seriously than caring for our children. It’s our number one priority. So to be aiming for anything less than our absolute best just doesn’t sit right with many of the mothers I speak to. Especially coming from me. After all, it is my job – my life’s mission – to support parents to raise emotionally healthy, secure, and resilient children. And that takes focused, intentional effort. So why am I suggesting that you half arse this parenting gig?
Well, I’m not really. Hear me out.
What is good enough parenting?
Good enough parenting is a concept based on the work of Dr Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician and psychoalanalyst who coined the phrase “good enough mother” back in 1953. Dr Winnicott observed thousands of babies and their mothers in the course of his work and came to the conclusion that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting.
What did he mean?
Winnicott proposed that good enough mothering was a gradual process that occurred naturally over time. When our babies are tiny newborns, they demand a lot of our time, but their needs are fairly simple. We spend time responding to their cries – comforting, feeding, snuggling, changing, rocking and bathing. We respond promptly, with warmth and compassion. They need us to. This creates a sense of trust. The safety and security that our tiny babes desperately need in order to thrive.
But as they grow, the needs of our children become more complex and we have an increasing amount of competing demands. We cannot always respond immediately when our child cries out for us. We can’t give them our full attention every moment of the day. We can’t always stop what we are doing to play with them. We can’t give them everything they desire. Sometimes we say no. Sometimes they have to wait. Sometimes we make demands of them that they do not like.
And this is ok. In fact, it is necessary. Because this ongoing process of rupture and repair that occurs when we fail to meet our child’s every need, is actually what helps us build a strong relationship with our child. This experience is what helps our children develop flexible, responsive nervous systems that are able to adapt to and recover from challenges. In other words, these ruptures are necessary to build resilience in our kids.
The importance of rupture and repair
Ruptures occur when there is a lack of attunement or misattunement in our relationship with our child. Attunement is our ability to recognise and respond to the physical and emotional needs of our children. It is a sense of emotional connectedness that comes from being “in tune” with our child’s emotional state, allowing them to feel seen, heard and understood by us. Attunement is the foundation upon which all close and connected relationships are built and children need it to feel secure and to develop optimally.
But we absolutely do not need to be attuned to our child’s needs 100% of the time. In fact, research suggests that we only need to attune to our kids needs around 30% of the time. Of course, this does not mean that we only attend to our children occasionally, or that we act disinterested in our children for the remaining 70% of the time. What we need instead, is an awareness of those times when misattunement occurs. Because when misattunement occurs, and there is a rupture in our connection with our kids, we need to make efforts to repair it. Chronic misattunement without repair creates disconnection and a lack of relational safety in a relationship.
However, the repair that occurs after a rupture can strengthen a relationship. It is an additional opportunity for closeness and connection. You may have missed your opportunity for attunement in the moment, but when you repair with your child, you get another chance to attune to their needs and feel connected again after the fact.
What you also get when ruptures occur, are opportunities for children to learn new skills. Distress tolerance, emotional regulation, problem solving, communication, conflict resolution. Without the opportunity to experience a range of emotions, children do not learn how to manage those emotions. And that is precisely what Winnicott proposed.
Aiming for perfection is unhelpful
Winiccot argued that not only does a perfect mother not exist (no one can be attuned to the needs of another person 100% of the time!), trying to be one is also unhelpful for children. Because when we aim to meet every single need or desire our child expresses, we rob them of the opportunity to experience the full range of human emotion.
Winnicott himself believed that a mother was not doing the best for her child if she attempted to completely eliminate any and all distress and discomfort for that child. When we aim to keep our children happy all the time, they don’t get a chance to learn that they can cope with hard things. That they can bounce back from disappointments. That they can persevere when things get tough. That they can manage difficult emotions. That they are strong, and capable and competent. Without every day setbacks and disappointments, our children do not develop resilience. They may even become anxious and insecure.
Perfection doesn’t exist
Winnicott believed that a good enough mother should aim for balance rather than perfection. That a mothers prompt and loving responsiveness during a child’s early years would create a secure base for the child. A buffer that would allow them to better cope with disappointments, setbacks, and the inevitable ruptures that would occur as the child grew. And he believed that this balance, and this gradual shift in responsiveness, would lead to independence, emotional stability and resilience.
Because perfection does not exist, and Winnicott knew it. He knew it was an impossible ideal that placed too much pressure on mothers. When we aim for perfection, we set ourselves up for failure, as well as our children. Because when they see us striving for this unattainable goal, they too believe there is no room for error. They too believe that they will only be accepted if they are perfect.
The gift of imperfection
Perhaps the most important gift we give our child when we make mistakes, is permission to make their own. When we model imperfection to our children, we allow them to also show up as their own imperfect, authentic selves. When we model repair, we show our children how they too, can repair their own relationships. We teach them a lesson about grace and humility. About forgiveness and empathy. When we have compassion for ourselves and our shortcomings, we show them that they too, can demonstrate compassion for themselves when they experience difficulties.
And this really, is our ultimate goal as parents. To allow our children the space to be authentically them. To raise children who are free to be their true, genuine selves and who do not need to hide any parts of themsleves. Children who accept themselves and love themselves as they are. This is the gift we give our children when we move away from perfection and aim instead for good enough parenting.
Good enough parenting is good enough. Imperfect, and enough. And mama, so are you.