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Parents' View

The Good Enough Mother

By Elaine Heffner, CSW, Ed.D.

Mother talking to her sonAmy, the mother of a four-year-old boy, was upset. She had just had the final conference of the year with her son's nursery school teacher. She heard some really good things about her son; she heard that he is very bright, makes friends easily and is very well liked. But the teacher also told her that sometimes he gets silly and babyish. Sometimes when she works individually with the children, he refuses to work with her. So Amy worried about whether there was something wrong with her son and wondered what she might have done to create these "problems."

Why do mothers tend to think that everything is their fault?

As mothers, we want everything to be perfect for our children. More than that, we imagine we can make it so. Sometimes there are things we don't like about ourselves or our lives and blame our upbringing. We want to fix what we think went wrong with us and do it right for our children. If only we could be perfect mothers, we could create the perfect life for our children and they in turn would be perfect. But since children are not perfect, we think there must be something wrong with us – that we must be at fault.

Besides, everyone acts as if a mother is responsible for everything her child does. People glare at you in the supermarket if your child acts up – as if you don't know how to manage him. They make comments on the bus if your child is unruly. If your daughter protests loudly when you leave to go out in the evening the babysitter or your mother might think, "She never does that with me."

As if that isn't enough, there are so many theories about how children should be raised in order for them to become emotionally well-adjusted, smart, successful and happy. And mothers are the ones on the hot seat. Now that so much has been learned about brain development, mothers feel responsible for that too! Child development research from its beginnings has, too often, assigned mom the role of primary influence, responsibility – and blame!

The message mothers take from all of this is that there is a right way to do things, and if you do it the wrong way you will damage your child. Any problem must mean you are doing something wrong, and so it is your fault. To be a good mother, it seems as though you have to be perfect and never make any mistakes.

The trouble with this idea is that even if you were a perfect mother (if there ever were such a person), that's not what would be best for your child. Your child has to grow up to live in the real world, and the real world isn't perfect. A child can't expect always to have people around her who understand her or cater to her every wish. Children have to learn to share, take turns, wait for what they want and realize that other people have needs and moods, too. Having to learn this can be frustrating, so children act up in various ways to show their displeasure. They show their feelings by behaving in ways that adults don't always like, and sometimes lead mothers to believe that they have done something wrong to cause that behavior.

But what about Amy and the teacher's report? Was Amy responsible for her son's behavior? Well, only if you think it was her fault for having a second child (which, by the way, she did feel guilty about). Actually, her son's babyish behavior was his way of saying that he wanted some baby treatment — like being carried or drinking from a baby bottle – and didn't want to be considered a "big boy." When Amy realized that his behavior was saying something about him, rather than about her, she was able to find many ways to help him appreciate being four instead of still being a baby.

So being a good mother does not mean being a perfect mother. A good enough mother is good enough.

A good enough mother:

  • loves her child but not all of his behavior.
  • isn't always available to her child whenever he wants her.
  • can't possibly prevent all her child's frustrations and moods.
  • has needs of her own which may conflict with those of her child.
  • loses it sometimes.
  • is human and makes mistakes.
  • learns from her mistakes.
  • uses her own best judgment.

There are no perfect mothers and no perfect children. If we accept our own limitations, we are better able to accept those of our children and of life itself. In that way we become good enough mothers. And good enough mothers are the real mothers.

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