Standing over a bubbling pot of rice on a hot afternoon, kids rolling around on the sticky, lettuce-strewn linoleum, I had a mutinous revelation.
I was spending too much time cooking, and I didn’t like it.
I did not like it!
I’m supposed to love cooking. By the time I was in high school, I cooked dinner for my family most nights. Most teenagers get clothes and video games for birthdays. I was getting cookbooks, candy molds, and flower-shaped tubes for baking bread.
I recalled the five-year-old me, scrawling out my recipe for “Tropical Shortbread” on an old index card. The recipe called for coconut extract, vanilla extract, orange extract, and pineapple extract mixed up with some flour, sugar, and butter. I’ll email it to you if you’re feeling adventurous. Sure, I liked to cook. But to cook like this? Homemade granola bars and muffins for breakfast, dinner from scratch most nights, always the one to bring a fancy dessert to a party? Why did I feel obligated to cook so very much?
See–there it is. I felt obligated. Cooking like this was cheaper and healthier, and it was part of being a Good Mom. But at that moment, I knew I had to stop. This cooking thing was yet another demon on my back, whispering that I could never live up to Perfect. So that week, I went out and bought Aunt Jemima frozen waffles for breakfast and a jar of pasta sauce for dinner on a busy night.
Whoa, you’re saying. Not frozen waffles! That’s like the gateway drug to MacDonald’s and those nasty stovetop pasta things with oozy cheese sauce that comes in a pouch.
I don’t need a stash of homemade low-fat breakfast burritos in my fridge to make me a good person. I don’t need to get up before everyone else to scramble eggs every morning, or any morning. Since simplifying our menu, I am a happier. The kids are happier! We have a more balanced life. Most of my extra time has gone straight to my kids, and the rest has gone to chores or (gasp) relaxing. They’ve had dozens of dinners of frozen precut vegetables, Ragu, and even breaded chicken tenders, and no one has died yet.
Does my cooking obsession sound extreme to you? Chances are, you have your own hang-ups. Do crumbs on the carpet drive you bananas? Are you afraid to go out in public without your hair done and your makeup on? Do you hold several jobs at church, at the kids’ school, in your neighborhood, because you feel guilty saying no? Feeling like you must love every minute of your parenting experience in order to be a good mom? Maybe for you it’s a little bit of everything. A drop here, a drop there, slowly driving you nuts. Like Chinese water torture. You don’t even have to be doing crazy superfluous perfectionist things. Simply believing that you should can be enough to hurt.
During my research, one phrase I ran into over and over (and over) again was “Good Enough Mom.” “Good Enough” is hard to for me to accept. How could I? Just about every aspect of my culture tells me I can never be good enough. Images of sexy women in pretty kitchens with a ladle in one hand and a toddler in the other on TV, online, in magazines. The mother of five down the street who has a very clean house and looks at me funny when I say I don’t want any more kids. Pinterest. Oh, God, don’t get me started on Pinterest. Mom pressure plus church pressure plus everyday pressure from neighbors and media equals crazy crazy mommy. We need to learn to ignore all that pressure and be content with Good Enough.
The term “Good Enough Mother” was coined by British pediatrician and phsychoanalyst Donald Winnicot. He describes it as “the ordinary devoted mother … an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby.”1 In other words, all the average baby needs in order to develop into a normal, healthy person is an ordinary mom. If you can respond to your baby’s basic needs, you’ve got it covered.2 Anything else is extra, and can possibly be harmful to mom and even her family.
So what exactly does a Good Enough Mother do?
“Good-enough mothers know better than to minimize the needs and demands or the stresses on themselves.” –Barbara Almond3
“Though I may not be perfect, and I certainly am not supermom, I am doing a wonderful job. I am a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, a wonderful human being. How do I define wonderful? Good enough.” –Kathryn Sansone4
“Ask your family, friends, and husband what you are doing well. You may be surprised to find that what you perceive you are doing poorly, everyone else thinks you are handling just fine. This will help you realize that you are a good enough mother, which means you are a perfect mother just the way you are.” –Sandra Paulin5
“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.” — Elaine Heffner, CSW, Ed.D.6
Doing all this can be harder than it sounds. The urge to make everything perfect can be bred into us as we grow, and takes effort to squash. Does a Good Enough Mother sound like a slacker to you? Selfish? Not a “real mom,” if she’s not devoting all her resources to parenting and related tasks? I have good assurance, both from research and personal experience, that these things are not the case. Standards for “good moms” today are far higher that they were just a few decades ago, and trying to live up to these ultra-high standards is not only impossible, but has the possibility of creating resentment, exhaustion, and a bad example that ultimately backfires on our families. I’ll be dealing more with the dangers of being a “Too Good Mom” in future posts.
What is a “Too Good Mom”? The opposite of a good-enough one; the well-known “Supermom”.7 A too-good mother:
- feels like she must love her child and all the child’s behavior, feeling guilty when tantrums and defiance make her want to scream.
- usually places her children’s immediate needs, or even wants, above her own. Sometimes this mom subsumes even her most basic needs for things like sleep and friendship in order to keep her house running “perfectly.”
- when her child misbehaves, she feels like it must be her fault.
- does not acknowledge that she has needs of her own that may conflict with the needs of her child. She insists that taking care of her family is all she really needs to live a satisfied life.
- keeps stress, anger, frustration, and other negative emotions bottled up, refusing to acknowledge to even herself that they exist. She thinks a good mom must love being a mom all of the time.
- strives not to make even the smallest mistake, and feels guilty when she inevitably makes one.
- often relies on the judgement of others to tell her whether she is a good mom.
A too-good mother might have a lot of unnecessary “to-do’s” crammed into her schedule every day, because she thinks that a good mother should be able to do it all. A too-good mother feels bad for not doing more. A too-good mother is inevitably either unhappy, unfulfilled, or more tired than she needs to be, and as mentioned before, this has a tendency to backfire on the family she tries so hard to serve.
Can you be more “Good Enough” and less “Super”? While I hope that you would consider toning things down for your own sake, if you can’t, think about it for the sake of your family. And don’t let anyone else tell you that being good enough isn’t good enough.
Image 1: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3507/3257008844_fd0331d89a.jpg
Image 2: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3170/2754518624_a5606907ba.jpg
1Winnicott, Donald W. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected Papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Travistock Publications, 1958. (pp300-305)
2Conaway, Elizabeth, LCSW. (May 16, 2011) Perfection and Motherhood are a Dangerous Combination. SayNoToStigma.com: a blog of the Meninnger Clinic. April http://saynotostigma.com/2011/05/perfection-and-motherhood-are-a-dangerous-combination/ Retrieved on April 18, 2012. Paragraph 4.
3Almond, Barbara. The Monster Within:The Hidden Side of Motherhood. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. (p41)
4Sansone, Kathryn. Family First, Woman Always: Real-life Wisdom from a Mother of Ten. Des Moines: Meredith Brooks, 2006. (pp65-66)
5Paulin, Sandra. The Mother to Mother Postpartum Depression Support Book New York: A New Day, Inc., 2006.
6Heffner, Elaine. (n.d.) The Good Enough Mother. PBS Parents. April 18, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/parents/special/article-expectations-goodmother.html
7Almond, Barbara. The Monster Within:The Hidden Side of Motherhood. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. (p39)