One blustery Massachusetts morning before moving back to New Jersey, I was nursing my first son in the Mother’s Room at Babies’R’Us. I struck up a conversation with another new mom about the challenges of motherhood. We discussed the differences between our current lives and the days past, sans baby: sleep deprivation filled with multiple feedings; lack of patience felt when the baby cried even with our consolation; the worry if we are cut-out for this mothering business. We agreed that our professional careers now seemed effortless compared to the needs of a demanding, dependent baby.
As the mom packed up to go, she turned and said, “You know, Winnicott says you only need to be a good-enough mother.” “Yes, I know,” I replied. How did this mom know I had read Donald Winnicott? Was ‘Psych PhD Drop-out’ stamped on my forehead? Or was I nursing with such finesse that she could see I had truly internalized Winnicott’s understanding of the breast as an infant’s first self-object?
Honestly, if I had not read Winnicott I would have sat there with a blank stare wondering, ‘Who the hell is Winnicott? And why is she quoting him to me?’ But since I had studied this guru of psycho-analytical psychology, a protégée of Freud, I was able to hear what she said.
“I just need to be a good-enough mother.”
Am I? There are days I worry if my children will end up in therapy recounting their life story to some-pseudo-Winnicottian about how their mom fell short of perfection. I can see it now. My eldest son will confess that his mom yelled too much and withheld juice as his main source of hydration, preferring him to drink soymilk or water. My 2 year old will pace the therapist’s office, recalling how at age 8 months, his mom let a one-sie snap dig into his left thigh. “How couldn’t she have known?,” he will demand. My 6 month old daughter will complain, “Mom never paid any attention to me except when I nursed. She was too busy texting, confirming playdates for my brothers.”
Winnicott reminds us that good-enough is not perfection. Although we may hope to be or try to portray perfection, it does not exist. We all make mistakes, I have and will continue. In the best case scenario, the good-enough mother allows a child to experience his or her mother as less than perfect. This in-turn allows a child to develop a healthy sense of his or her own self as separate from mother, a self that will hopefully grow up to be realistic, confident and empathetic.
Just the other day while stopped at a red light my eldest son said, “Mommy, I want children.” “Ok. When you are older you can fall in love with a girl and have babies,” I replied. “Mommy, I want you to be the mommy,” my son lovingly stated with a tone of assuredness. “Thank you,” I said.
Maybe I am good-enough.
This post originally appeared on Jersey Moms Blog in May of 2011. Brenda may still rejoice in the fact that she never has to read Winnicott again, only Dr. Seuss, as requested by her children.