Many lifetimes ago, when at university, I studied child development. My lecturer was a particular fan of D. W. Winnicott. Winnicott believed that most problems, whether personal or societally, begin at home with how children are raised. He famously said “There is no such thing as a baby”, meaning that outside of a relationship with a carer, a baby cannot exist. There is instead a “nursing couple” – the baby and the primary caregiver (usually a mother) together. When the primary caregiver and baby are in harmony, baby can develop a sense of self. When this intimacy is not provided, this can lead to mental health problems for the child, in Winnicotts view.
(This is very much an in-a-nutshell overview. For more detailed information on Winnicott I recommend visiting this website)
Today new parents are recommended to “follow your baby’s lead”, ie watch for cues when playing, feeding and sleeping. This is a much gentler approach to parenting than the parents Winnicot worked with were used to. It was usual then to rear babies to a strict schedule and leave them to cry for prolonged periods. (Which Winnicott disagreed with.)
Something else parents today are ‘told’, in contradiction to following your baby’s lead, is that we are just not good enough. Media articles, news, Pinterest, Facebook, TV. They all seem to be conspiring to tell us we are not strict enough, not loving enough, not adventutous enough, not religious enough. Or too coddling, too priveledged, too poor, too religious, too smothering, too distant. We seem damned whatever we do.
Not serving homemade sugar free cookies? Not good enough. (But what if I don’t have the time or budget for that?)
Not providing ample opportunity for independent exploration? Not good enough. (But what if I live in a city flat?)
Not spending every day engaging in messy play while developing their STEM skills and learning Spanish, violin and chess concurrently? NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH.
Days that get to me, days I feel I have failed my children in some way. Those days when I have seen too many perfect homes on Pinterest, too many “look how perfect and amazing I am” blog posts and Facebook posts, I remember Winnicott.
His great idea that I have remembered in the many years since I was a student, is the concept of the “good-enough mother” (or primary caregiver).
I’ll say that again. Good. Enough. Mother.
Winnicott’s theory of the good enough mother is that after the intense newborn period, we gradually allow our babies small periods of frustration. For example, when we don’t rush to pick them up right away. When we can’t read their minds and give them precicely what they want. We are still loving and empathetic, but we simply can’t fulfil their every wish and need. Because, partly the baby may want things we can’t anticipate (some apple, that toy, the cat’s tail…), and partly, because it is developmentally necessary for the baby to see that he does exist separate from his mother.
I like to extend this theory right out into childhood. Because mum-guilt is real. And it’s often used to shame us and get us to buy something or click on a link. And there’s no need for it. We are trying our best. I know I am and I am sure you are. If your child feels safe and secure with you, if your child is fed and clothed, if you enjoy spending your time together, then yes, you are good enough in my book.
Yes, both my babies went to nursery. Yes, I feed them shop-bought biscuits and dinner is sometimes beans on toast. Yes, my daughter has a Barbie (*gasp*). No I don’t buy only heuristic toys for open-ended play. No, we don’t go on daily or even weekly adventures to the forest and museum. I can’t give my son or daughter every enriching experience they may benefit from. For one thing I can’t afford it. They will, neverthless, survive being denied ballet class, and soccer, and organic homemade food, and piano lessons, and everything else. My daughter (and my son when he learns to talk) will also survive perfectly well my failure to buy every toy, or sweet, or item of clothing she requests.
“Failing” your child by degrees allows them to develop resilience and a sense of self. By resilience, I mean an awareness that we can’t always have what we want, we sometimes have to wait for things, and that we have to entertain ourselves sometimes. And that it is ok.
When you don’t feel up to going to the pool this week, you are good enough. When you strap your kicking and screaming son into his car seat for his own safety, you are good enough. When you tell your daughter no she can’t have a pony, or chocolate, or lipstick right now, you are good enough. When you hold your baby tight while he cries after his immunisations, you are good enough. When you don’t get all the laundry folded, you are good enough. When it’s pizza and TV for dinner again, you are good enough.
I could give you examples till the cows come in. But you get my gist. Say it to yourself as a mantra. Say it until you believe it.
I am a good enough mother (or use whichever word you prefer).
I am good enough.
I am good enough.
I am good enough.
Because you know what? You are mama. You are.