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May 1, 2023

The Good Enough Mom

Sheila Tucker

Photography By

The heart-wrenching sobbing was becoming more constant—a far cry from the intermittent waves of emotion I first noticed. As I rounded the aisle in the grocery store, there she was—an adorable curly blonde-haired toddler with big tears and even bigger emotions. She was having none of this shopping stuff. With every second, she escalated her […]

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The heart-wrenching sobbing was becoming more constant—a far cry from the intermittent waves of emotion I first noticed. As I rounded the aisle in the grocery store, there she was—an adorable curly blonde-haired toddler with big tears and even bigger emotions. She was having none of this shopping stuff. With every second, she escalated her demands to leave … immediately.

Mom was at her wit’s end, pulling out all the stops to end this volcanic explosion of a temper tantrum. Goldfish crackers received a “no!” response with little hands pushing them away. Promises to leave soon and future treats to be rewarded at home only made the little one cry harder. With runny nose, heaving chest, tear-stained cheeks, she was on the cusp of an all-out epic meltdown.

Shoulders down and eyes darting around, Mom seemed to silently pray no one could see or hear what was happening. If she were able, I’m sure she would have magically blended into the coconut milk display in a sort of “nothing to see here” manner.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but feel solidarity with this toddler leading me to whisper, “Me too, little one. Me too.” I didn’t want to be here either.

As a mom, you’re always trying to get everything right. Are these toys educational enough? Is my child watching too much television? Screen time? Nutritious enough? Schedules too much? Too little? Are they getting enough sleep? Friends? School? Too strict? Too lenient?

Momming is hard work. Somehow you’re supposed to arrange play dates, keep up with your teen’s social calendar, maintain a clean and well-organized household, be productive at work/volunteering, foster friendships, and create a loving relationship with your significant other. Oh, and let’s not forget the early mornings, the never-ending school drop-off and pick-up lines, impromptu bake sales, and practices (why are there so many practices?).

Whew. That’s a lot.

There’s so much pressure to have it all together. To be perfect. To parent perfectly, with the social (and often self-imposed) pressure that you’re only a good mom if you can juggle these tasks perfectly, simultaneously, and with all family members smiling, which, spoiler alert, is an unattainable goal.

The truth is, no matter how hard you try, you cannot sustain this level of attentiveness. And, maybe perfect isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Inevitably there will be a point or several when you’ve convinced yourself you’ve failed your children. Enter compare and despair. In one scroll of social media or memory recall, you’re comparing yourself to that one mom who seems to have it all together—magically, has the best behaved children, always knows the right thing to say, and her home looks like a photo out of a magazine. Then the unhelpful self-talk creeps in.

You begin to believe the unsolicited opinions (of your in-laws, parents, siblings, that random mom on social media) about how you should raise your children and juggle all of life’s struggles. You begin to feel overwhelming guilt.

Guilt implies you’ve done something wrong, hurt or failed someone, or affected someone negatively in some way. The thing about guilt is that it has a habit of keeping you stuck in your unhelpful thoughts.

Guilt is an intense and stealthy emotion that can be challenging to shake. It hides out waiting; when you least expect it, it invades your thoughts and pulls you down into stuckness.

Unfortunately, I can’t eliminate your guilt. But what if I told you there’s research that shows being a good enough mother is better than being a perfect mother?

I’m sure the idea of good enough brings up sordid thoughts. But being good enough is not synonymous with giving up or being mediocre. It’s not less than or failing. This is also in no way permission to not parent under the guise of being “good enough.” Instead, being a good enough mother grants you flexibility and permission to regularly fail your children in tolerable ways so they can learn to live in an imperfect world.

In the 1950s, Donald Winnicott (pediatrician and psychoanalyst) coined the phrase “good enough mother” after observing thousands of interactions with babies and their mothers. He learned that children are more likely to benefit if mothers fail, dare I say when they fail.

Good enough mothering allows children to learn through experience that life is hard. They’re being taught that sometimes they will be let down, disappointed, or frustrated. You’re teaching your children to be resilient. As a result, they will be ready for whatever life tosses their way.

On the flip side, if you cater to your child’s every whim or you work overtime to shield them from disappointment, they will not learn that it’s ok to feel bored, annoyed, sad, or disappointed. Not to mention, you’ll be exhausted. The unfortunate truth is that there’s no possible way to meet all your child’s varied demands. However, each time you let your children down and they get through it, they get a little bit stronger, emotionally and mentally. This is what Winnicott was saying.

Oh, you’ll still feel that twinge of guilt. And while you’re feeling it, know that you’re imparting the gift of the good enough mother in building this strength.

The next time your child is angry because you said no (you NEVER let them do…) or your little one is inconsolable because you won’t allow her to create her new masterpiece on the walls or leave the grocery store prematurely, whisper to yourself, “I’m building resilience.”

Throughout the rest of my time shopping, I heard several small eruptions of protest. As I was uncarting my items onto the grocery conveyor belt, the mom working so hard to hold it together and the toddler working equally hard to express her displeasure pulled in behind me. Both appeared exhausted.

I turned and smiled at Mom, who gave me a half-grin of sorts, followed by a long sigh.

I took a moment to really look at the little one. Her eyes were still red and a little swollen. Occasionally her chest would heave as she was winding down from all the emotions she expressed.

I wrinkled my nose, grinned, and told her, “I don’t like the grocery store either.”

You want the very best for your children. You want to protect them from getting hurt and help make all their wishes come true. It makes so much sense that you feel mom guilt and the urge to push right past good enough to perfection.

Whether you believe it or not, Momma, you’re doing a great job. Even when you say no, even when your toddler has all the feels in a grocery store, even when they’ve been watching Paw Patrol on loop, and especially when it’s macaroni and cheese for dinner … again.  

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She specializes in working with couples and individuals to better their relationships so they can connect more deeply to themselves and each other. When not in the office, you’ll find her walking her pups or planning her next mountain getaway with her husband.

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