Forget striving to be the best, embrace your flaws and the family chaos because the Good Enough parent is just great, writes Miriam McCaleb.
Welcome, dear reader. Let's talk about what's good enough, because embracing Good Enough parenting just might set you free. The term was coined by celebrated British paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. It encourages parents to keep striving for the positive in family life, while reminding us that "perfect" is unreasonable.
This is liberation indeed. Imagine what it would be like to accept - even cherish - the ways that our family life is imperfect. Every parent I know operates from the opposite framework - at any time, any one of us could probably rattle off a list of the things we "should" be doing at any moment. Right now, here's a brief selection of mine:
I should organise tonight's dinner. I should hang that washing. I should organise my tax stuff. Tidy my office. I should nap before Baby Girl wakes up. I should not nap. I should be doing my pelvic floor exercises. I should check that my napping baby is neither too hot nor too cold.
Seriously, I could go on.
The list can loom large and sap joy, and the stakes are high when contemplating ourselves as mothers or as fathers. There is a massive societal pressure about what is expected from parents, and the worst bit is the way that these "shoulds" deliver conflicting advice. And, the "shoulds" fail to acknowledge that we all come to parenting with vastly varied histories, experiences and temperaments. We're different in personality, just as we are in height and eye colour. There is no one-size-fits-all solution (and that includes this article!).
But still the "shoulds" continue: we are told we should go back to work (set a good example to our daughters) and that we should stay home with our children (have you considered home-schooling?). There are those who will tell you to let babies cry, and then there is the powerful scientific evidence cautioning you not to do so.
Ah, yes, the delights and stressors that exist for those of us parenting in the scientific age. To our arsenal of maternal guilt triggers, we can add the inarguable evidence that reminds us how powerful early experiences are for setting trajectories and maximising potential. Lest we forget, the experiences of the first three years last forever!
I asked Keryn O'Neill about this. Keryn is a mother of two beautiful girls living in Auckland. She's a researcher for the Brainwave Trust and has a Master's degree in psychology. And she eases the mind of anyone tempted to panic about the brain research.
"Hours upon hours of research have led to the irrefutable conclusion that the Perfect Parent is very closely related to the Easter Bunny. They are figments of our imagination," Keryn says. "But the really good news is that babies and their growing brains don't need perfection anyway. What they do need is love, and what Winnicott called the "devotion of the ordinary good mother". So, a baby who has lots of repeated experiences of feeling loved, understood, enjoyed, and comforted when distressed, is likely to do well (emotionally, socially, cognitively) despite the inevitable times when Mum or Dad doesn't manage this."
In fact, the act of seeking "perfection" in our parenting could be described as not just unhelpful, but potentially damaging. Jean Brautigam Mills is a family therapist in the US. She has described the dangers of modelling that "perfection is the goal, and imperfection is intolerable".
Worse, says Jean, parents obsessing about perfection become emotionally unavailable, and fail to demonstrate what it is to be a "good, imperfect person".
Go with the flow
Lauren Porter takes this caution against perfection further. Lauren is a Christchurch-based mother, psychotherapist, lecturer, and co-founder of the Centre for Attachment.
She reminds us to consider the fact that when we come to parenting with an idea of what "perfect" looks like, "it means you are not attuning to what is happening with your child (and yourself) in the moment".
If we have a picture or a definition of what "perfect" means, we are less flexible to respond to what is happening right in front of us. Responding to the here and now: the morphing, changing, ebbing, flowing here and now. A static image of "perfection" can get in the way of this.
Lauren reminds us that adults and children alike are constantly moving through "stages of mood change, fatigue and energy levels, hunger, different feeling states".
A vital ingredient of this dynamic process is the willingness to wonder. "I wonder what is happening for my baby here? I wonder what my baby is feeling or needing right now?"
This wondering can only happen if we're embracing the ebbing and the flowing of the here and now, and not wedded to an idea of a "perfect" interaction.
What's more, says Lauren, like any dynamic process, learning and creativity are hinged to messiness and mistakes.
Mess is good
This reality would be super challenging for the parent who doesn't recognise that Good Enough is ... ahem ... good enough. If a parent is wildly attempting to squish her (or his) lovely, chaotic family into the box labelled "perfection", conflict will most surely arise. This may be especially true for the mother who comes to the messy world of parenting from a professional life where she felt competent and in control. Parenting is rich with moments of feeling incompetent and in conflict.
So conflict becomes something a Good Enough parent is not afraid of: messiness, mistakes, conflict - knowing how to roll with these is a hallmark of a Good Enough parent. It's part of embracing what American researcher Ed Tronick calls "interactive sloppiness". He is one of many who would remind us that it's not about trying to avoid arguments or conflicts within our relationships, but rather thinking about how we reconnect after the unintended ruptures.
Back to Keryn: "...All parents have lots of these times. What is important is to recognise when this has occurred and to attempt to repair the parent-child relationship."
One aspect of repair and reconnection is a willingness to apologise, to admit a mistake. If we are regretful about the way an interaction has gone, it is healthy to say sorry to our children. Yes, that includes babies. Since my oldest was about three, we have used what our American cousins would call a "do-over", and we will literally re-enact an interaction with more positive language, better listening or a more respectful tone. It helps.
Lauren reminds us that finding a way to reconnect will teach about "empathy and reconnection and learning and recovery. The key [to me] is to find a way to stay connected even when things aren't ideal."
Because let's face it - things are rarely ideal. The world is a messy old place.
Give him a break too
Knowing how to roll with imperfection is a useful skill that extends even beyond our learning about relationships.
So cut yourself some slack, Mama, when you provide a meal that is not the perfect balance of carbs and protein, you are preparing children for the realities of the imperfect world in which we dwell! A lousy parent might not notice whether she has fed her kids at all. A Good Enough parent can let go of the angst to provide perfection - the home-reared free-range chicken breasts atop organic seasonal vegetables - and be content with baked beans on toast, because the Good Enough parent feeds the whanau in the context of a relaxed and loving relationship.
Similarly, Good Enough parenting enables us to let our spouses be imperfect too. Before I became a mother, I'd already spent a dozen years or more working with (and obsessing about!) children in my professional life. This made me a fairly annoying person to co-parent with. No matter what my husband was doing with our baby, I was fairly sure I could do it better. Knowing how to get out of my own way - and his - meant learning to prioritise the really important thing - his relationship with his daughter, and hers with him.
A colleague of mine once shared with me a tale about her husband coming home exhausted from work, and she would greet him with a story book to read to their young daughters. Most nights, he would go in, snuggle with his girls, and promptly fall asleep. My colleague knew that she had a choice between berating her husband for "failing" (what about the emergent literacy?) and risk having him give up on the routine all together, or trust that the time with Dad was better than no time at all. She decided to trust that her girls knowing Daddy as a warm, cosy compatriot at bed time was good enough.
It's an extension of the "choose your battles" thing - if an unknowing dad is too keen for rough and tumble play and compromises the safety of a new baby's vulnerable head and brain on that floppy wee neck, YES! Get involved. But if it's just about a backwards nappy or mismatched outfit, let it go. It's good enough!
Flling the emotional tank
Perhaps one summary of the research is this: A child's emotional needs are right up there with his physical needs. Anything else (those dreaded "shoulds", like emptying the dishwasher or listing that outgrown gear on TradeMe) will just have to wait. Let me say that again: filling our children's "emotional tanks" is as vital as filling their bellies.
A Good Enough parent will prioritise the parent/child relationship above all else.
Shock, horror: This might mean that Good Enough parents sometimes send their kids to school with toothpaste smears on their sweatshirts. Because the toothpaste has nothing to do with the relationship connection which was the priority this morning.
Good Enough parents prioritise staying engaged with their children - not easy in a world of mobile phones, laptops, iPads, not to mention old-fashioned landlines, housework and television. All of these things compete for adult attention and can leave children hungry for our presence. Not just our physical presence in a room, but our total connected presence - head and heart.
Many people (myself included) find the practice of this a daily struggle. With only so much energy to spend and a finite number of hours in each day, it can be a full day's work to keep everyone fed, meet the emotional needs of my whanau, keep vaguely on top of the laundry and do a tiny something for myself so I don't take up residence in Resentful and Crazy Land.
This is the challenge. Our children do want and need our time more than anything else. It is the relationship with us that moulds them more than anything, so the Good Enough Parent will be brutally honest with herself about prioritising connection and relationship, and not just the illusion of them. Not the image of connection, but actual head and heart connection.
Truly, this is the reason to be brutal in setting priorities. Resist the worrisome competitive parenting that is alive and well and dangerously seductive. There are countless useless benchmarks against which we measure ourselves and our children - who has lost their baby weight fastest, whose child rolls/crawls/walks soonest, who wins the cross-country run, spelling bee or backstroke event. As if somehow this is the stuff that tells us whether we measure up as parents.
We can also feel lured by the trap of appearing "on to it", bustling our babies and toddlers in and out of car seats as we zoom from music group to baby swimming to play dates, when it can simply lead to stress and hurried parenting. Lying in a sunny spot is a valid activity for an infant, and a great time for the Good Enough parent to practise slowing down to baby time.
And the truth is, Good Enough parents quite probably snap at their children after night after night of broken sleep. Good Enough parents might drive messy cars and not even the latest model. They may get sick of reading the same story over and over or find it difficult to feign interest in playing trains on the living room floor every day. Their kids might not walk till they are 16 months old and they might do horribly at the swimming sports.
And Good Enough parents may have to deal with those who prod at these tender spots, whether they're competitive parents from the school gate or the coffee group, or maybe in-laws or our own family.
The challenge is to keep a Good Enough head up, and know that prioritising relationships is what matters. Turn a compassionate heart toward those frenemies or family members who are unfamiliar with the most current research about the power of relationship. Feel sorry for those poor parents who have succumbed to parenting competitively. What an awful way to live.
Because, heck, if it really is a competition, then s/he who is most relaxed and connected is the winner. If there were a competition, then the "perfect" mother would not win. The Good Enough parent would come first.
How to recognise a Good Enough parent:
A Good Enough parent...
A founding member of the Brainwave Trust in the South Island, Miriam shares her passion for understanding human development with anyone who will listen. Miriam is also a wife, mother, teacher and writer in North Canterbury. She embraces "good enough" in most areas of her life except Sunday morning omelettes. There she demands perfection. Visit her at baby.geek.nz.