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The ‘Good Enough’ Parent

What comes to mind when you think about what it means to be a good parent? What about a ‘good enough’ parent? With the latter, does it conjure up an image of a parent who is doing their best to meet the needs of their children, or is it perhaps an image of a parent who is struggling to juggle the demands of parenthood? Somewhere along the way the concept of being a ‘good enough’ parent seems to have become a ‘not-so-great’ thing, and often has a negative connotation associated with it. This appears to be partly due to the fact that it deviates from the image of the ‘perfect’ parent who many seem to think is what they ought to strive for.

As a parent, you tend to feel responsible for your children’s safety, their happiness and overall wellbeing.  The love you have for your child and desire to do what is best for them can lead to worry and/or fear that at times you are not doing enough for them or that you are not good enough. The expectations you place on yourself can also lead to feelings of guilt and/or a sense of failure when these expectations are not met. Often parents, and in particular mothers describe an almost constant sense of guilt, whether it be feeling guilty because they have left their child in the care of someone else, guilty because they wanted to breastfeed for longer but couldn’t, guilty because they returned to work, guilty because they got frustrated with their child, guilty because they crave some time to themselves and so on.

Whilst this guilt is a common experience and a reflection of wanting to do the best for our children, it is not helpful when it leads to feelings of inadequacy. This can leave you believing that what you are doing is not good enough, or that there is more you ‘could’ and ‘should’ be doing for your child and family. In reality though, is being a ‘good enough’ parent really such a bad thing, or is it exactly what we should be aiming for?

So what is a ‘good enough’ parent?

The phrase ‘good enough parent’, or more traditionally ‘good enough mother’ stems back to the work of Donald Winnicott in the 1950’s, a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst. Winnicott studied the interactions and behaviours of thousands of mothers and their infants and realised that children actually benefit when they experience small and manageable disappointments or what he termed small ‘failures’.

The process of becoming a good enough parent to our children happens over time. Typically, when our children are infants, we try to be as available and responsive to them as possible. For example, when they cry, we usually pick them up, feed them, change them, cuddle them and so forth. Basically, we try and do whatever it takes to help them feel better and more settled. We do this because we are attending to our children’s basic needs while simultaneously teaching them that they are safe and have a mum/dad/caregiver that will love and care for them.

While this level of attentiveness and responsiveness is beneficial in the early days, it is not sustainable on a long-term basis, nor is it something that as parents we should strive for. Winnicott believed that the way to be a good mother or parent is to be a ‘good enough’ mother/parent. In other words, not only is it OK for parents to not be ‘perfect’, it is actually beneficial for children to experience their parents seemingly ‘fail them’ in small, tolerable ways as it allows them to learn to live in an imperfect world.

It is important to note that obviously we are not referring to any major events or failures as a parent that would cause significant or long-term distress to a child (e.g., any form of neglect, abuse or mistreatment). Instead we are referring to instances where a child may have to do something they do not necessarily want to do or where they may experience some short term upset for various reasons and circumstances. For example, think about a time when you didn’t give your child/children your undivided attention, when they had to wait for something, when they were made to share something they didn’t really want to, when you fed them something they didn’t like, when you dropped them off to childcare for the day. What was the child’s reaction to these events? Chances are there was a level of emotional upset in some, if not all of these cases. As a parent how do you in turn process these events? Do you accept them as being ‘normal’ or do they leave you questioning yourself and how well you are managing the demands of parenthood? Realistically, all these instances provide an opportunity for the children to develop skills that will help them to function effectively in a world that will undoubtedly frustrate and disappoint them every now and then.  They learn that their every request can’t be fulfilled, and that sometimes they will feel sad, disappointed, upset, angry, but that afterwards they will be just fine.

Another key point to consider when we think about what it means to be a good enough mother/parent is that not only is this helpful to our children, but it is also unavoidable. Why? Well, quite simply it is not possible to be perfect. The reality is that as parents we are either ‘good enough’ or not. I think most people would agree that the vast majority of parents are indeed ‘good enough’ and that they get it right most of the time. Sure, sometimes we get it wrong and make mistakes and our children may feel sad, annoyed or frustrated because we have seemingly let them down or disappointed them; but in those little moments, they discover that life can be challenging and that they can feel unhappy, but that ultimately they bounce back.

Interestingly, as parents we ought to be striving for a similar experience. That is, to be realistic and accept that being a parent is hard and that we are juggling multiple demands and roles at any one time; parent, partner, son/daughter, sibling, friend, employee/ employer and so forth. So at times we may feel that juggling all these demands does not allow us to be a ‘good enough’ parent. But is this really the case? Perhaps we can try and shift our perspective on this matter and rather than see this as a sign of failure, we can start to appreciate that each time we feel like we are letting our children down, and they get through it, they are actually developing an inner strength and resilience. Rather than shying away from these experiences, we can recognise that we and our children actually benefit from ‘imperfect parenting’ and that being a ‘good enough’ parent is just that – good enough.

Summary

Adjusting to parenthood takes time. Everyone’s experience of parenting is unique and entails different rewards and challenges. One of the additional difficulties associated with being a parent today is that points of comparison are everywhere, particularly when one considers the everyday presence of social media. While difficult, it is important to try and avoid comparing yourself to what others are doing as this can set up some unrealistic expectations. Most people carefully ‘create’ an image of what they want to portray to others, so, if you find yourself looking at what someone else is doing (or says they are doing!) and compare this to yourself, there is a good chance that you are comparing their version of reality to your actual reality. In simple terms, you are comparing fiction to real life. As hard as it may be sometimes, try not to compare yourself with others, as doing so on a regular basis is likely to skew your view of reality and leave you feeling down, guilty or like you are not ‘good enough’.

It is important to remember that the reason you may feel guilty as a parent is because you care and you are trying to do the best you can for your children and family. Too often parents place too much pressure on themselves on trying to ‘do everything’ and to do it the ‘right’ way. Realistically, there is no one ‘right’ or perfect way of doing things, so it is important to be flexible. Don’t be so hard on yourself when things are tough or don’t go to plan. Try to adjust your expectations so that they are realistic and achievable. Striking the right balance between caring for and nurturing your children, while also maintaining realistic expectations is no easy task. It takes time, practice and is an ongoing process that evolves over time; but the effort is so worthwhile.

Finally, it is important to accept that you are not a perfect parent; none of us are! Similarly, it is just as important for your child to learn and appreciate that their mother, father, family, friends and life in general, is not perfect either. This is not a bad thing; quite the opposite actually. Over time, it will be these very experiences that will help them to accept their own imperfections. Remember that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting (within reason) and that one of the gifts of the ‘good enough’ parent is the development of their child’s emotional intelligence and resilience. So next time we think about what it means to be a ‘good enough’ parent, perhaps we can steer away from any negative perceptions this may evoke and instead come to recognise what a precious gift a ‘good enough’ parent can be to their children as well as themselves.

References and sources for additional information:

  • Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
  • (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
  • Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
  • Powell B., Cooper G., Hoffman K., Marvin R. (2009). The circle of security, in Handbook of Infant Mental Health, 3rd Edn., ed Zeanah C., editor. (New York, NY: Guilford Press), 450–467
  • Winnicott, D.W.(1988) Babies and their MothersLondon: Free Association Books

Disclaimer:

Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

Written by Sofia Rallis

Crisis and Support Services

National Services:

Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

MensLine
1300 78 99 78
www.mensline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052

ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178