Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Good Enough?

What makes a good mother?

Or perhaps a better question might be: What do you consider to be good mothering?

It's a rhetorical question, but nevertheless the reason I ask is because every woman I know who has children seems to struggle sometimes with what it means to mother well. In fact I don't know a single one who doesn't now and again fear that she is doing a bad job, that she is somehow failing her children despite her best efforts, and who doesn't occasionally catch herself hoping against hope that her children will grow up to be far more forgiving of her perceived motherly mistakes than she herself is. My first forays into the blogosphere have shown that it is no different for a lot of the virtual mothers I meet. Of course it isn't. Why would it be?

The question posed by this post seems on a superficial level to be a fairly easy one to answer. We can surely all agree on the basics of food, warmth, love e.c.t. But dig below the surface, and the question becomes complicated. It becomes emotive and delicate. Opinions on the smallest of issues can become polarised. We start to judge each other mercilessly.

All of us are very much influenced by what we believe other people may think of us, (and our mothering) however much we would like to pretend or insist otherwise. Human beings are social animals - to want to fit in and be liked is an essential part of our makeup. Seeking the approval and acceptance of others is in part instinctual, after all our ancestors lives depended on the support of the whole group. We are not designed to rear our young isolated and alone. But alone we often are in this modern age, the extended family and close community or tribe that was once always on hand to help and give guidance is there no longer. We have no choice but to try to make the best of it and work with what we've got, finding our own parenting way, often in near darkness. We turn in our thousands to parenting books, but often these give confusing and contradictory advice, and so we stumble along unsure, trying desperately not to repeat the same mistakes we feel our own parents made, while joking nervously with other parents who make up the substitute community of the local toddler group or on-line forum, about how our kids are heading for therapy in twenty years time.

The majority of my identity is rooted in being a mother. I take pride and find meaning in my work, I enjoy my friends and my writing, I have lots of interests, but mothering is mostly what I do. And being that I am determined to provide my children with as much love and stability as I possibly can, the question for me then becomes how to do that to the absolute best of my ability, whilst still retaining a sense of self - not to mention my sanity.

Before I had children I was extremely judgemental when it came to other peoples parenting. I had all sorts of ideas about what sort of mother I was going to be (a lot of the ideas were in hindsight rather vague, but definitely involved being better at it than almost everybody else.) I was going to be endlessly patient for one thing. I was certainly never going to shout silly things like, 'I'll count to three....' oh no. It never once occurred to me that there would be times when I would rather do almost anything than look after my child. Or that I would ever desperately watch the clock, counting the minutes untill bed time. Or that I would ever say no to a small child who wanted to do some painting, simply because I could not face dealing with the mess afterwards.

Oh, how I can look back now and laugh at my younger self and her ridiculous notion that motherhood might for some reason change her entire personality. That it would transform her from a rather idle, truculent young woman who liked a good party and could never get up in the morning, into a serene and patient angel who loved nothing more than 6.oo am starts, and having next to no social life. The reality of parenthood and the subsequent realisation that I could never live up to my own initial standards of perfection, forced a major about turn in my attitude and ideas about mothering, and these have continued to evolve and grow with my childrens different developmental stages and my own changing circumstances.

The difficult truth is that over the years I have found the needs and wants of children to be boundless, and that in a zealous quest to be a 'perfect' mother it is all too easy to run oneself completely into the ground. I have had no choice but to develop ways of protecting myself from being sucked dry. Most of all I have had to struggle to find a way to truly accept that keeping a little bit back for myself is o.k. I find this extremely difficult to do without collapsing into a pit of guilt and self flagellation. As much as I tell myself that I don't buy into these notions of endless maternal sacrifice being the one true path to womanly righteousness, and as much as I do take steps to meet my own needs aswell as theirs, I still feel guilty about it. I feel guilty that I could not provide my children with the consistent stability of a two parent family, even though I know that my relationship with my ex-partner was damaging me psychologically. I feel guilty for occasionally feeding my children frozen pizza for tea when I'm exceptionally tired, even though I know that the vast majority of the time they eat perfectly healthily. I feel guilty that my children do not enjoy the endless after school activities that their friends seem to - ballet, karate, rugby e.c.t - because I cannot afford it, or manage the constant too-ing and fro-ing on my own with no partner to help out or make sure dinner's ready when we get home. Even though I know that my kids are fine. Even though I hate that pushy style of parenting that allows children no free time in which to make their own entertainment!

My point is, that although I know intellectually that my mothering is good enough - more than just good enough, it's still extremely hard for me to put a full stop at the end of that sentence and have done with the self doubt. The secret for all of us I think, lies in a genuine acceptance that less than perfect but perfectly good enough, really is good enough.


  1. think you have probably summed up the way a lot of us feel, especially us single mums. all we can do is be the best we can and not the best!

  2. I often wonder whether the imperfections we see in our parenting is pressure from ourselves or pressure because we want other people's approval about how well we are doing. I think many times it is the second.

  3. *nodding vigorously*
    I used to really feel that 'good enough' was great for other people (all my friends are wonderful mothers, of course, regardless of little mistakes they make!) but not for me. I would judge myself for things that I'd never dream of judging a friend for. Because somehow, I was meant to do better. How ridiculous!
    A big part of my honours dissertation was about the myth of the perfect mother and so I naively thought I was immune to all those insidious cultural messages. Not true. They get us all.
    I think the best thing we can do is keep telling each other, loudly, that we are good at this and don't need to be perfect. Because sometimes it's easier to hear that from others than find the validation from within ourselves. Which I'm sure my yoga teacher would frown at but, pffft, you do what you can!

  4. It's an endless balancing act and I don't think anyone can say they get it right all the time and if they do they're lying. What I tell myself is that I know my child best; not some parenting expert or the mother in Tesco who looks at me in pity as my child screams for everything I put in the trolley. Every mother knows their own child and I think all we can do is to try and do our best by them x

  5. This is one of general rants available for general consumption at a moment's notice. Good for you for writing this.

    I am constantly saddened by the lack of support mothers generally offer one another. Why is it so hard to say "You're doing a good job". Why oh why do women feel the need to give you that judging look (you know the one) and/or tell you how perfect their children are or how wonderful a mum they are. Relax, Social Services will not whip your kids away if you admit to anything other than perfection. Life is never perfect so why would anyone think motherhood can be?

    Come on girls. We're in this together. We all parent differently and its ok, the kids will turn out fine. Let's have a "Woo Hoo" for mum's!

    Gappy, you are fab. You love your children, you've made tough choices that have a positive impact on them because long term those decisions made you happier. As for the afterschool stuff. Please. Stop that now. Sod others. You are doing a brill job and if you kids could pick anyone to be their mum, they'd always pick you. That is what counts.

    MD xxxx

  6. I am sure every mother reading this is saying yes, yes and yes again. I can see myself in all of this.

    There is no parenting expert like someone yet to have children. I remember actually thinking before kids, there is no way I will have fussy eaters! Until you work out you can't make them eat, you can't make them poo either for that matter. For the most part my kids eat a really healthy varied diet. That doesn't stop me, when they do turn their noses up at my cooking, or friend's cooking(worse!), feel like I could be 'doing better'. Where does this harsh criticism of our own mothering come from?

    Seriously, most of this stuff doesn't matter in the long run. I think sometimes it helps to view the long picture, and having someone love you, worry for your well being, take joy in your achievements etc is what makes the difference. After school activities and frozen pizzas exist in a world outside of this that is nevertheless very effective at fostering guilt.

    One of the reasons I started blogging, apart from the cathartic nature of writing, and capturing moments in toddlerdom etc for when the kids are older, was to have a big blergh at the multitude of areas that mothers feel judged, develop guilt and generally fret about. Sometimes I even sounded like I was saying I had found the best way (really very far from true!) but I have found a way that for the most part helps me feel like I am doing a good enough job.

    Maybe we need to take more time to acknowledge mothers who we pass in our day. To help mothers feel that a village may not raise a child anymore (a whole other issue), but a village may support those that are raising children.

  7. Thank you so much for all your lovely comments.

    I think it's true that all mothers worry sometimes about whether they're up to scratch, and I also think it's true that the first step towards remedying this is to be more supportive and less judgemental of eachother.

    Like Modern Dilemma says, 'Lets have a big Woo Hoo for mums!'

  8. Brilliant post. Oh the endless guilt! I just look at my life sometimes and think - who the hell allowed me to be in charge of another human being?

    I'm lucky I think that I live in a community where I meet a lot of other parents in public and they're generally very warm and supportive.

    And the ones who aren't - the ones who give you that look when your child is running around the park, shoeless, no buttons left on his shirt and with brown dirt smudges all over his face, hands and feet - the rest of us heave a collective sigh when they gently gather their perfect offspring and head off to their toddler-pilates-while-you-learn-Mandarin classes.

    (Not that I'm criticising the acquisition of any of those particular skills!)

    And actually as I write that I think perhaps I'm being judgemental of those parents myself. Perhaps they're just shy, or on a schedule, or having a bad day.

    Anyway, I think below the surface surely that self doubt lurks in all of us. Thank you for putting it out there!

    PS- Thanks for your comments over at my end. I really appreciate them.

    PPS - Futon secrets involve the use of various men's ties (origin unknown) and pretzel-resembling manoeuvres now lost to this post-baby body.

  9. completely! i don't think there is such a thing as a perfect mother - not the washing powder advert mother that is all smiles all the time etc. I used to have a lot of big ideas about what i would and wouldn't do before i become a mother too, and Boy has that changed! i think the art - and i do think it's an art and not a science- to being a good mother is to go with the flow - not stress about it all too much and try to make sure that both you and the kids enjoy the day.