When I first met Molly for a psychotherapy consultation, she struck me as an intelligent, highly ambitious woman and a thoughtful and caring mother. Molly's identity seemed to be tied primarily to her work life of 20 plus years. She considered herself a "superwoman" in her executive capacity, and, although she loved her daughters deeply, she felt less competent and more tentative in her role as mother.
When her daughters entered their adolescent years and began exhibiting risky behaviors, Molly felt compelled to shift her focus and attention from the demands of her high-powered professional life to the needs of her girls. She realized that this was her last real opportunity to influence her children, particularly during the critically important teenage years. Immediately after Molly discovered vodka bottles and condoms in the trash and suspicious looking paraphernalia in her 15-year-old's desk, she decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from work and be home full time.
Navigating a Major Life Adjustment
Becoming a full-time mom was a major life adjustment for Molly. I assured her that she possessed everything necessary to make this shift. She struggled with intense feelings of guilt believing that her absence during the girls' earlier years might have left them ill-equipped or damaged in some significant way.
Feelings of guilt and loss are common for mothers, regardless of the life path chosen. The ubiquitous question, "Am I a 'good enough' mother?" is pondered by moms who choose to stay home to care for their children full-time, as well as those who work out of the home full-time or part-time. The answer to this question proves to be painfully elusive for many, as it was for Molly.
Molly had been a thoughtful and attentive mother all along, and she needed to embrace this truth. That her girls were experimenting with risky behaviors was of legitimate concern, but not far from the norm for many adolescents. However, I did agree that Molly needed to be more available to her daughters at this juncture to help them make better choices regarding their health and safety. I took note that Molly was unusually hard on herself. In our initial work together, I sensed that her preoccupation with guilt and her remorse regarding past choices interfered with her ability to be present for her daughters in the here and now.
The "Good Enough Mother"
Before Molly would be able to improve communication with her girls, she needed to become more compassionate with herself and develop the understanding that she was a "good enough" mom.
D.W. Winnicott coined the term "good enough mother" in the early 1950s. He was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied the mother-infant relationship. He described the "ordinary devoted mother" as one who is able to establish a loving relationship with her baby by sensing and satisfying its needs. Winnicott explained that while a mother does not always read these signals correctly, she does so often enough for the infant's healthy growth and development. In this sense, Winnicott validated that no mother can be perfect, but most mothers are "good enough." Additional research has confirmed that these "mini-failures" of attunement are considered necessary for a baby's development as they create opportunities for the infant to learn to self-sooth.
The Capacity for Self-Compassion
Today, with women's roles expanding and becoming more complex, the struggle to find work-life balance has become a significant challenge. Now more than ever, the idea of "good enough" has great relevance and can serve as an important and comforting reminder that not only is perfection an illusion, but ultimately it does not support our children in their efforts toward successful independence. We must learn to accept being good enough in all the roles we assume -- mother, daughter, partner and professional. Sometimes we are required to give more of our energy to one aspect of our lives than another, and then, invariably, the demands shift, and we must adjust. Learning to accept our limitations requires self-awareness and, most importantly, the capacity for self-compassion. In turn, when we are kind and accepting of ourselves we are better poised to offer our unconditional love to others. This is a great gift to the people in our lives.
The Power of Mindfulness
Engaging in mindfulness exercises like meditation, breath work or journaling can help one gain clarity and perspective and relinquish self judgment. Molly had never practiced any mindfulness strategies but was a willing candidate. I taught her abdominal breathing, relaxation which she preferred over meditation and affirmations. Molly was eventually able to quiet the torment she experienced over being less than perfect. She began to forgive herself for her "mini-failures" as a mother, professional and human being. As Molly let go of the illusion of perfection and began to embrace the notion of "good enough," she became less anxious and self critical and more present and accessible to her daughters. Molly's "good enough" gave way to greater personal freedom and more loving relationships.
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