The Good-Enough Mother
AB: One of the women you talked with in the book, Alexandra, was a single mom. And she was continuing her mother's legacy of having a babysitter relationship with her child, versus a mothering relationship with her child. Did you interview any single moms who were able to overcome their mother's legacy?
KB: Absolutely. That's why I interviewed women across all the ages and stages of mothering. I interviewed lots of older women who worked or who were single through the major child-rearing years. One in particular, Hannah, was a grandmother, with four of her own children and three stepchildren. She had to go back to work right after her divorce. She worked really hard to connect with her children when she was home, being emotionally available to them. I think what happens for women so often is just sheer exhaustion, and we can only do so much. And I think single mothers have such a hard road. But certainly the message of my book is that flawed mothering in the past can be overcome with your own children.
Above all, nobody gets to be the perfect mother, nobody gets the perfect childhood. All of us have something to deal with. Sometimes it's a major problem, and sometimes it's much more subtle. Many of the women I talked to felt that there was a gift in having a very clear understanding of who their mothers were and what their mothers did in parenting them. As one woman said, "There are some benefits to having a lousy mother, but I cringe when I say that because she didn't mean to be a lousy mother." If you're willing to take a look at your childhood experiences with your mother, I think the chances of being a really good mother are so great. Better than the woman who had the good-enough mother.
AB: What does it mean to be a "good-enough mother"?
KB: D.W. Winnicott calls this concept the "ordinary devoted mother." What he meant by that was not that there's a minimum that mothers can do and their kids will be okay. What he meant was being a devoted, good mother is an ordinary act. It goes on all the time. It doesn't have to be some "Super Mom." It's a mother who delights in her children. It's a mother who sees her children for who they are and loves them for that and allows them to be that way. I think a lot of mothers get an idea in their heads about the kind of children she wants to have instead of the kind of children she has. And that's very hard for children.
AB: In the book you talked about John Bowlby's reassuring idea that you can't have too many loving, devoted eyes on a child. So what about dad? How can a father dilute the under-mothered factor?
KB: Women told me again and again that one of their greatest supports was their father. With fathers, his emotional support of the mother helps her have a healthy attachment with her children. And of course the father has an attachment relationship with the child also, and he can have a secure attachment when the mother doesn't.
AB: How can a woman overcome being under-mothered?
KB: Take a really careful look at what you experienced. And I think particularly for women who experienced the subtle under-mothering, where mother was well-meaning, but there was something critical missing. It takes a lot of courage to look at your mother and see her clearly. You have a strike a balance in blaming her for everything. And you also can't deny your own experience. It doesn't mean engaging any differently with your own mother. It just means seeing her clearly. Sometimes it means figuring out what her story was. And this was very true with my grandmother -- I needed a clear understanding of what her experiences were so that I could not get stuck in blame. I have great compassion for her, and for what happened in her life.