I'm a Mom and a Social Worker: Here's How I Learned to Accept Being a 'Good Enough' Parent

As parents, we strive for perfection but that's not what's best for us or our children. Our kids only need us to be "good enough." And the good news? You're probably already parenting this way. Here's proof.

An illustration of a mom hugging her son.
Photo: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

As a clinical social worker working with young children and their families, I've sat with countless women, bearing witness to the hard feelings of motherhood. There's just something about becoming a mother that shines a light on the inaccurate and unhelpful thoughts we hold onto as our truth, giving power to the false narrative that tells us we aren't good enough.

Now a mother of two boys, I've also experienced these feelings, sometimes with such intensity, I forget they are simply feelings and not who I am. I ruminate, analyze, and hold myself to standards that are impossible to meet. My picky eater refuses to eat every option I offered for dinner? I immediately judge myself for not having planned a fourth night of chicken nuggets. My youngest throws up all over me at his two-year well visit because he's anxious? I scold myself for not stopping the pediatrician mid exam. I yell at my oldest for doing all the things a 5-year-old does? I'm berating myself for losing my cool in those charged moments.

Parenting during a pandemic revealed to me just how deep-seated the belief was that I wasn't good enough. I felt guilt and then shame about not wanting to be home with my boys, not wanting to be in the teacher role. Because a good mama wouldn't get angry, wouldn't feel trapped, or be desperately waiting for a text saying work was opening back up and I no longer had to be everything to my boys at home, 100 percent of the time, right?

In moments like this, I stop and think about what I tell the mothers I work with. I'd tell them that they were being incredibly hard on themselves and holding themselves up to impossible standards. I'd tell them that no one can be anything to anyone 100 percent of the time. And then I would encourage them to take some pressure off of themselves, that they don't need to get it right all of the time, that in fact, not getting it right all the time is a good thing.

You Are Doing Enough

Therapy with young children and their parents requires an understanding of attachment theory and helping them strengthen their relationship. In my work, I've taught caregivers how to overcome struggles in child-rearing, more effectively meeting their child's emotional needs.

A secure connection between child and parent is the goal and this develops through responsive, consistent caregiving. That's why it's important to respond when your infant cries, to comfort your toddler when they are frustrated, or to hang in there with your preschooler when they experience the mood swings common at this age. In holding space for their needs and big feelings, we teach them that no matter how old they are and no matter how far they go, our hearts are forever their home.

But here's the thing: research shows we only need to provide responsive, consistent caregiving 30 percent of the time to grow well-adjusted children. This is what D.W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, referred to as "good enough mothering" while working with infant/mother dyads in the 1950s.

Other researchers have built on Dr. Winnicott's work, establishing that good enough, rather than perfect, parenting is what our children need. Our mistakes provide natural learning opportunities for children because they watch how we handle the fallout. Embracing our natural imperfection is an act of love, showing our children we accept ourselves for who we are and that they, and everyone else, should too.

Issues Will Arise and That's OK

The normal "rupture and repair" of relationships will happen in relationships we share with our children. Ruptures, such as misreading a cue from our infant or yelling at our preschooler, are OK as long as we take the time to do repair work in a healthy, age-appropriate way. Getting to their level and apologizing for yelling while offering a hug, fist bump, or other sign of affection goes a long way. Healthy repair efforts on our part have numerous benefits. Children learn how to repair ruptures in healthy ways, they come to understand ruptures happen and can be repaired, and most importantly, we show them they are worth that repair effort.

The Bottom Line

The amazing thing about good enough parenting is that for most of us, we already parent this way. Let's take the pressure off ourselves and stop aiming for perfect, especially after a year of pandemic chaos.

And when you need to be reminded of all of this, look to your children. Their hugs, kisses, laughs, tears, big feelings, love? It's a reflection of all you've given them. Our children tell us every day, in a million ways, we are truly good enough.

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