When my son was 8 months old, he bit another child on a play date. I was embarrassed and felt responsible for my son's action. Would the other moms think I tolerated biting? It also terrified me to imagine what behavior loomed on the toddler horizon.
In our society, we spend a lot of time and mental energy worrying about being the perfect parent and raising perfect children. We want babies who do not cry and children who sit quietly and play happily. This illusion is dashed when your baby will not stop screaming in a restaurant, your 2-year-old smacks another child on the playground or your 4-year-old refuses to potty train. Then we spend even more time and energy blaming ourselves. Was it my fault? Will everyone think I'm a bad mom? What could I have done differently?
Lately there have been several articles making the Internet rounds about "the good enough mother," a term coined by psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott who believed that a healthy mother/child relationship requires a mother who is not perfect, but good enough. That is, a mother who provides her child a safe environment filled with love, attention, and security but then fails her child in small ways, enabling him to develop his own resources and resilience.
The good enough mother is not perfect. And in her humanity, she demonstrates to her children how to learn from mistakes, apologize and forgive, be disappointed, express frustration and have faith that tomorrow will be better.
Although this theory is widely accepted in the field of psychology, we have a long way to go to convince mothers that this is true. And to enhance your child's development and your parental happiness, I think the concept of "good enough" should apply to another person: your child.
Babies get categorized as "good" or "bad" practically from the moment they are born: "She's such a good baby... He's such a bad sleeper... He's a lazy crawler." And because we control many aspects of our child's life, it can feel like any difficulty he's having is our fault. It becomes hard to see our child as an individual.
If your baby is a "bad sleeper," you must not be reading the right sleep-training manuals. If your child has trouble nursing, you must be doing something wrong. Maybe your 7-month-old spits out his pureed peas because your diet wasn't diverse enough during pregnancy. The possibilities to label your baby's reactions and your potential contribution to them are endless.
But babies are born with unique personality traits, which dictate how they respond to frustration, how often they laugh or cry and even how quickly they develop certain motor skills. If we understand (and truly believe) that we cannot control our baby's reactions, then we can start releasing the responsibility we put on ourselves when he does something we don't like. It becomes easier to accept that your child is (and by extension you are) good enough.
A good enough child is real and imperfect. Making mistakes and acting out is part of the learning process. A good enough child expresses frustration, gets angry, makes mistakes and lashes out. He may bite, hit or not share his toys, but he is also eager to learn, develop and be accepted.
As your child grows and begins to show aspects of her personality, you may find that (shocker!) you do not like all of your child's personality traits. And you may label them "bad" or "concerning."
You may worry that your toddler isn't good at sharing. You may think your 6-year-old daughter is too bossy or that your 10-year-old son is too shy. Many of these characteristics are actually appropriate developmental phases. Others may become distinguishing personality traits that can be advantageous in another context -- like a woman who is confident speaking her mind or a man who find success working alone. Or maybe they will sometimes present challenges for your child as she grows. After all, that's life. And it's OK.
The role of the good enough parent is both teacher and student. As a student, parents should listen to and learn from their children. Often children act out because they are expressing a need, such as hunger, tiredness, or lack of attention. Learning your child's unique personality traits and triggers will help you meet his needs when you can and, at the same time, accept him for who he is.
Good enough parents also teach their children appropriate behavior through modeling. Teaching takes time, patience and energy. If you are constantly blaming yourself for your child's actions or worrying what others think, where will you find the energy and patience with yourself to model the behavior you want to see in your kids?
Everyone feels that they have messed up in certain situations. That does not make you a bad parent; it makes you human. The same goes for your child. All of us deserve second, third, and even fourth chances to learn and grow from our challenges and mistakes. And all of us deserve to be accepted for the complicated people we are. Accepting your child as good enough brings the incredible freedom to give yourself -- and your child -- a break and just enjoy the time you have together, bumps and all. It's not easy, but it is worth it.
This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, research funding, and online information and support for women and mothers. You can follow Seleni on Twitter @selenidotorg and the author @Winnicottsmama.