The idea of the ‘Perfect Mom’ is an absolute myth and yet here we all are, chasing that fantasy of being ever-present; unconditional and producing happy and uncompromised offspring. For me, something very humbling happened when I first became a mom. The only ‘adult’ thing I had done pre-kids, was work. So when my daughter came along I immediately applied the same level of perfection and commitment that I had always had in my previous jobs. As an A-Type it had always paid off and my expectations of my motherly capabilities was high. I understood that trusty principal that got me through matric, Varsity and my early working years: That if you work hard at something, you become good at it. You will succeed and it will pay off. As a young working professional I knew how to work the system and achieve my goals. So when it came to becoming a mom, I simply assumed it would pan out in the same way. Well nothing humbles you quite like motherhood.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers where he tracked the world’s most successful people. He wanted to try and understand how they rose to perfection in their area of expertise. It all boiled down to 10,000 hours. Of practice. Of patience. Of honing their craft. They got up in the morning. They were relentless. They did hard things. Over and over again for 10,000 hours. And eventually this got them to the top of their fields, earned them noble prizes, trophies and private islands. Well, Mr. Gladwell, I am a mother of 2 and in the past 6 years I have collated approximately 52,560 hours of practice (that’s over 5 times your recommended dose of commitment)… and yet I’ve never felt less perfect at anything in all my life. I too have gotten up early in the morning. Was relentless. Did hard things. Was committed. Yet as a mother, I feel notably more inadequate than the day I started. So why is that?
I spent some time asking moms online “What they worry about most when it comes to their mothering.” So many moms worried if they were “good enough”. This idea of ‘good enough’ is so complex. Once upon a time, a Psychoanalyst and Paediatrician called Donald Winnicot wrote all about this elusive thing called “The Good Enough Mother”. And as it turns out, it has nothing to do with 10,000 hours. What he discovered was that a ‘Good Enough’ mother, is actually someone who fails her child just enough. Confused much?
Winnicot explained that these tiny humans (fresh out of the womb) demand everything from us. In fact psychoanalytically speaking, for a few months post-birth (at least) they don’t even know they are out of us. And why should they- they can’t comprehend this thing called ‘birth’? While inside, every demand was met. So when they come out, they expect things to be business as usual. Except it isn’t, because babies are born to humans and not to robots. So baba is born and at first, mom is mostly available. Feeding, changing and shoogeling on demand. That idea of ‘preggy/ baby brain’ is a very real thing. It’s not all due to hormones and chemistry. Psychologically speaking its because babies don’t yet have a mind of their own. So they borrow ours. Leaving us foggy and dependent. They need us all the time to meet their demands; to soothe a cry that feels more angry than sad and to make good, on stuff that feels bad. And so we respond (often in angst) in order to deliver. Now this is where something potentially dangerous is set up for moms: Sometimes the ability to stop that cry feels like a tiny victory and can become like a drug. Something we can become good at again. This is an unnecessary responsibility, which can actually be too much to manage. So understandably, at some point mom gets tired, fed up or just plain annoyed at her baby. These feelings are normal and completely understandable because, as we have already established, mama ain’t no robot. So what happens is that as the little one begins growing, her demands are now met a little bit slower and a little bit less. Mom may not be around as much because she too needs to work, eat, sleep and pee. So slowly baba’s world starts to fail it a little and the fantasy of the perfect world, slowly severs. Yes this is painful but it’s the way of the world and this is the very mechanism that begins to help baby form a mind of her own. We cannot get what we want whenever we need it and baby needs to learn that too. Albeit in a gentle way. So while this is a painful lesson, Winnicot explains that as long as the mom shows up for her baby consistently enough, then the baby will actually begin to develop a mind that can function in the real world.
This idea is actually very comforting as it holds the potential to reframe ‘perfect mothering’. Where it can actually be about a kind of lessness not a moreness. It’s a concept about showing up, just enough. Trying your best, just enough. Being consistent, just enough. But it can also be about allowing our little ones to get disappointed and manage the world, one little cry at a time. Now I’m not suggesting we go all ‘drill sergeant’ on her tiny tochas, but what it does mean is that not being perfect, is an important part of the job too. Hopefully, with all this in mind, we can just get an “A” for Average, and be happy enough with that.