Good Enough Vs. Too Good Mothering

Apr 1, 2022 | Adult Children, Building Emotional Serenity | 2 comments

As third-tri moms of adult children, we can err in either of two directions:

1. Some moms adopt a self-centered focus that causes them to fail at being a “good enough” mother to adult children. Such mothers live self-absorbed lives and rigorously pursue their own interests and priorities, cruelly ignoring and emotionally distancing from their grown kids.
2. Other moms become obsessed with executing their third-tri motherhood role perfectly, allowing their identities to rest solely on how well, in their opinion, their grown sons and daughters are conducting their adult lives. A mom’s desire to serve, mold, and please adult offspring at all costs may propel her to become a “too good” mother.

In graduate school, I was introduced to the term “good enough mother.” That phrase was coined by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott in his famous book Playing and Reality, published in 1971. The term emphasized the importance of nurturing through early “holding” patterns, breast feeding, and the consistent meeting of an infant’s needs, so the baby felt safe and secure, thus fostering healthy mental and emotional development.

As the child matured, “good enough” mothers gradually exposed their kids to more delays in meeting their needs. Therefore, their young offspring learned how to manage frustrations, a necessary skill in life. Children needed to be allowed to deal with some disappointments and solve some problems for themselves. Winnicott encouraged moms to be “good enough,” and not aim for “perfection” at meeting their youngster’s needs. Otherwise, he maintained, moms would stifle their offspring’s ability to live well-adjusted, confident, and independent lives.

Later in my graduate studies, the dangers of too good mothering became evident as helicopter parenting became the rage. Angry, anxious, entitled, and narcissistic sons and daughters resulted as over-involved moms attempted to block normal obstacles and frustrations from impacting their kids. These parents were conscientious and dedicated to the child-rearing role to an extreme degree, trying so hard to be perfect. Family experts questioned, “Is there such a thing as being ‘too good’ for the child’s good?”

After listening to some third-tri moms discussing recent interactions with adult children, I was struck by how hard some of these women were on themselves. They talked about how poorly they perceived themselves to have handled irritating behaviors and attitudes their adult kids displayed. It is not overstating the case to describe their feelings as agonizing self-doubt and self-condemnation. Having determined ahead of time to be perfectly understanding, perfectly loving, perfectly empathic, perfectly generous, and perfectly self-sacrificing, they became their own worst critics when intergenerational relationships did not flow smoothly all the time.

I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with my own mother. We were calmly discussing some of the ways her parenting style had affected my brother and me. She listened, and then, to my surprise, she said, “Yes, I look back and think maybe I should have handled some things differently, but then I realize I have no idea how badly it might have turned out if I’d made those different choices, if I’d been a different kind of person. Perhaps your lives would have actually turned out much worse. I know I wanted to be a good mother and tried to be a good mother, but I realize no mother ever gets it 100% right.”

My mom believed she’d been a “good enough” mother, and I agree. She’d lived long enough to be at peace with her imperfections. I suspect most of you reading this blog have also been “good enough” loving mothers, and I commend you for your great achievement. I also suspect you, like me, haven’t been a 100% perfect parent despite your grand intentions. Let yourself realize how holding on to the ideal of perfection may be sabotaging your serenity.

If you commit to perfectly catering to your adult kids needs and wishes, be aware that a “too good” mother might actually handicap them in their adult lives. Your Heavenly Father is the only perfect parent, and He is wise enough not to conduct His life on the basis of what we, His immature children, think He should do. Look to Him for your example. Commit to being a “good enough” nurturing mother, despite being perceived at times by your offspring as an imperfect one.

2 Comments

  1. Diana

    I sincerely agree with the idea of being a “good enough” mother. I had three children, each 7 years apart. I liked to say that I spent 21 years just getting them all into first grade! In this long span of time, I was fortunate to be able to focus on each child’s early childhood development. Because I had parents who were not loving or nurturing, I was determined to give my children the love and affection I so badly craved. At the same time, I observed some of my friends being ‘helicopter parents’ and made a firm choice not to adopt that parenting style.
    As my children became teenagers, then young adults, I would here the complaint, “Mom, you never allowed me to do this”. Or, Mom, you made me do this”. I determined at that moment not to fall into the trap of second guessing what I had done or allowing my children to criticize my choices. So, when accused of bad parenting by my children, my reply was always the same—“Sure, I made some mistakes, but I did the best I could with the information I had at the time”. Of course, with each child, I adapted my parenting to their unique personality and lessons I had learned along the way, so each child was parented differently. Also, the youngest child almost always benefits from more mature parenting, more financial security and, often, a more liberal social environment. They are often resented by the older sibling as having been the recipient of preferential treatment by the parents. I know my sister (the youngest in our family) was certainly envied by me and my youngest was openly challenged by her older siblings as being spoiled. But, once again, the information and the circumstances had changed in the many years between the three children’s births.
    I did become resentful of the fact that my children quickly became independent young adults who never acknowledged my contribution to their lives and never saw my need to have my love reciprocated in even small ways. Of course they hugged me and said they loved me, but often didn’t acknowledge Mother’s Day, birthdays or offer to host holiday events. Even offering to help clean up after a big holiday meal escaped their notice. So, I became the mother who was now trying to teach my children how to treat me in a new role and my suggestions fell on deaf ears. So, my “suggestions” became requests, then complaints and finally resentments! As our family grew and holiday entertainment included our extended family and their growing families, this lack of participation finally ended group gatherings. It was too much work and made me resentful, especially with preparation and cleanup lasting so long. We eventually opted out by scheduling holiday trips as a couple to be out of town. The hope was that our children might pick up the tradition, but that didn’t happen.

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  2. Charlotte Melcher

    My heart hurts for you! How easy it is for individuals in both generations to feel unloved and abandoned. Perhaps your kids are now making some mistakes, but “doing the best they can with the information they have.” Once their children are grown and fly the nest, they will finally realize the way they treat you is hurtful, nor how they will want to be treated that way as empty-nest parents themselves. Letting go of your resentment toward them, and remembering how conflicted the relationship was with your own mother, may help your heart soften. Forgiveness plus applying the Golden Rule will make you feel more serene. I hear how you’ve taken care of yourself by going on trips, but I’m hoping genuine forgiveness will help your heart heal wherever you are during holiday times.

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