When good enough parenting is… good enough
Updated: Jun 10, 2021
As a new mum, I agonised over every parenting decision and choice I made. Is she crying because she is still hungry? Will she overheat in that grow-bag? Reflecting on those early days, I think what I craved most was reassurance. I wanted the answers. I wanted to know that I was doing a good job and most of all, I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn’t going to somehow screw up my baby’s emotional development because I occasionally missed her afternoon nap in favour of a supermarket run or because I left her to cry while I took a five minute shower.
To add to the angst, there was always a steady stream of advice from experts and well-meaning parenting veterans – “Always do this”. “Never do that”. Just stick to the rules and your child will turn out fine.
Getting real on unrealistic parenting perfection
Of course, parenting perfection is unattainable and unrealistic, yet many of us continue to hold ourselves to impossible standards. Even on our best days, it’s not possible to be physically and emotionally available, empathic, sensitive and responsive in all situations, all of the time.
Here’s the great news: in our quest to raise emotionally stable and well-rounded, independent little people, perfection is not only unattainable and unrealistic – it’s actually unnecessary.
What I wish I knew then, is that as parents, we don’t need to “get it right” 95% of the time. We don’t even need to “get it right” 75% of the time. As long as we can accurately read our baby’s cues and respond quickly, sensitively and accurately 50% of the time, then we are creating an excellent environment for a secure parent/child relationship and nurturing our baby’s social/emotional development. The nicest way I’ve heard it described is “Goldilocks Parenting”. Not too much, not too little – just right.
What is good enough parenting and what does it look like?
Good enough parenting is derived from the concept of the “good enough mother”, coined by Donald W. Winnicott, a paediatrician and child psychotherapist. Winnicott believed that responding to an infant in a timely and sensitive manner over time allows the infant to transition from an appropriate state of dependence on the parent, toward independence and a capacity to tolerate frustration and waiting, which is essential for socio-emotional wellbeing.
A good enough parent:
· Encompasses sensitivity, warmth and empathy towards their baby
· Is physically and emotionally available for them and responsively meet their needs
· Provides a nurturing environment where baby feels safe, held and contained in both the literal and emotional sense
To be able to do this, the good enough parent is able to respond adaptively to whatever their baby is experiencing.
Frustration is OK
The perfect parent may be uncomfortable with allowing their child to express feelings of discomfort, frustration or anger and may try to pre-empt their baby’s needs in an effort to suppress these difficult emotions and prevent her from becoming upset.
Contrastingly, the good enough parent understands that it is actually okay for their baby to become frustrated and upset and is able to protect them from becoming overwhelmed by their big emotions by responding quickly and empathically.
When the good enough parent does this predictably and consistently, the infant’s early experiences of being calmed and soothed supports them to self-soothe. Over time, this will lead them to develop a capacity for waiting.
Good enough parents understand that infants need to learn to experience frustration gradually, over time. The good enough parent is comfortable in allowing their baby to express a range of feelings. They can tolerate their baby’s feelings whilst managing not to become overwhelmed by them themselves. Although this is not possible all of the time, it is possible for a good enough amount of time.
Trust your Gut
The concept of good enough parenting acknowledges that there is no “right way” to parent, rather, there are many ways to parent sensitively and responsively. Essentially, this means relying on your natural parenting instincts to be able to accurately and perceptively interpret your baby’s individual needs. When doing this, the good enough parent takes into consideration their baby’s own temperament and development. They understand that these are unique to their own child and will influence the degree of sensitivity and responsivity in their baby’s daily care.
But what about the times when we aren’t “good enough?” Well, babies are very forgiving, and what becomes important then, is not that we may have responded differently or more quickly, but rather that we try to make amends and repair the relationship with our child as soon as we can.
Remember, your baby doesn’t need a perfect parent, but they do need a real one. Good enough is, good enough.