Last month I received an email from a man in Mantova, Italy, which he gave me permission to quote. His name is Dario Ferrari, and his subject line says: “A personal experience with a Good ENOUGH parent.”
Mr. Ferrari explained that he saw on the Internet an interview with me about my book. He writes: “I was very attracted by the title (goodenoughmothering) because one of my family’s key events to define my childhood’s history or peculiarity regards the fact that when I was about 6-7 years old I had a long period where I used to address my father as ‘my good enough father.’ “
He explains further: “I meant what I said at 6 years of age. Not that he was GOOD enough, but good ENOUGH; what I would like to emphasize is the enough. Finding out (perceiving) that my father was ‘good ENOUGH’ also implies that I had sensed that he was not TOO good, he was real, I could say IT to him, I could say to him that he was ‘enough’ and he would accept it; he was ‘one of me’, my size, I could speak to him, speak my mind to him without running any risk.”
The writer expresses in a personal and heartfelt way, the meaning of a concept I have been trying to convey in my own writing. It is wonderful that he writes about this concept in terms of a relationship with his father. Fathers are increasingly joining the search to become the “perfect” parent. Both fathers and mothers can undoubtedly find gratification in the email writer’s idea that not being too good made his father real and accessible to his son.
The idea of a “good enough mother” was introduced by the psychiatrist D.W. Wnnicott in the 1950s, when the role and expectations of mothers was quite different than it is today. His central idea, however, is still valid, namely that mothers should not be expected, or expect of themselves, to be perfect. The main point is not only the impossibility of achieving perfection, but the undesirability of such a quest for a child’s development. It is the reality of children having to start meeting some of their needs themselves, and increasingly having the skills to do so, that propels maturation.
It is interesting that the writer’s feeling that not only did his father being “enough” make him real and accessible, his ability to accept being “enough” made him “one of me, my size.” What that means is that the son could identify with a parent who could accept being not perfect. Children are only too aware that they are not perfect themselves. If the parent can accept being not perfect, that makes it possible to “speak my mind without running any risks.”
What “enough” may mean is a parent doing his or her best to understand a child on his own terms. Not necessarily to do what a child wants on his terms, but to understand where he is coming from, to be his “size.” This is also what makes it possible to “speak my mind without running any risks.” The lines of communication are open.
Page 2 of 2 - We try our best to match our expectations to a child’s abilities, his developmental level. We will never read our children perfectly. That can serve them well when we are able to accept our own limitations, when we do not make perfection our objective – our children’s or our own.
When we nurture our children to the best of our own ability – not measured by some idealized vision – we are good enough.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.