Are You a Good Mother?

This article first appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine, January-February 2010.

Every mother asks herself, “Am I good enough?  Am I doing something that is harming my child?”  Often, comments from relatives or friends, parenting books, or even parenting blogs, can reinforce these self doubts and maternal anxiety.  These anxieties run the gamut from:  “I need to feed my child only organic food,” to “I need to get her into the best preschool”.  Many magazines and websites feature “bad mother confessions” in which mothers describe long lists of failures.  It is very normal to find the job of mothering to be overwhelming. Many mothers set unrealistically high expectations for themselves or for their child’s developmental progress without realizing that the process of mothering is meant to be naturally spontaneous, loving and enjoyable to both parent and child.

Donald Winnicott was a famous British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who devoted his life to studying what is best for mothers, babies and young children. He stated that every baby must receive “good enough mothering”. What does that phrase mean? In Winnicott’s view, each ordinary devoted mother develops a unique, loving caretaking style that does not need to reflect a perfect mothering theory. There is room for daily mistakes and imperfections.  However, he emphasizes the importance of time spent during the early months of life for the mother and infant to become bonded to one another and to form a loving unit or “dyad.”  This process creates the emotional glue for the relationship at a time when all infants have continuous needs for care, feeding and emotional interaction.

 What does it take to be a good mother?   You don’t have to buy anything; you don’t have to drive your children around town for every activity; you don’t have to be a saint. I have two recommendations:

  1. Trust your maternal instincts.   
  2. Give your children your undivided attention for at least part of every day. 

Trust your maternal instincts

Each mother needs to be in touch with her maternal intuition and gut feelings about what is best for her own child. Rather than trying to be “perfect,” listen to yourself and observe your child’s needs, disposition and personality. Your maternal empathy develops over time as you work to understand the child’s point of view and increase your ability to provide attuned care through touch, smiles, gazes and verbal communication. Mothers are doing an incredibly important and difficult job –trust in the value of what you are doing and your ability to protect and nurture your child.   

Give your children your undivided attention

Every minute that you spend in fully engaged with your child is an investment in her future.  There are so many distractions today – housework, Twitter, cell phones, e-mail–that take you away from being present with your child.  Many parents who engage with older children think that they don’t have to do this with babies, who are too young to notice or interact.  This is not true.

Research has established that child development occurs through relationships, primarily with the parents.  In the first six months of life, eye to eye contact between mother and baby builds the infant brain. These face-to face interactions are hugely enjoyable as mothers imitate what the baby is doing or saying. The more attuned the pair becomes the more  responsive they become in the giving and taking of shared simple pleasures as each predicts the behavior of the other. This is the dance of relationship.

Traditional mothering of the 1950’s, when moms were not expected to participate in the workplace, may be over in modern society.  Good mothering today is about being in touch with your child’s daily experiences, so you can build on them.  Heart-to-heart, body- to- body, and mind- to- mind relating develops a sense of belonging.   If you lose the thread of this rhythmic dance you can always pick it up again with a good hug, time for play, reading a book, or just being close. Being in the moment and relating fully for even five minutes a day can make a huge difference for your child.  She will feel more bonded and attached, with a stronger sense of security.  These times can be tremendously satisfying to both you and your child.

Mothering is an imperfect art.  If you are emotionally supportive of your child and stay positively connected each day, you are definitely a “good enough mother.”

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