Women’s group. Six members.
One has been discussing problems her grown children face. Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent. Which makes her cry.
The others listen and nod sadly.
After a minute I say, “Question for the group. Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”
They look at me, startled. Then at each other.
“I doubt it,” I say. “Every child deserves perfect parenting. No child ever gets it. And every mother knows this and feels bad about it. So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”
“Always?” one asks.
“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies. But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”
The crying mother sniffles.
“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says. “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”
Right, Mom. You, me, and most every parent I know.
Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,
The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
Catch that last line?
The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.
So relax if you’re not perfect. You can’t be, and you don’t have to be. And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.
Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.
“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”
Six women, crying.
All moms or grandmothers, and all worried about a kid.
One kid is gay and her parents are rejecting her. One’s being fed junk food and left alone all day with tv. One (a big one) is a germophobe whose marriage is in jeopardy. One (another big one) drinks too much. And the last flies into rages when he can’t get his way.
Anxiety, frustration, guilt and helplessness slowly fill the group room like a swimming pool.
And behind each story is one question: What can I do about this? And the same frightened answer: I can’t do anything.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Ready for some good news?”
They look at me.
“Not the answer you’re looking for, probably. And not where you’re looking for it. Not out there, among the people you love and want to rescue and the problems you hate and want to solve.”
I get up from my chair and go to a mobile hanging in one corner. It’s my Seafood Mobile, all fish, crabs and starfish. I flick a tuna with my finger. The whole mobile bounces.
“This is a family,” I say. “See what happens when one member’s in trouble? The trouble migrates throughout the system. Affects everyone. Got that?”
“Now watch.” I hold the tuna between my thumb and forefinger. The mobile calms down. “This is what happens when one member stabilizes or heals. That healing migrates throughout the system too.”
I sit down again.
“You’ve no control over these problems. But you also have more power than you know. You can be the calm fish. You can help stabilize the system.
“Remember when you were kids? Remember the adults that helped you the most? They weren’t the anxious, angry or desperate ones. Not the ones who scolded or punished or rescued.
“They were the ones who reassured you, encouraged you, praised you, helped you feel good about yourselves. Who modeled calmness, acceptance, or faith. Who helped convince you – because they really believed it – that Everything Will Be Okay.”
“That’s what you can bring to your families.
“Your kids and grandkids are each in their own little rowboat. You can’t row it for them. Can’t stop the storm or calm the waters. You don’t have that kind of control.
“But if you learn how to calm yourselves without controlling, you can offer them a safe harbor. Model faith that Everything Will Be Okay. And provide an emotional space where they can pull in, drop oars, catch their breath, regain hope.
“Not a small thing.”
* * *
Here are the three things you need to know about shame:
We all have it.
We’re all terrified to talk about it.
The less we talk about it the more we have it.
~ From Part 1 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (4:56).
Q: You say that shame leads to disconection. So how do we reconnect?
A: You know, it’s funny.
One of the ironies is that shame fills us with this fear of disconnection.
But it is our imperfection that connects us to each other. It is the fact that our shared humanity is imperfect.
I think if we can find the courage to talk about our lives honestly, and our struggles, not only does that free us, it gives other people the freedom to be more authentic and real as well.
I don’t think connection is possible without authenticity.
~ From Part 2 of a PBS interview of Dr. Brene Brown (5:31).