Every. Single. Time. I hear the, “I’ll be deploying,” my brain automatically unlocks the compartment I’ve preserved for these moments, the, “Okay, here’s what I need to do, prepare, and accept…” but somewhere in a hidden corner of that cognitive chamber is a little neon sign that switches on right before I go to bed at night, it reads, “I hope I’m good enough.” Logically and emotionally this demon has been wrestled, but in these vulnerable moments, the little bit of life in this belief pushes its luck for a comeback.
Worrying about being good enough as a parent, especially for women, is not an uncommon fear. As a therapist, I’ve witnessed the extreme pressure personalized cultural messages and unrealistic expectations put on caregivers. In the military community this fear is inflamed by extended periods of unequal caregiving responsibilities due to deployments, trainings, PCS moves, and other unique circumstances that force separation between spouses and service members. Often times I’ll ask military parents how they perceive things are going during these separations. The answer I often get is, “Good enough,” however when digging deeper, I’ve come to find that “good enough” is often a bandaid placed on a deep wound that once exposed is more accurately self-proclaimed as, “not enough.”
My own past experiences and those of my clients often equate good enough with not enough, a direct contradiction to one my very favorite theories. In 1953, a world-renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst by the name of Donald Winnicott coined the term, “Good Enough Mother.” After studying thousands of babies and their mothers he came to the conclusion that children do not need a perfect mother (or caregiver). In addition, and perhaps his most notable discovery, perfect caregivers do not exist and if they did they may actually hinder the growth and development of their children. He realized that babies and children actually BENEFIT when their parents fail them in tolerable ways over periods of time (this doesn’t mean major failures of course, like neglect and child abuse).
Winnicott reasoned that the process of being a good enough caregiver is gradual. When our children are infants, we respond to them immediately when they cry to help them feel better by feeding them, changing their diaper, or holding them. These practices enable our babies to develop a sense of trust and help them know they are safe in our care. However, as children grow, this level of attentiveness is not only highly impossible but also detrimental to the developmental process of resilience we want our children to acquire. Winnicott found that if we allow our children to believe in an unrealistic world that is constantly revolving around their needs and wants, they will have difficulty functioning in the real one.
For the military parent who carries out caregiving without a partner AND the military parent who has access and support of their partner this means that it is not only okay to “drop the ball,” but doing so can actually benefit our children. So, every time you continue a conversation with a friend without stopping to acknowledge a child interrupting, when you can’t volunteer for a classroom party, when you don’t provide a home cooked meal or don’t sacrifice the last piece of cake for them, you prepare them for a world and society that will constantly disappoint them.
In short, one of the most valuable lessons children can learn is that life can be hard and they will feel let down and disappointed and that despite all this, they can still manage the challenges that will definitely arise. This lesson is best learned in the safety of caregivers who love and support them.The good-enough parent gets it right a lot of the time but when they get it wrong, they model accountability and imperfection, lessons that teach their children that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that living up to expectations prescribed by outside sources are not attainable. Forming beliefs that failure is not a character defect or limit of ability, but rather an opportunity to acquire more knowledge and growth- key aspects needed for building resilience, is the beautiful benefit of the good enough parent. Chances are you are good enough, and good enough is enough. It’s time to start believing it.