Parenting has always been one of life’s most challenging experiences. Perhaps more so for some than others. But some argue that never has it been as tough as it is today in the 21st century. Children are exposed to so much from an early age, the digital world has matured our children too early (Young Minds, 2014). Not surprisingly, we now have a society where this incessant need for perfection is eagerly desired, but of course utterly impossible to achieve. We are bombarded with idealizations at so many levels. In our perfection-driven society we can now make our bodies last longer, manipulate our faces so that the lines of laughter and distress are wiped out. We have come to believe in this illusion of control.
Sadly, nowhere is this subliminal, persistent and relentless message more powerful and pernicious than in the phenomenon of ‘manic parenthood.’ We seem to be perpetuating a culture where being a great mum means micromanaging our children’s lives from birth! I We live in an age where the message is that ‘every moment is a teachable moment and every teachable moment missed a measure of a lousy mother’. The anxiety some parents now experience is having quite dire consequences. At one end of the spectrum we now have a generation of overly anxious parents, worrying about providing just the kind of food, support, stimulation and so on that their child needs at just the time they need it, in just the way they’ll need it. Perfection! They worry they are getting things wrong, not doing things right. This anxiety conveys itself in lots of ways to a child through the parents’ worries and their zealous focus on control and protection. We know that ultimately this anxiety will show up on the child. It saddens me as, it is a vicious cycle where the parent who is most committed to their child’s welfare ends up with a child who hasn’t learnt to cope with the realities of life they have been so guarded from, and in turn has fears about his ability to cope.
We now seem to believe that somehow the busier we can be as mothers the better for our children. Baking for the bake sales and every other event of any size, constantly meeting with teachers, concerning ourselves with every conversation our kids have with each other, preparing them religiously for SATs and even lesser tests like their life depends on them, deadlines, numerous clubs and activities… We have relentless, unforgiving schedules in which we begin to feel as mothers we have never done enough.
The truth is being a mother is one of the impossible professions. We want to be all the things society is pressuring us to believe is the right way to be, we want to find that perfect balance: be patient in all circumstances, never lose our cool, be the child’s comfort, guide, disciplinarian and friend. We fear ever making mistakes because that’s proof that we are not perfect or have weaknesses. Yet we all know no mother can really and truly live up to such idealized expectations. This type of mother is a fantasy, maybe only available briefly to the infant child for whom the mother is the first saviour, first provider and first comforter and first hero.
Why do we have difficulty seeing mothers as they actually are, real human beings with all the flaws and brilliance combined at the same time? I was relieved when I came across the writings of Donald Winnicott a paediatrician and child analyst in the 1950s. He introduced the term “good enough mother”, at an age when mothers were almost always in charge of raising kids. To Winnicott the good enough mother is an ordinary devoted mother who understands the importance of listening to her child and herself. The relationship is one of empathy, imagination and love between “two imperfect people”; her child and herself.
Winnicott’s good enough mother is sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She is attentive and provides a holding environment, offering both physical and emotional care, making sacrifices, providing security. But there are times when she fails, and so she tries again, weathering painful feelings, tending to her child like a gardener with love, patience, effort and care, but she does this imperfectly, that is the point. She is allowed to make mistakes, to feel pressure and strain. She will feel ambivalence about motherhood, being both selfless and self-interested, at times turning to her child and at other times turning away from him. She has great dedication but can be resentful. Winnicott even goes so far as to say, she loves her child but can at the same time can hate him!
She is a real mother, the best kind of mother. It takes an imperfect mother to raise a child well. Children need to experience life through real experiences. They need to learn to deal with disappointments and frustrations. They need to overcome greed and their wish to be the centre of the universe. They need to learn to respect the needs and limitations of people including their mothers!
The concept of the good enough parent has had an immense impact on me coming to terms with my own failures as a mother. Being a mother was the most important thing I ever did. I religiously devoted myself, trying to do the best for my children, like any other parent. But no matter how hard I tried I realized I fell short, at least that’s how I felt. Looking back to my own childhood in the 70s and 80s there was a certain carefreeness. I and my siblings could spend hours just playing in the yard or on the balcony. There was no interference by adult expectations to learn or acquire some specific skill at every turn. We played with sticks and stones and mud and leaves and anything we could find and we were satisfied. If you asked my mother what we were doing she would say “playing”. That was enough, no after school clubs, no targets, no SATs to prepare for, no pressure to perfect!
It is possible of course to be a bad parent, one who neglects their child or rejects him. One who- for one reason or another- doesn’t invest the love time and energy a baby and child needs. That’s far worse than trying to be perfect. But the great news is being a good enough parent is not only desirable but attainable. Anyone can be a good enough parent through ordinary devotion, by providing their child with a consistent feeling of warmth, security, acceptance, safety, love and stimulation. The best parents are those who realize that being a good enough parent is the best objective. They can adapt and bend themselves to the needs of the child. They come to understand what it is to be a good enough parent, not a perfect parent. Parenting has room for elasticity and kids can actually tolerate a wide range of behaviours and situations from the people in their lives.
On a final note I take comfort in knowing the Qur’an makes it clear that we as human beings are weak and so by nature imperfect:
“Mankind is created weak.” (An-Nisa : 28)
This theme resonates throughout the Qur’an, time and time again Allah (SWT) reminds us in various verses and in ahadith that the human being has weaknesses/imperfections. The prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them.” (Muslim)
It makes me question why we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned in this myth of the modern parent? This myth of perfection, of no weaknesses. Why are we literally running ourselves ragged in pursuit of perfection? It is not surprising that the people short changed in this are the parents and kids themselves! As this desire to be perfect manifests in so many subtle and pernicious ways. We tend to think it is the disease of the celebrities, rich and famous but, no we are all suffering and not even aware! We parents need to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a perfect parent or child. Because we are all doing the best we can in an ever-changing world, and doing our best is enough. All praises to Allah (SWT).
Klaudia Khan takes a look at the way the Prophet (SAW) dealt with the younger generation around him so we can be inspired to follow his sunnah.
Sultana Begum is currently a trainee counsellor/psychotherapist working with both children and adults . She also worked for many years in social work in the mental health field with statutory services.