The 'Good' Mother Myth...

Published: 5th Aug 2015

Author: Clair Hobbs

Is striving to meet that idealised goal of being a 'good' mother helpful for our children, or does it I wonder sometimes lead to unintended & unhelpful consequences? 

I was reminded of this thought again the other day when a piece of recent research was reported. It seems that the 2 teams of researchers (from the University of Bath, along with St John University York), who investigated the impact of perfectionism on performance, concluded that:

'As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a virtue or a sign of high achievement...yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait', as one of the research team Dr Thomas Curran explained. This team of researchers found that those who insist on achieving the highest standards are the most likely to burn out because they put themselves under too much pressure, leading to extreme fatigue.

Although this research was investigating the impact of the 'perfectionist' trait in the workplace, I wondered if similar effects on the wellbeing of 'high-strivers' could be similar in other areas of their life?

This got me thinking again about how becoming a mum in the 21st century can often be a process full of competing & confusing feelings. Before becoming mothers, women today have often invested time and energy in building a career, frequently involving the meeting of targets and being the best that they can be within their work role. To move from this type of objective-driven lifestyle into the mother-role (with very few opportunities to access any kind of 'induction') can be tricky. On reflection, with the benefit of a little distance & perpective on my own early motherhood experience, I recognise now that for the first few years when my children were very young, I worked very hard to attain my own objective - that of what I believed to be the goal: being a 'good' mother.

Having come to motherhood in my late thirties, I'd had an interesting, fulfilling (& fairly successful, tho I say it myself!) career in the NHS for 15 years by the time I had my first child. Having been been a high-striving health visitor, team leader & service manager, and wanting to replicate those feelings of achievement as a mum, added to my own self-imposed pressure to also do things 'just right' in my new role. Of course the self-imposed pressure rose when I occasionally bumped into my work 'clients' when I was out & about...needless to say usually at a toddler group or supermarket... just as my toddler would be having a meltdown!!! Striving for that 'good' mother credibility in these moments could quite easily lead to feelings of shame & failure.  

What I didn't know then, but have since discovered, is that my self-imposed target of achieving 'good' mothering was an approach that was NOT going to be the most positive experience for my children in the long term! The light came on for me when, a couple of years into my own mumma-hood, I re-read the work of Donald Winnicott, a paediatritian who wrote on parenthood over 60 years ago! I'd been familiar with his work during my obstetrics training back in the 1980s before I became a mum - but which had not held any real meaning for me at that stage. Now I finally realised what he was getting at!

Donald Winnicott shared his findings from years of research in two books, written in 1965 & 1988; that a perfectionist striving to be a 'good' mother was not the most helpful approach for children. Instead, what babies and young children need, he wrote, in order to prepare them for the imperfections and frustrations of life, is merely for their mother to be 'Good Enough'. Instead of mums trying to be perfect mothers, accepting the reality of real life - that relationships can't be perfect all the time, is what will help babies & toddlers to gradually build resilience and to thrive. Dr. Winnicott's view was simply that 'perfection belongs to machines', not to the human condition & least of all to parenthood.        

So how about if we all recognise that, in the early months & years of motherhood, new parents & babies are intended to merely 'rub along' together as their relationship blossoms? How about if new mums, who may have had successful careers built on striving for being the best they can be in their role, begin to embrace the true parenthood paradigm ...that rubbing along in a less than perfect way in the mothering role is actually Just Perfect. And how about if the neighbours, workmates, extended family and friends around new parents accept that too? Unconditional support & encouragement for new mothers to adjust & to accept the motherhood target of 'good enough' in their new role may go some way towards easing the pressures of early parenthood.     

So I'm offering the suggestion that in the early years of motherhood, being imperfect in the role is to successfully attain the new perfect. 'Embrace your imperfect self with compassion', as the well-respected Dr. Laura Markham counsels in her weekly blog. I shall do my best to take her wise words to heart...hopefully you can too.   With Warmest Wishes, Clair


Dr. A. Hill et al  Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis Published in: Personality & Social Psychology Review. June 2015

Winnicott, D.W.(1965) The Family and Individual Development (London: Tavistock

Winnicott, D.W.(1988) Babies and their Mothers London : Free Association Books

Website: A-Ha! by Dr. Laura Markham

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