Why my mom is a “good enough” parent, and why my mother wasn’t

I happened across this thesis yesterday and although I only skimmed it, I found something interesting about how parents are supposed to be “good enough” parents. So I asked mom and she said that’s a concept coined by a psychologist named Winnicott and it means that parents don’t need to be perfect, never making mistakes, but that they need to be “good enough” in order for the child do develop in a healthy way.

I thought that was interesting and decided I want to compare the parenting my birth mother did and the parenting my mom now does and see what I get. I’ll write my take on my mother’s behavior in blue and my take on my mom’s behavior in purple.

So trusting the thesis being a good enough parent requires parents to:

  • To teach and guide

my mother – teaching and guiding, I don’t know if that applies to her at all. Does it count if you are taught something by learning to fear the consequences if you don’t do it? The only thing she deliberately taught me was that everyone who didn’t take advantage of someone else when given the chance to get away with it was stupid.

my mom – she takes lots of time to teach me things. Perfectly ordinary things, like how to attend to my personal care, how to use a washing machine or how to cook something, but also things like how come I tick the way I do, how to make sense of my own behavior, that of others and everything. And she does it over and over again, even when it’s the same thing she showed or explained to me ten times already.

  • To instill morals, values, beliefs, ethics

my mother – she instilled the belief that you’re dumb if you don’t cheat the system, take advantage of people or cut them bad deals or lie when you can get away with it. And that it’s okay to take your anger out on others.

my mom – it used to annoy me how ethical she is. If she gets her change and the cashier gave her too much, she always alerts them. She’s all about treating people well and being honest and all that. I used to not get it. Why put myself at a disadvantage when the other won’t even notice? For quite a long time I accused her of only doing it to hone a holier-than-thou attitude, so she can feel morally superior. But I was wrong. Especially lately I got to realize that she does it because it feels good to treat others well, because it makes it easier to feel good about yourself and… hm… I guess because it’s the right thing to do. Sounds weird coming out of my mouth, but go figure, now I actually think so.

  • To discipline

my mother – her idea of discipline were threats and punishment in any shade you think of. I was mortally afraid of irritating her and provoking anger, so I was probably very well behaved, but not out of anything but terror.

my mom – I can’t recall a single event where she punished me, but at the same time she attaches great importance to discipline. If we make agreements, she expects I observe them. And if I don’t, she will follow up on it, will try to figure out how come I didn’t and what I need in order to have an easier time observing the rules the next time around. It’s very important to her. It’s only the minor rules that she lets slip sometimes, stuff like not having candy before dinner.

  • To set limits

my mother – she was setting limits alright. Lots of random limits. Whatever she said was a new rule or a limit. It was kind of confusing because whatever angered her was overstepping a limit, and what she demanded changed depending on her mood, so I was always on guard about it. Stuff that was okay to do yesterday, that she even asked of me, I would often get punished for doing the day after.

my mom – she is also setting limits alright. But they don’t change and most of them make sense, because she takes time to explain them to me, so we’re usually in some sort of agreement over the rules. But yeah, I live with lots of rules and limits. I don’t have many of the liberties other people my age have, but then, I don’t have the emotional or social skills most other people my age have either. So it’s kind of okay, because the rules and limits keep me safe. I guess that’s what it’s all about.  

  • To follow through

my mother – she was actually fairly predictable in the negative regard. If she said I was gonna pay for something, I was gonna pay. In the positive regard, not so much. If she had a good moment, she would sometimes promise me something, like that she was going to get me something from the store, but she almost always forgot about ever having said something like this, or laughed at my disappointment, saying she’d only been kidding me and how stupid was I to have believed I’d be getting something. Most embarrassing memories.

my mom – I have yet to see her not follow through with something. She doesn’t make promises she can’t keep and she doesn’t ever forget any single thing she said. She must have an elephant’s memory or something. It’s me who forgets stuff, but never her. So yeah, whatever she says, she will follow through with it, and if she does change her mind about something, she always explains to me why and makes sure I’m gonna be okay with it. Crazy, but that’s her.

  • To listen

my mother – she didn’t think I had to say anything worth listening to. “You shut up” was her standard response, even when later it was “why didn’t you fucking tell me?!” when I would have actually had something important to say. So no, she didn’t listen very well.

my mom – yeah, she listens. Even to stuff I don’t say or don’t want her to hear. She even keeps on listening when I run off at the mouth and swamp her in verbal diarrhea. She alerts me to my nonsensical nonstop talking and tries to get me back on a more normal track, but even so she listens, if sometimes with a pained smile.

  • To protect and to keep children safe

my mother – she didn’t protect me any. Not from my step-fathers abuse, not from anything. She was threatening and dangerous herself.

my mom – yes, she protects me. She enforces rules that protect me. She knows many of my triggers and takes them into consideration when we plan something. She even doesn’t allow other people to mess with me. She also makes sure I feel safe around the house. That she is a safe person, my safe person, is probably the most important thing about her. I feel safe when she’s there.

  • To help the children internalize skills such as trust

my mother – not at all, the only thing I learned from her was to trust nobody and nothing

my mom – we’re working on trust every single day. We discuss it, she makes a point of being trustworthy and she encourages me to trust others and helps me figure out what makes people or situations trustworthy and what doesn’t. So while I’m still nowhere near having internalized it yet, I hope I’m getting there.

  • To help children feel safe by instilling self-confidence and use of adults

my mother – the only thing she instilled was self-hate, low self-esteem and a belief that adults are dangerous and other people are out to get you anyway

my mom – she tries her best to improve my self-confidence by showing me how to be successful at doing things and by encouraging me to try out things and calling to my attention the things I am good at. And with the safety, I already wrote about that. I use her to feel safe a lot.

  • To provide unconditional love

my mother – she didn’t know what love was, much less unconditional love, unless maybe for my stepfather. She loved him like he was the best person ever, whatever weird reason for. But other than that resentment and hate was her thing, not love.

my mom – I almost don’t dare write it out, so as not to jinx it, but I think she does love me unconditionally. Of course she disapproves of it when I behave in a bad way, but she still loves me. I don’t always feel it – no, actually, I often don’t feel it, because I can’t believe it – but she says she does, and acts like she does and I’d like to think that she does. I feel a little bit safe enough to believe it, too. Sometimes.

  • To provide consistency, predictability, reliability

my mother – no consistency, predictability and reliability at all, except for negative stuff. That always came.

my mom – very consistent, predictable and reliable, even when I try my best to force her into giving it up at times

  • To be aware of and open to what the child needs

my mother – she was only aware of herself and what she needed

my mom – she’s often aware of what I need before I even know that I need anything. She talks about my needs and taking them seriously and giving me what I need all the time, too. Way more than I wish she did, sometimes, but that’s the side of me talking that wishes I didn’t have any needs at all. So it’s good she does it.

  • To provide the basic needs

my mother – she used food, clothing, warmth and shelter as things to manipulate and punish me with. Letting me stand outside in the cold, not giving me food etc. were her ideas of “fun” sometimes.

my mom – she provides for all basic needs. There’s always food, she makes sure I eat enough, she makes sure I wear appropriate clothes that keep me warm and all that.

  • To pass on traditions, culture, prayer

my mother – I don’t know if she even had anything she could have passed on

my mom – yeah, she passes on those things a lot. Traditions around holidays or birthdays are what comes to my mind the most. I have big issues with holidays and birthdays, but somehow as her and my family’s traditions become familiar and “traditional” (as in having a history with them I can look back on) it gets a little easier.

  • To teach about issues such as sexuality, oppression, etc.

my mother – she didn’t speak about those things. Not that I can recall.

my mom – we talk about those things when I can do so in a healthy, safe way. She made sure I know the facts about sexuality, for example, which I must admit I was not very familiar with, other than how having sex works.

  • To develop a secure attachment

my mother – she was not someone anyone could have a secure attachment to. She didn’t want me to attach to her either. She wanted me as far away from her as possible

my mom – she is someone to securely attach to, but I struggle a lot with those relationship issues. So working on those is probably what we do a lot of the time that we spend together, and I can see that she spends a lot of energy on making sure that we’re emotionally in touch and that I feel safe in our relationship. Relationship trouble always takes priority over other things.

  • To model healthy problem solving and feeling management techniques

my mother – she modeled how to drown problems in alcohol, but hey, too bad, they know how to swim, which of course I only realized after I had started drinking, too. Drinking, manipulation of others and violence were about the only problem solving and feeling management techniques I learned from her.

my mom – yes, she models healthy emotional skills and all that. And when she makes mistakes, she says so and apologizes and I think that she’s able to model all those healthy skills is what makes her a safe person to be around. I know I can be unstable and put an emotional burden on her and act out and all that, because she knows how to handle it. She doesn’t lose her cool and doesn’t fall apart over it, making it safe for me to put my mess in her face, plus I can see how she handles it, which I learn from.

Whew, I think that was the longest post I wrote so far. I don’t know if it’s even meaningful to anyone but me, but in case it may help someone else to consider those categories, I’ll post it. 🙂 It helps me to remind myself of those things. It helps me to realize why it’s okay and a healthy thing to love my mom and to still need her so much. And it helps me to realize that maybe it’s not all my own fault that I am so messed up, but that maybe my mom was just not good enough and caused a lot of the crap, too. And it helps to realize that the things that my mom now does, and that I sometimes feel are restrictive and all that, that she does those for a good reason and that it can help me get better, because that’s just the kind of things a good enough parent does.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sparrow
    Nov 08, 2012 @ 11:35:05

    Wow, your mom sounds like an amazing person. I wish she would adopt me, haha. I love my mum more than anything, but she is very much a child too. A kind, caring and selfless child, but not one to teach me much about adult emotions.

    • Lola
      Nov 09, 2012 @ 12:12:08

      Yeah, my mom is pretty amazing (unless I’m on the ‘hate you, mom’ side of splitting). The more I’ve learned about BPD, the more I’m convinced that a screwy babyhood with no responsible, reliable and mature caregiver to form a positive, stable and secure attachment to available is one of the roots of it. I’m sorry your mom isn’t/wasn’t “good enough” in the Winnicot sense with adult emotions. But it’s nice that she’s at least kind and caring, even if she can’t help being a child inside herself. Although it can probably get complicated and frustrating when you need your mom to do the mom job, and she genuinely doesn’t know how. I really hope you find another source for the things you missed out on getting, like a good therapist or some other person in your life who you can learn healthy ways from.

  2. Trackback: An Open Letter to My Birth Mother « Who needs normal?!
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