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Good-Enough Mothers

Two authors—best friends since BCE (before the child era)—talk about parenting and the pressure to be perfect

Marjorie Ingall and Gayle Forman
August 29, 2016
Photo collage by Tablet Shutterstock
Photo collage by Tablet Shutterstock

Dear Marjorie: It’s hard to transition female friendships from Before Kids to After Kids. We have succeeded (gold stars for us) in part, I think, because we both ascribe to the idea of the Good-Enough Mother, which is a concept I learned from you (thanks for that) that basically says: Stop trying to be perfect, or even good. Be good enough. I rely on you for so many things (cocktail recipes, teaching me about concepts like the Good-Enough Mother) but more than that, for allowing me to be a good-enough mother, which means allowing me to admit to my maternal failures, without judgment, without advice even, because sometimes I just need to own up to not being perfect and being OK with that.

Ma chère Gayle: It’s harder than ever to admit to imperfection, I think, thanks to the farshtunkiner world of social media. We’re supposed to be happy-selfie-ing all over the Facebooks and showing off our perfect families and humblebragging about the amazing accomplishments we are so #humbled and #blessed by, and meanwhile, we constantly see how other mothers are totally pilloried on social media for being imperfect. If something tragic happens to your child (gorilla, alligator, cop who shoots your child who is playing with a toy gun) it is YOUR FAULT. You’re a neurotic helicopter parent or a free-range neglectful moron (these things are totally contradictory, hi), and you cannot win. But the guy who came up with the notion of the good-enough mother, a 1950s pediatrician named Donald Winnicott, who we now both think is THE SHIZZ, said that perfection is not only impossible, but also damaging to a kid. If you don’t let your kid face trouble, failure, loss, or consequences, you haven’t given them the skills to be an independent and resilient adult.

Dear Marjorie: You know I love to blame social media for things, and while it has worsened the problem—those perfectly curated lives, because who posts videos of their kids’ temper tantrum? (Actually, some people do)—I think this probably predates Instagram by a few decades at least. The melody changes but the song stays the same: Mothers are expected to be perfect and to sacrifice everything for their kids. One of the things I love about your new book, Mameleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, is that it shows how this kind of self-critical parenting is both impossible to attain, and attempting to attain it is bad for mother and for child.

Ah, my redheaded angel, I disagree. I am with you in the belief that mothers have constantly been judged and given the side-eye and expected to be saintly sacrificial lambs for their spawn’s actualization … but I think that the judgment used to come only from our neighbors and the prissy ladies in the next pew. Now there is a giant firehose of judgy opportunity: a zillion friends and followers and social shares and comparisons to celebrities-they’re-just-like-us and an infinitely faster timeframe in which to compare, contrast, fail, and be found wanting. It is really hard to turn the awareness of it off. And it is not surprising that your book (see how smoothly I did that?) Leave Me features a mother who just runs the hell away. Any mother who says she hasn’t once fantasized about doing that is either lying or in denial. And I wish we were allowed to acknowledge those feelings of fury and put-uponness to ourselves without being expected to add “but it’s all worth it,” with our eyes all glowy and dewy.

Oh, honey. You and me both. When I was writing Leave Me, without exception, every mother I mentioned the book’s plot to said that she’d had the same fantasy, of just not going home one day. They all confessed this in hushed tones, like they were the only ones, like they were scared the Mommy Cops were going to get them. Which is the crazy thing, because it’s those very Mommy Cops who feel this way, and who feel they must keep it secret. Mothers are the most critical of other mothers, and themselves. We have internalized the Perfect Myth. But no one is perfect! Can’t we just admit that all the emperors are naked here? Then we can all go to the nude beach and have a picnic together. I found it so comforting to learn that so much of successful Jewish parenting you describe in your book (and after this I will stop plugging your book, only maybe not because it’s so freaking helpful!) is the importance of failure. Somehow we have this ridiculous idea that failure is the opposite of success, when I think it’s a key ingredient to it. And yet, it’s so hard, even for me, to extend that to mothering, where every failure feels like the end of the world.

We have to see failure as part of the learning process. I mean, what is science if not failure after failure, attempt after attempt to replicate findings? We need to start seeing failure as a tool for our own growth, an opportunity for bonding with other moms (the way you and I commiserate over sometimes feeling like the worst parent in the galaxy) and something we want our kids to embrace. (When kids are totally afraid to screw up, they wind up cheating, because they’re afraid to say “I don’t know” and they still want to win at all costs.) My book looks at why Jews have become so inordinately successful in so many different fields—science, art, medicine, music, journalism, literature, law, etc.—in so many different periods of world history, despite experiencing bias and anti-Semitism, and I think the most important anecdote is about a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Isador Isaac Rabi. He once said, “My mother made me a scientist.” He said that after school, other mothers would ask their kids if they’d learned anything that day. But his mother would say, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” He said that his mother’s emphasis on questions rather than answers is what made him a scientist. Asking questions is inherently an acknowledgment that we don’t know everything—that we’re imperfect, but that we’re capable of getting better.

Marjorie and Gayle will discuss The Good Enough Mother at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Sept. 8, 2016.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. Gayle Forman is the New York Times bestselling author of several novels, including If I Stay and the forthcoming Leave Me.