Will I be good enough?
Like many women, I found this concern repeatedly running through my mind as I looked towards my transition to motherhood. I knew what type of mother I wanted to be, but I wondered if I would ever be good enough (also known in my mind as “perfect”) to raise a happy, healthy, kind, and compassionate human?
Can I actually be responsible for another person?
I can barely keep my houseplants alive for longer than 3 months, how the &^%$ am I going to raise a child?
Would I inadvertently falter to childhood experiences of tough love and criticism or would I be kind, nurturing, sensitive, and patient?
Will I be consumed by my own life and career or will I leave enough time for my children?
Will my baby even like me?
The questions went on and on…
D.W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst first coined the term, “good enough mother” in 1953. Through extensive observation of mothers and babies, Winnicott believed that it is actually beneficial when mothers “fail” their babies in manageable ways. At first, a mother is entirely devoted to her infant’s needs. The mother gradually allows her baby to experience small amounts of frustration, according to the infant's increased ability to deal with failure. The mother is not perfect, but she is good enough. She is caring, empathic, and compassionate, but may not respond immediately to her baby’s every cry. Winnicott believed that parenting through these tolerable failures is essential in teaching children how to live independently in a flawed world with imperfect people.
I understood this theoretical concept from my education and training as a clinical psychologist and discussed its value and implications with my patients. Nonetheless, I wasn’t spared from the anxieties around my own pregnancy and becoming a mother. After eating my way through all the bakeries on the west side of Los Angeles, I received a call halfway through pregnancy from my OB alerting me that my gestational diabetes (GD) test had come back positive. He assured me that this had absolutely nothing to do with my diet (yeah right, I thought). The doctor continued to explain that in some women, placental hormones are responsible for causing a rise in blood sugar to levels that may affect the growth of the baby. It was almost impossible for me to believe that my eating habits had not been the culprit behind the development of my diagnosis.
Throughout the rest of pregnancy, I was forced to avoid sugar and maintain a low carbohydrate diet. I was also required to prick my finger four times daily to check that my food intake had not increased my sugar levels beyond a certain level. I was informed of the dangers that GD can impose on a newborn including the possibility of macrosomia, a condition where the baby can grow too large. These babies can become wedged in the birth canal or undergo birth injuries if they are not delivered via C-section. Additionally, GD can increase the likelihood of preterm birth, respiratory distress syndrome, or hypoglycemia and seizures. As a result, my doctor recommended that I be induced at 38.5 weeks to make sure that my baby would not have difficulty coming out the birth canal.
When induction day arrived, my husband and I packed our hospital bags and headed to the hospital. Despite the ease of this scenario, this was NOT the labor I had envisioned. The fantasy in which my water would break unexpectedly forcing my husband and I to rush frantically through LA traffic to the hospital was gone.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital, I was hooked up to IV’s and started on Pitocin to initiate contractions. The anesthesiologist arrived shortly after to give me an epidural, my OB broke my water and when I was fully dilated I began to push. After about a half hour of pushing, my son’s head was visible. After more pushing and no further progress, my doctor realized that his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. He didn’t seem overly concerned and proceeded to free him so that he could make his way completely out the birth canal.
When my baby was lifted out and brought into the world, it was the most beautiful experience I had ever witnessed in my lifetime. Unfortunately, it was cut short soon after because he wasn’t crying. The doctors placed him on me for a brief moment while they began to suction his airway, but quickly moved him to the table where they could begin extra stimulation. Naturally, I was terrified. As my doctor continued to stitch my episiotomy, the nurses continued to work with my baby. I asked if he was going to be okay and was reassured numerous times that he would be fine. My baby boy eventually began to cry and was placed on me again to try nursing for the first time.
Over the next several hours, my son’s blood sugar dropped to dangerously low levels, an effect of my gestational diabetes. Nurses entered my hospital room in the middle of the night to warn me that if they did not provide him formula to quickly raise his blood sugar, he could be at risk of having a seizure. Scared and confused, with no one else to consult, my husband and I obviously agreed to give formula immediately, even though I had planned to breastfeed exclusively. Eventually, my son’s blood sugar raised and stabilized, and we were able to leave the hospital two days later.
The next several weeks were full of ups and downs. Breastfeeding was not going well, to say the least. My baby had difficulty latching and nursing felt like someone was scraping razor blades against my breasts. Countless lactation consultants visited us, with the last one advising us that if it was too difficult, then we should just quit. Despite this, I continued to nurse my baby for close to forty minutes per feeding, which did not satisfy him as he wasn’t able to suck adequately. This was then followed by twenty minutes of pumping, and finally giving a bottle of breast milk with additional formula. By the time this entire routine was over, it was time to start feeding him all over again. I was exhausted, anxious, and terrified that I was somehow inadequate. No one could explain to me why my baby was not latching or sucking effectively and I felt completely alone. Several weeks into my son’s life, I began to accept that I would not breast feed the way I had planned and my panic eventually subsided. I began to settle into motherhood as well as our never-ending feeding routine.
After a couple months, we began a Mommy and Me group. The class was wonderful and I had the pleasure of spending time with other amazing moms and their babies. As the months progressed, however, I watched as the other babies reached milestones and mine did not. Rolling over, sitting up, crawling...my baby was as happy as a clam laying on his back, smiling at me, and gazing up at the world. I was too embarrassed and afraid to ask for advice in group. Fearing that the other moms would think I wasn’t doing a good enough job with my baby or that worse, I would be told something could be terribly wrong, I chose to remain silent. After all, they were all with their babies during the day, and I had already returned to work. I thought that perhaps my baby was missing out on something he could have received from me, leading him to these delays. Unfortunately, these fears and concerns led to my early discontinuation in the group and I never felt courageous enough to share how I was feeling with the group leader or the other moms.
And here it was again. That self-doubting, critical voice I had become so familiar with insidiously repeating itself in my mind…Am I not good enough?
My pediatrician eventually referred us for evaluations with a neurologist, physical therapist, and developmental pediatrician. After numerous months of nerve-wracking testing, doctors and specialists finally determined that there was no specific or critical underlying cause for my son’s delays. I came to understand that my son had just been born this way and that he would meet his milestones on his own time. Additionally, it was not because of anything I did or didn’t do for him.
My son is now a happy, healthy 3.5-year-old boy who is just about caught up developmentally to his same age peers. It has been a long road of early intervention for us, with numerous physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions per week. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing except for the way in which I was so harsh and critical of myself and so quick to believe that there had been something I had done wrong.
Becoming a mother was one of the first major lessons I received in acceptance, losing control, and appreciating the beauty of imperfection. Although my initiation to parenting is just one of countless other experiences, I understand how terrifying it feels to be a new mother and to fear that you are now responsible for another living, completely dependent human. I know how distressing and shameful it feels to admit that you are uncertain about your new role as mother and how this leads many women to stay quiet about their experiences.
My goal in sharing my story is to help destigmatize the thoughts and fears around pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. It is time that we embrace our imperfections as parents and human beings and to remember that not only is this okay, but it is what our growing babies need. We, as mothers, are essential in modeling for our babies that perfection is not only impossible, but it is not and should not be our goal. We, as mothers, are human and we make mistakes. It is time that we finally receive and welcome the idea of imperfection and allow ourselves to just be…good enough.