“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in his classic A Tale of Two Cities. Of his city and his generation, he went on to say: “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Shall I be so bold as to say that Dickens could have been writing a tale of motherhood in the early 21st century, 150 years ago?
Modern mothering is the best and the worst, light and darkness, hope and despair, all rolled into one. And too few people are talking about it.
Motherhood in our day and age offers a whole new set of challenges
For starters, thanks to incredible advances in healthcare, so many more newborns and mothers survive the experience of childbirth. Women who, at that time, could not bear a child have more opportunities than ever to become pregnant and have the experience of motherhood.
Physicians and parenting experts, midwives and lactation consultants, and even professionals from my field of psychology all have knowledge, guidance, and opinions about how mothers should conceive, birth, and raise their babies. More than ever, it is the best of times, a season of light and hope. But that, of course, is not the whole story. With all of these advances comes enormous pressure—especially for those who take motherhood seriously, who keep up with the information, who want to do it right. The picture-perfect mother takes prenatal vitamins and doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee. No Sushi, no cookie dough. If she has an epidural or can’t get the baby to nurse or sleep: bad, bad, bad. Because of all these pressures and many more, it is the worst of times, the season of darkness and despair.
What is a good enough mother?
I am often struck by the great divide in our contemporary culture’s view of a good mother. There is either the perfect mother or the very bad mother, and not much in-between. As a psychoanalyst, I work to help people to construct some kind of middle ground because either side of the divide is crazy-making and depressing. Trying to achieve or maintain perfection is a recipe for disaster, and turning away from the challenges of mothering has its own perils, too. Someone needs to offer a better way.
From 1943 to 1962, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott did just that. He gave a series of BBC public radio broadcasts designed for new mothers, shedding light on the everyday emotional and relational concerns of mothers and young children. He believed in “the ordinary devoted mother” and encouraged her to trust her instincts and judgment, with or without all of the cutting edge knowledge that was available. He gave her space free from guilt and anxiety. He gave her room to breathe.
Winnicott coined the phrase, “good enough mother,” creating the middle ground that women so desperately need in order to manage the physical and emotional strains that are universal to motherhood. We need more of that these days, for the truth is that the experience of being a mother is not just the best of times and the worst of times; it is everything in-between.
Jennifer Kunst, PhD is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, CA. She is the author of the book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out (Central Recovery Press, 2014) and the blog, A Headshrinker’s Guide to the Galaxy (www.psychologytoday.com). For more information, visit her website at www.drjenniferkunst.com.
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