The Biggest Lie About Parenting
I love self-help memes on Instagram. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a gushy inspirational quote that gives you pause as you mindlessly scroll through your feed? But what I do not like are the memes like this: the feet of a woman in high heels below the words, “Self love will literally solve all your fucking problems.” That’s ridiculous.
The other day, I came across a meme on an account geared toward young mothers. It said, “Respond to your children with love in their worst moments, their angry moments, their selfish moments, their lonely moments, their inconvenient moments because it is in their most unlovable human moments that they most need to feel loved.”
This is true — not just for our children but for all of us. We all need to feel love in our most unlovable moments. But, come on, it’s impossible to do all of the time.
What’s missing is the next page, the words that give mothers permission to flail and fail, the words that normalize our shortcomings rather than shaming us for them. What needs to follow that quote is, “and forgive yourself for the moments you don’t—because you are human too.”
While these memes can inspire and provoke thought, or lead to a lightbulb moment or a mindful insight, they can also perpetuate the feelings of inadequacy endemic to social media. Just like filtered and glossed over images, these messages can be insidious, especially to mothers.
One in five American women suffer from postpartum depression. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, compared to men. There is money to be made from our insecurity, and Instagram accounts are making it. An “influencer” account can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by just reminding a vulnerable mother of how much better she could be doing.
In 1953, British psychologist and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother.” Basically, it means that it’s not just okay to fail your kids from time to time — it’s ideal. Being “good enough” means your occasional failures teach your child to tolerate frustration, to cope with reality, and to learn that you are not the source of everything in their lives.
Winnicott coined the term “good enough mother” because he was concerned about the rise of parenting experts. He foresaw what we now call the Parenting Industrial Complex, and the exploitation of maternal anxiety in the modern age. Winnicott wanted mothers to know that being human, in all its miserable glory, is the sweet spot.
It’s not just okay to fail your kids from time to time — it’s ideal.
The other day, a friend with a 5- and 3-year-old asked me if I’d ever lost it with my kids. She was ashamed of herself for the way she’d yelled at them after several nights of no sleep.
So I told her a few stories. Like the time my husband was away for four months and my 10-year-old asked for help with homework then told me everything I was telling her was wrong. So, I told her I couldn’t help and calmly walked away, and then she apologized and asked me to please help so I went against my gut and sat with her again. This time she was even more obnoxious, and it was seven o’clock at night after I had been at work all day and had two kids and no help, and I looked at her and shouted FOR GOD’S SAKE I WANT TO BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF YOU.
She cried and ran from the table and I apologized for forever because that was so horrible.
And then the next night, her little brother asked for help with his homework at 7 p.m., after I had been at work all day and I thought, Fuck no this is a trap. But he was sweet so I went against my gut and said yes. Then he started in with the you don’t know what you’re talking about talk so I calmly walked away, and my daughter was listening from behind a door and called me over. She whispered, “Mommy is that what I sounded like last night?” I said yes. She said, “Oh wow, I am really sorry.”
Yes, I’ve lost it with my kids and yes, I have moments I regret. But looking in the rearview, what I regret more is the pressure I put on myself. I once told my therapist I was afraid I wasn’t a good enough mom, and she asked me what good enough looked like to me. I paused and squirmed because I knew there was only one honest answer: perfect. Like most moms, the bar I set for myself was impossible to attain. Worse, it was unhealthy for me and my kids.
We are all humans and we all fuck up. When you do, say you’re sorry. Your kids will learn they are human and they fuck up, too. And they will know that it’s okay to apologize. That’s the only meme a mother needs. She doesn’t need endless quick fixes, or how-tos, or shoulds.
She needs to know her humanity is her superpower.