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Maternal Mental Health 1:3 things I say to myself when my parenting feels a bit shit.

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

When I first prepped for my talk on maternal mental health at The Barn KT9 this is what I drew.


mind map of experience of maternal mental health
Maternal mental health

Largely my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences of being a mother. Suffice to say that I’ve struggled at points.


But I’ve also loved it. Albeit not every moment. Does that make me a bad mother? No. It makes me human. And I know I am not alone. I don’t want you to feel that you are either, so this series of posts is going to focus on maternal mental health.


Don’t worry, they aren’t going to contain parenting advice. I don’t feel qualified, professionally, or personally, to be dishing that out. I just want to normalise a few thoughts, feelings, and experiences of parenthood in the hope of reducing the stigma and therefore guilt and shame around them. To that end, I want to share three things from the parenting literature that were transformative for me in easing some of that guilt.


1. You just need to be a “good enough” parent.

2. Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

3. Repair not rupture.


The “good enough mother”

As a therapist, I am CONSTANTLY worrying about my children’s attachment. Somehow the more I read the more damage I think I’ve done or am doing. Social media posts about the impact of certain parental personality traits and behaviours have sent me down a self-diagnosis spiral and have me questioning my parenting lineage.

To pull myself out of it I remind myself that I just need to be a “good enough” parent. The idea of the “good enough” parent was coined by Donald Winnicott, a British Paediatrician and psychoanalyst, in the 1950s. But I’ve always wondered, what does that actually mean? What is good enough? How do you quantify and measure that? Then I read a post on Instagram by @the_nice_ish_psychologist in which he referenced a blog written by Pip Johnson, Clinical Psychology Registrar for Forest for the Trees Perinatal Psychology. Johnson’s post, entitled “Good Enough Parenting” (2021) states that Winnicott, in his studies of mothers and babies, found that if the mother was able to meet her children's needs just 30% of the time, that was sufficient to foster a secure attachment.


Similarly, Johnson cites the research by Edward Tronick, who noted the variability in how attuned parents were to their children’s emotions and needs. He found in order for a healthy parent-child relationship to develop, the parent only needs to be perfectly attuned to their child’s needs around a third of the time. Another third of the time parents are unable to establish what is wrong with their child and so are unable to meet their needs, resulting in them having to self-soothe. Tronick judged the final third to be the most important for creating healthy attachments; when parents don’t initially understand their children’s needs but work to become attuned. This helps to safely expose children to the experience of feeling distressed and it being resolved, bolstering resilience.


Hurrah! I’d like to think that my parenting has generally exceeded around 30%, but, on a bad day, that’s a good benchmark to fall back on.


Not only this, but both studies found that imperfect attunement actually promotes healthy attachments and is beneficial to kids. Which makes sense, the world isn’t perfect so why set our kids up to fail by providing them with an environment that is growing up? Life is full of disappointments and setbacks and in our adult relationships, all our needs cannot be met perfectly by others.


Moreover, by attempting to be perfect all the time we may be promoting unrealistic standards and a maladaptive relationship with the concept of failure. Or worse, instilling in them a belief that they need to be perfect to be loved by us.


Being authentic and allowing them to see that we are messy, therefore, helps our children develop some grit, autonomy, and will hopefully lead to a greater acceptance of their own imperfections and failures.


Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child

Related is the second mantra: prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child. This speaks to the same concepts as the “good enough” parent; it is more beneficial to prepare and teach our children about life so that they internalise these skills and develop confidence and independence.


Not only this but according to Snyder (2002), the habit of hope is learned from parents. “Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They have been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that, they know how to believe in themselves and their abilities.” (Brown, 2021)


Watching kids struggle is hard, particularly if we have caused it. But it can be helpful to remember that giving them the space to figure out a solution, or self-soothe, when that is developmentally appropriate and possible, is benefitting them in the long run. As Brown (2021) writes, “When we jump in and fix, in some way I am supporting hopelessness and despair because I’m not giving them that opportunity with adversity”.


Focus on the repair, not the rupture

When I inevitably fail to understand and meet the needs and feelings of my children, or I verbally explode, and an inevitable tantrum or argument ensues, it can be helpful to say to myself “Repair not rupture”. What I mean by this is, don’t get too bent out of shape by the rupture in the relationship i.e., the argument, what matters is how we repair it. Successfully repairing a relationship after an argument is what strengthens it. Doing this with our children not only helps them to develop this skill but may enable them to tolerate discordance in their adult relationships and not fear an argument or suppress their emotions to avoid one.


In her book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (2019), Phillipa Perry states the best way to make a repair is by attempting to change how you would respond next time, by recognising your triggers and using that knowledge to choose a different response. Or, if your child is old enough to understand, to apologise. Even if your child is an adult, it can be extremely reparative to hear a parent acknowledge the hurt they caused and apologise for it. I like knowing that I can always apologise if I get it wrong.


I want to make clear that I’m not advocating or excusing neglectful or harmful behaviours towards our children. I simply want to reframe how we talk to ourselves after we fall short of responding to a situation in the way we wanted. For more details, follow the link to my blog.


Parenting can be really tough, but beating ourselves up over how we reacted isn’t going to make it any easier. Adopting this self-compassionate stance to our #parentingfails will not only reduce the guilt and shame we feel but provides our children with a blueprint of how to relate to and care for themselves as adults.


Give them a try and let me know what you think! Better, do you have any that you’d add to the list?


References

Brown, B. (2021) Atlas of The Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Vermillion: Penguin.


Johnson, P., (2021) ‘Good Enough Parenting’, Forest for the Trees Perinatal Psychology, 6 August. Available at: https://forestpsychology.com.au/good-enough-parenting/ (Accessed 3 March 2023).


Perry, P. (2019) The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). Penguin Life.


Snyder, C.R. (2002). Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), pp.249-275.

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