Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier.
The good news, at least according to Donald Winnicott, the influential English pediatrician and child psychiatrist, was that you didn’t have to be a perfect mother to raise a well-adjusted kid.With baby on the brain and term papers to write, I couldn’t ignore the barrage of research showing how easy it is to screw up your kids.Of course, everyone knows that growing up with “Mommy Dearest” produces a very different child from one raised by, say, a loving PTA president who has milk and homemade cookies waiting after school.Childhoods generally aren’t perfect—and if theirs had been, why would these people feel so lost and unsure of themselves?It went against everything I’d learned in my training.You just had to be, to use the term Winnicott coined, a “good-enough mother.” I was also relieved to learn that we’d moved beyond the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother,” who’s solely responsible for making her kid crazy.(The modern literature acknowledges that genetics—not to mention fathers—play a role in determining mental health.) Still, in everything we studied—from John Bowlby’s “attachment theory” to Harry Harlow’s monkeys, who clung desperately to cloth dummies when separated from their mothers—the research was clear: fail to “mirror” your children, or miss their “cues,” or lavish too little affection on them, and a few decades later, if they had the funds and a referral, they would likely end up in one of our psychotherapy offices, on the couch next to a box of tissues, recounting the time Mom did this and Dad didn’t do that, for 50 minutes weekly, sometimes for years.She had come in, she told me, because she was “just not happy.” And what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about.She reported that she had “awesome” parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment. Where were the abandoning, devaluing, or chaotic caregivers in her life?As an overwhelmed parent myself, I’d sit in session and secretly wonder how these fabulous parents had done it all.Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?