The Good Enough Mums

Every now and then, I hear something on the radio that makes me nod fervently, utter ‘Absolutely!’ rather loudly, accompanied by lots of ‘Yes’!  It’s a bit of a worry when it happens whilst I’m driving, as it did last week – my driving gets slightly less sensible than normal and people pass me wondering why that strange woman is doing talking to herself very energetically in her car…

What I heard was a truth so simple, so obvious in some ways and yet so radical to our modern British ears, I had to share it with you.

I’m normally a BBC Radio 4 fan, it being the only thing keeping me from insanity and desperate boredom when the kids were tiny. You know, that stage when you had no time or energy to read anything with ‘big’ words, no illustrations, let alone words with ‘analysis’ or ‘reductionist’ on its pages…

Anyway, for some reason I had the radio tuned into BBC Radio 2 that day, and it happened to be the lunchtime ‘let’s discuss a serious topic of the day in a very sympathetic but still-ever-so-slightly-sensational voice‘ show that Jeremy Vine hosts. This time, it was on the subject of depression, and the specialist they had on was a psychiatrist, Dr Tim Cantopher, who’s recently reissued his book ‘Depressive Illness: the Curse of the Strong’.

In essence, he was saying that those who suffer from depression tend to be the perfectionists, those who keep trying to do everything just right. This is manageable when we’re young and have few responsibilities, but once we start accruing partners, jobs, mortgages and children, this perfectionist trait becomes the thing that can drive us into the ground… (starting to sound familiar yet?)

Sounds obvious, but the thing that struck me the most, and which prompted the loudest ‘Yes!’ from me, was the observation that this has become a problem for not just perfectionists, but for most of us who care about doing the right thing, because British society has placed an expectation of perfection on every aspect of life.  Whether it’s being the perfect employee, parent, wife/husband, you name it, we are expected to do not just well, but constantly improve and excel.

This resonated with me so much that my driving got rather interesting (no really, it’s ok, I actually get more focused as I get ‘exercised’ about something, not less!).  It expressed something I’d been subconsciously thinking for a while but had not put into words: the pressure to be perfect and to perform is a major root cause of stress in British society, in particular for parents.

Think about it. Never before has there been so much information out there about how to best parent your child, starting from before you’ve even given birth to the blighter. The options and dilemmas of bottle or breast-feeding, demand or routine, laying them on their front or their back, organic or pesticide-laden conventional poison food, Child Trust Funds, the list goes on, and that’s before they’ve even turned 6 months! Your brain is spaghetti and your emotions are wrung out and you’ve not even put their name down for Brownies even before their 1st birthday… aaaaghhh!

And then you have the reams of books by psychologists and psychotherapists on how upbringing affects adulthood, which adds another complicated heavy layer of anxiety and decision-making to the pie. By the way, I’m in no way dismissing this knowledge; in fact, I believe it’s been very helpful to many in understanding their problems, and is helpful in guiding our approach to parenthood. What I don’t like is the way it has mushroomed as an industry that has been used by sensationalists to add another onus onto parents.

And then there’s the work dilemma. You feel guilty if you do go to work, and bored if you don’t.

When you are at work, you’re under pressure to be furthering your game, improving performance and productivity all the time, as the competition from other companies or charities or schools is out there, breathing down your employer’s (or your own) neck.

When you’re at home, you switch on the radio to hear how studies have shown that children aren’t doing enough PE at school, or that toddlers who do music and movement classes are most likely to get A*s in their A-levels. Or a guest on Woman’s Hour quotes at you yet another study that couples who don’t have sex as much as 6 times a month are doomed to destruction. I’m glad my husband doesn’t listen to that show.

No wonder we’re exhausted, stressed out and prone to depression. Dysfunction e-card

Where’s it all come from? This blog isn’t the place to look into that seriously, but for what it’s worth, I put it down to a mixture of the blame culture (get it wrong at work and you’re sued); the heightened competitiveness that has pervaded all of society with the privatisation and professionalisation of everything (schools may still be funded by the State but league tables and admission by geographic location has created unofficial tiers and unprecedented pressure to perform); and what I call ‘professional parenting’: most mums have had good educations and good jobs before becoming mothers which is brilliant, but we’ve brought that professionalism into parenting – analysing all the options, seeking the best, evaluating how we’ve performed. To our peril.

But then Dr Tim said a wonderful, marvellous thing, and introduced a term that I loved: the Good Enough Mums.

These are mums who basically love their children and want the best for them, but sometimes resort to the TV as a babysitter (only sometimes, Tim?!), and let their frustrations get the better of them by yelling at the kids every now and again (paraphrased).  I love his tendency to understatement.  I almost wriggled visibly in my seat as I felt he was talking about me, only in a diplomatic, understated kind of way.

A study in the Isle of Wight was done some years ago“, he went on “into the children of  these Good Enough mums and those from perfectionist mums who tried to do everything just right for their children. Interestingly, the children of the Good Enough mums performed better in life than the others.”

This was music to my ears. Dancing around the car now. Well, sort of…

It’s hardly that surprising, really, as this pressure to perform often produces exactly the opposite environment for happy kids – stress, pressure, deadlines, a slavery to adult ‘chronos’ time rather than the ‘kairos’ time that kids naturally prefer (see my Back to School post).  I for one know how up tight and stressed I can get when I try to put my agenda onto my kids and cram in more than they can take. If we expect our kids to do homework, go to piano lessons, ballet, football, swimming, beavers and brownies all in one week, why do we wonder why they’re tired, crabby, misbehaving beings on a Friday?

What I love about this insight is that not only does it liberate the over-stretched mother (i.e. all of us) but it gives us permission to relax. I’ll say it again. Permission to relax.  Music to my ears. A much better record than the usual should/ought/must do-things-better refrain.

It also confirms another fact that is rarely discussed publicly. That is, that no matter what we do, ultimately we can’t control our kids’ destinies.  How they turn out is not entirely our responsibility. They are their own free agents, with their own unique make-up and choices.  Now, throw into that pot another important, but again rarely-acknowledged point, that we all have to face the inevitable: we’re human, we will stuff up and we will make mistakes.  There, I’ve said it.

We all know why this isn’t discussed more in public, thanks to the fear from politicians that the minority who don’t put their kids’ interests at heart will take advantage of this Good Enough Mum’s philosophy.

But those of us who know we fit this category (all you wonderful lot out there), we need to accept this square on and not feel too guilty about it.  The Good Enough Mum’s philosophy says that as long as we’ve tried our best, this is ok. That is better than killing ourselves or our kids’ spirits in the process.

If you try to do the undoable, you’re going to get this (depression). Stress doesn’t make you ill.  You do – by trying to do the undoable,’ says Dr Tim.

So, let’s hear it for the Good Enough Mums. Maybe we need to start a revolution… or at least a club – sounds more ‘do-able’.

Want to join?

NB A few months after I wrote this post, a club of sorts was formed called The Good Enough Mums Club! It’s actually the name of a musical comedy stage show, written by Emily Beecher and Sally Samad, who had not seen my post.  I had the pleasure of watching a scene from the show at Britmums Live Conference 2014.  Its main theme is exactly what I write about in this post – only they’ve brought it to hilarious life!

29 thoughts on “The Good Enough Mums

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  2. I’ve only just seen this post. I am a weird combination of wanting everything to be perfect (therefore do suffer from low level depression) and not actually seeming to ever get it right and becoming a mum like this:

    Brilliant post. I shall embrace the ‘good enough mum’ mantle for this summer holiday I think and sod getting the kids to practice their musical instruments or take them to anything vaguely educational!

    • Thanks. Its very liberating for us perfectionist types, isn’t it?! This has been by far my most popular post to date. You’ll most likely like my two follow up posts called The Best is the Enemy of the Good if you liked this, esp the one about the need for untidy homes! I loved your post ‘I have become that mum’. So resonated with my exhausted limping through July demeanour and general disgruntlement with a system that insists our children get robbed of the best part of the year by being stuck in classrooms….Need to write a blog post about it, but i’m too tired….! BTW check out my post ‘Back to School: Farewell Kairos, Hello Chronos’ ( for strength and reassurance when you’re desperate for the kids to go back to school….Great to ‘meet you’. S

      • Great to ‘meet’ you too and I’ll go read those other posts now. I am certain that I will be desperate for them to go back to school about 5 minutes after they break up….

  3. We are delighted to let you know that this post has been nominated in the ‘Most Inspirational’ post category of the SWAN UK Blog Post Awards (aka The ‘SWANS’)

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  4. Pingback: Celebration of the every day – A good enough mum! « For Bella and Will

  5. Wow, fab blog post, I am only just figuring this out…I am one of those perfectionists!

    First time I’ve found your blog, have subscribed, love the way you write 🙂

    PS. Can I please, please join your club? x

    • You certainly can, and thank you muchly for your kind compliments! Its always a pleasure to find people who enjoy my blog and get something out of it. That’s what its all about in the end. You’ll probably like my series The Best is the Enemy of the Good which I’m doing in response to the hugely positive feedback to this post. BTW Can i ask where you stumbled upon my blog?

  6. Pingback: The Good Enough Mums | Tots 100

  7. Great post! Lots of similar thoughts – about what is ‘good enough’ – milling around (but not quite forming coherent opinions) in my sleep deprived brain right now. Thanks for the food for thought. I find the whole issue of how much we can / should influence our kids fascinating. My eldest daughter takes after me apparently – independent and stubborn. I’m desperate to enthuse her about some of my passions but keenly aware I’m who I am because I was allowed, by my parents, to discover my own passions and create my own destiny. Sure I’ll get the balance wrong at some points but sure I can manage good enough:-)

  8. We can give ourselves a nice label — GEMs! Thanks for this. I have to try hard to try a bit less, and just be happy and chill with what is — on the whole we are healthy, have a roof over our head and healthful food in the fridge, good friends in the ‘hood, and we do fun stuff pretty regularly and have fun stuff to look forward to. Good ENOUGH!

    • Thanks, Bcakes. I love the acronym! It’s brilliant. Thanks for the idea. And yes, its all about looking at the positive, what we DO have, and what is good, and being thankful for it. That is what breeds contentment in the end. S

  9. Great post! I remember reading some of the academic research about good enough parenting (before I had children!) and was struck by the message that it’s the basic care and love that’s really important in raising well-balanced children. Makes me think of the equivalent idea in the economics of happiness, that once you’ve reached a basic level of subsistence, the amount of money you have isn’t related to how how happy you are. Have you blogged on that yet….?!

  10. This echoes what has been on my heart lately. That mothering from a place of fanatic compulsion to do everything just right is really not good mothering. I like the good enough mothering concept. I have a faint suspicion that I might just enjoy motherhood so much more. Well written Siobhan. All power to you. x

    • Thanks Noelle! I’ve been overwhelmed at the warm response to this post, its clearly struck a chord with so many people. Think I’ve got enough people to start that Good Enough Mums club, eh?! PS Your mum even read it and posted a comment, and said she didn’t realise it was me until she read the comments in FB.

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