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Good Enough Parenting

Our beloved son Anton

When we lose our child (sibling/grandchild/friend) to suicide, its virtually impossible not to ask ourselves the question "What did I miss?" or "What did I do wrong?" or "How could I have prevented this?"

There are no answers. Or perhaps we aren't ready to accept the answers. Yet still we ask the questions. We feel a sense of responsibility and guilt, as though somehow we should have been able to stop our child from doing what they did. As parents we are used to being more or less in control of our kids when they're very young, and we take it for granted that we can resolve any of their problems (except when they're new babies - I challenge anybody to know what they need then!). When they're small, it is usually a cuddle, kissing a hurt better, a story at bedtime, a distracting game. As they grow older its more about influence; we give them a hug, talk them through whatever is bothering them, explore the options. Even at this stage, we have no control over which opinions they accept and which they disregard. As they mature and particularly when they leave home, we have to relinquish some or even all of that influence. We are no longer the referee - our place is on the side-lines, cheering them on. They may still need us for emotional support, at least occasionally, but very often they'll talk to their friends instead. And sometimes, sadly they won't talk to anyone.

One of Anton's close friends told me recently that its a child's job to hide things from their parents. They have to make their own decisions, find their own way through life, make their own mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. There were quite a few decisions Anton made as an adult that I didn't agree with. I was devastated when he dropped out of college and decided to train as a night club manager instead of going to uni. But it wasn't my choice to make. We just supported him and made sure he knew we always would. I worried for years about the fact that he seemed to drink so much. But what could I do, except talk to him? Nevertheless, I blamed myself when he died. I was his mother; therefore it must be my fault. Whether you're a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, whatever your relationship with the person you loved and lost, perhaps you're finding ways to blame yourself? Well, maybe its time to stop.

Donald Winnicott is a psychoanalyst I often quote in my work as a therapist, particularly his theory about the Good Enough Mother, a term he coined in 1953. He believed that the "ordinary devoted mother" could not and should not be perfect; and that she should not be held responsible for all a child's problems (he talked about "mother" because,particularly in the 1950s mothers usually did the bulk of childcare).

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) uses a lot of models and drawings as well as other tools and techniques to help illustrate how problems develop, and how they can be maintained by unhelpful ways of thinking or unhelpful behaviours. One technique is the continuum or scale, which shows how we often polarise our thinking into black or white, when the reality is that most things/people are somewhere in the grey area in between.

A continuum helps us to establish whether our perspectives on certain things might be a bit skewed or even irrational; and to challenge our thinking by looking at the evidence. In this instance we can use a continuum to explore what constitutes a 'perfect' or 'bad' parent (you can swap 'parent' for sibling, friend etc) by putting these labels at either end of a continuum:

Good Enough Parenting Scale Diagram 1

Now, if you were to write down all the attributes of a Perfect Parent on the left, and all the failings of a Bad Parent on the right, what would be the things you'd put on each list?

And if you then took your Perfect Parent list and asked yourself whether you did all those things for your child, how many would you tick? I'm guessing all or most of them.

The next question to ask yourself is: Do you personally know any Perfect Parents? Because I don't. And of course that is because they don't actually exist (outside of Disney films).

Winnicott's take on this was that a child does not need Perfect Parents. For one thing, the child is going to grow up into a world that is very far from perfect. If s/he has 'perfect' parents who meet her/his every need and always do or say the 'right' thing, then how on earth will s/he cope with the rest of the world and survive? To be human is to experience disappointment, anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, loss, and the whole gamut of difficult emotions. Only by experiencing these negative emotions do we come to realise that we are able to feel bad and nevertheless cope; we can survive because we are able to overcome the hurt feelings we have when bad things happen to us. Only by knowing this can we dare to live our imperfect lives in this imperfect world. Only by investing fully in life do we gain the gifts life brings.

Instead of Perfect Parents Winnicott believed in the concept of Good Enough Parents. On the continuum it looks like this:

Good Enough Parenting Scale Diagram 2

His theory was that most parents slide along the continuum within the green area of Good Enough Parenting. Sometimes we are a bit nearer to the 'perfect' end, and other times we slip down nearer the 'bad' end of the continuum, but parenting within this green area is ok. It gives the child enough love and care to feel cherished but allows for the knocks and bruises that enable them to realise that life is hard sometimes, but they can pick themselves up and have another go at it. I'm willing to bet that if you are reading this and suffering because you have lost your child, you were (are) a Good Enough Parent.

We can't answer the questions we ask ourselves except by acknowledging that our child did something catastrophic, over which we had no control whatsoever. Perhaps, at some level its harder to face the fact that we couldn't control what they did, because in doing so we have to face the hard truth that we ultimately have no control over what else might befall us. Whatever age they were when we lost them, they made a decision on which we could not agree, and we weren't able to be there to stop them, because no parent, no matter how good enough can be there all the time.

The answers to the questions above are NOTHING, NOTHING and YOU COULDN'T because if there had been something we could have done that we thought might have prevented this tragedy, we would have done it! Grief is the price we pay for love. We hurt so much because we loved our child dearly and we miss them terribly. We have not been a perfect parent/sibling/grandparent/friend. Like our child, we have made mistakes. We have been human.

References: Winnicott DW Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: a study of the first not me possession. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1953 34(2); 89-97

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1 Comment

Niki Ralph
Niki Ralph
Oct 10, 2022

A gorgeous photo. Is that Anton? I try and remind myself daily about Winnicott's "good enough". Thank you for sharing your story.


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