Sophie has her first cold and remains the most pleasant creature on Earth. Snot forms two transparent trails down to her smile. She coughs like an old man and then grins toothlessly like one. Only when I try to squirt saline solution up her nasal passages does she complain and arch her back, which of course makes it worse because I wind up poking her nose with it, or squirting her in the face, validating her protest.
It’s hard to know what to do with a sick baby. I took her out for a walk the other day (it was in the 70’s and gorgeous out). Every time she coughed, I said loudly, “oh, you poor thing, I’ve got to get you home,” even though I had just left the house and had no intention of going home. The disapproval of others is oppressive and can wring the pleasure out of our ventures outdoors (“Shouldn’t she be wearing a hat?” “Do you have a blanket for her?” “You poor thing, are you sick?”) I wish I didn’t care what other people think. But I do. I want people to think I’m a good mother.
Every mother I know worries about being a good mother. We call each other up with our bad mother stories, looking for reassurance or perhaps a story of how our friend is an even worse mother. My friend Emily is a wonderful mother. Let me preface this story by saying that. She is one of the least anxious mothers I know. Before I had a child, I secretly thought that I wanted to be just like her—comfortably bringing the baby with her wherever she went, not getting frazzled when the baby cried, nursing the baby wherever, whenever—even through the searing pain of mastitis. Last week Emily called me in tears. Her one-year-old Sophie (she has a Sophie too—but that’s another story), locked herself in the bedroom and was screaming. Emily had already called the locksmith and had tried soothing Sophie through the door, but that only made the baby scream louder. Why was mommy talking to her, but not coming in to get her? Emily had needed someone to talk to—someone to distract her from Sophie’s cries—until the locksmith arrived. He came shortly into our conversation and rescued the half-naked Sophie, who had ripped off her socks and pants in despair.
It was the kind of thing that could happen to any of us. It did, in fact, happen to my mother, which is what I told Emily on the phone. When I was about three, and my sister was fairly new-born, I locked the two of us in the bathroom. The only difference was that I wanted to kill my sister, who had mysteriously arrived on the scene, interrupting my blissful only-childhood with her colicky cries. My mother was terrified that I going to try to drown her. She got the neighbor to come and rip the door down. (This neighbor was frequently called upon to help with such domestic emergencies, once killing a garden snake on the front steps with a spade after I had innocently told my mother, “Mommy, come look at my snake.”)
My therapist reminds me that it’s not about being a good mother, but a good-enough mother. She’s got resources you can’t imagine, he said. But what Winnecott (the psychologist who coined the term and wrote about the concept of the good enough mother) meant by good enough wasn’t “passable” or “semi-competent” mom. A good enough mother is one who doesn't try to satisfy every need of her child. Rather, the good enough mother allows her child to experience frustration and disappointment and to learn from it in a graduated sort of way. The concept is not a pass for our daily blunders. Still, its reassuring to know that it’s ultimately okay. That pain is part of living. That everyone eventually must get sick. And somehow, most of the time, we recover.