Is There Such a Thing as Good Enough?

Something doesn’t feel right. I roll over. She’s gone. My wife is not in bed. I look toward the bedside crib. One of the babies is gone too. The one remaining is crying.

I grab the remaining three-month-old twin. It’s Eve. I take her to the changing table. Unswaddle her. Unbutton the onesie. Undo the diaper. I discover a penis. Turns out I have Ezra.

“Babe, are you in here?” I ask while my eyes adjust to the TV’s glow.

“Sure am!” my wife exclaims while watching Property Brothers. “You know what I think we could do in our kitchen?”

“I don’t know and I’m not sure I care,” I say as I give Ezra to her like a UPS driver hands a parcel to its recipient.

“See you in a few!”

It is 3am. Every night.

When you become a parent you have images of jumping out of bed at each peep your child makes. You imagine tenderly shooshing in their ear as you rock them and sing Jesus Loves Me. You imagine taking hours of time to feed and bathe them. You imagine carefully changing each diaper and cooing in three languages. “This is when their brains are most receptive to language,” you tell your in-laws. I have these images and in some case got to offer these idealized experiences to my oldest son. But for the most part, these perfect parent caricatures haunt me.

The most difficult thing for me to adjust to as a Father of three has been the lack of excellence that I can offer. As I have written before, I am keenly aware of my limitations. But what I did not anticipate is how sad I would be when I feel these limitations. The sadness shows up any time that I cannot give quality time, energy, thought, or effort into my family, work, friends, or home.

Just for a point of reference, as a chore doing middle schooler I used to make sure that the vacuum lines were straight. If I played basketball outdoors I immediately came in and immediately polished every scuff off of my Jordans. When I colored there was NOTHING outside those lines. I sought and executed excellence often. But as my years have grown in number, so has the challenge to uphold these perfectionistic tendencies.

Thomas Merton, a philosopher and contemplative, reflecting on the demands of our later years of life, says,

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Merton’s words feel trite. They feel like something a monk who sits in front of a candle all day would say. I get that there are times I sign myself up for the “multitude of concerns” and that my own anxiety about excellence can “destroy the fruitfulness” of my work. But what about when it’s work we have to do? What about the deadline at work we have to hit? The trip home we have to take? The gifts that must be bought? What about when it’s two brand new humans in need of diapers and bottles, Merton?

Merton’s words are a good compliment to the work of Donald Winnicott. Winnitott coined the term “good enough mother” in 1953. The term is not as well received today. Today you can imagine a book entitled “Good Enough to Great Enough Mother” with a cover image of a mom in a pant suit, carrying three children, and groceries or something awful. Here’s how Winnicott describes the core of the idea:

“The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete attentiveness to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with the mother’s failure”

FAILURE. That is a word that I try to avoid at all costs. While the Silicon Valley community is all “look at me I fail all the time, listen to me me talk about it!” I’m like, “don’t fail, don’t fail, don’t fail.” My inability to deliver excellence at all times feels like failing. But what Winnicott explains is that the infant actually adapts to the ways in which a parent cannot meet all of their needs. Winnicott believed that children actually need their parents to fail them in tolerable ways so that they can learn to live in an imperfect and challenging world. The brand spankin’ new human, adapts to the failures of the parent. This is hard wired grace. Biologically our children adapting, maturing, and anthropologically forgiving us for the ways in which we cannot be perfect. And if our tiny brained, pants pooping children can forgive us, then perhaps we should forgive ourselves. Or more specifically I should forgive myself.

What if every time time we fail to offer the quality we would hope to – to our spouse, our church, our job, our friends, and children – they actually grew a little bit stronger? I’m not suggesting we calculate what little we can do to get by because “what doesn’t kill you kids will make you stronger!” but rather that we care deeply for ourselves so that we can care deeply for others and offer ourselves kindness so that it can be extended to others.

“I’m serious about the kitchen,” my wife says weekly. “HGTV has taught me that we could do something for cheap!”

“I’ll hate it if it’s not perfect,” I lament. Winnitott was talking about good enough parents. He never said anything about kitchens.


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