You can’t be a perfect mother. So be a ‘good enough’ mother.

“Am I a good enough mother?”  If you ask yourself that question, you have already taken a big step forward—away from the question, “Am I a good mother?”

An image of the “good mother,” all loving, all giving of self, unreal, and unattainable has been there for women, well, probably forever. A picture of perfection that has inspired feelings of guilt in countless mothers—you aren’t alone, mom.

This image was embellished by psychoanalytic and developmental theories with their emphasis on meeting children’s “needs.”  D. W. Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst writing in the 1940s and ‘50s, attempted to deflate the evolving unrealistic picture of the perfect “good mother.”

He wrote about the ordinary good mother—the “good enough mother”—as the standard by which mothers should be viewed.

Winnicott was writing at a time when 24/7 maternal care was the norm. His idea of a good enough mother was based on a picture of mothers’ availability to their children that doesn’t quite match women’s lives today. But his goal of moving away from the image of the unattainable remains valid—and admirable.

Our challenge is to redefine good enough mothering for the reality of our present day lives, because too many mothers are still trying to be perfect and worrying that they are coming up short.

The belief still lingers that maternal care is the gold standard for raising successful children. Yet as modern women we also believe that we, not only our children, have needs that have a right to be met. This means the ability to pursue responsibilities and interests beyond the care of our children.

The problem arises in trying to realize two sets of beliefs and meet two sets of needs that often seem to clash.

The obstacles that exist are based on both reality and feelings. The realities have become obvious and their solution requires social action.

But the emotional obstacles are the ones within ourselves that we can try to change. To do that means confronting the basic issue of living with others: how to consider the needs of others while also considering our own needs.

We face this question in all our interactions with others. It is most challenging with children, however, because they are just learning how to become social beings and start from a focus on themselves.

The feeling of not being a good enough mother comes, in part, from children themselves. They are not interested in good enough. They want a perfect mother, which for them means giving them what they want and letting them do what they want to do.

This is often neither possible or good for children but when frustrated they may respond with unhappiness.

Our culture has put a premium on happiness and many mothers measure their own success in terms of their children’s happiness. They worry when their children are unhappy. So a good enough mother has to be able to tolerate a measure of her child’s unhappiness.

Children also become angry when frustrated. They blame mothers for their frustration and tell them so in both words and behavior.

The words can be difficult to hear and the behavior difficult to manage. Both can lead mothers to feel that they are to blame in some way and to worry about whether something is wrong with their child or with themselves.

But in reality, children are going to be frustrated at times and the good enough mother is able to tolerate her child’s anger.

At times it is possible to reconcile the inevitable conflicts between parent and child needs or wishes through compromise. Other times compromise is not possible, and the question becomes whose needs or wishes will prevail. This is not a question that can be answered in general but has to be faced in individual contexts that arise daily or even several times a day.

How does a mother who is not perfect, but good enough, deal with this challenge?

A decision has to be made in each context as to which is the most important need to be met, knowing that there is no perfect answer. The important thing to remember is that mistakes will be made—but they will not damage your child.

Children are resilient and their emotional responses in the moment are not a measure of how good you are as a mother.

The good enough mother knows her child, is able to listen, and most importantly, to understand what he or she is saying in words or behavior.

Just as we are fortified by feeling heard and understood, so are our children. Knowing they are heard and understood is ultimately more important than getting what they want. It is the essence of good enough mothering.

Elaine Heffner is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice in New York City, and a Senior Lecturer of Education in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Dr. Heffner is the author of MOTHERING: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism, published by Doubleday and Anchor Press.

Dr. Heffner is a mother and grandmother.

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