When I was a child, the pressure on parents wasn’t anything like it is among so many people today. My mother’s generation didn’t seem angst-ridden about its parenting. Among her friends, none felt compelled to have a natural birth, nurse their babies or share a bed. There was no attachment parenting, and regularly leaving your baby or toddler with a 12-year-old babysitter was commonplace.
By the time I had a baby, things had changed. I poured over books before and during pregnancy, and relied on a veritable library once my son was born. I was determined to do everything “right.” Nonetheless, I felt plagued with self doubt and internalized, quite negatively, a shifting society’s expectations about parenthood.
I well remember clinging to a mentor’s advocacy of English pediatrician and psychoanalysist Donald Winnicott’s concept of “good enough parenting.” She’d raised four happy and healthy children, and her wise counsel got me through.
I’ve been observing other parents recently, nonhuman ones. Virtually every year a pair of ducks–sometimes mergansers, sometimes mallards, sometimes black ducks — arrive at our pond in spring with their ducklings. One summer I watched in horror as more than half of the ducklings disappeared in 24 hours. I even saw one plucked off by a crow and ran, shouting, toward the pond to save the duckling, to no avail. I ached for the mother, perhaps inexperienced, learning in this awful way what it means to be a good enough parent.
Because for ducks, good enough parenting means keeping your ducklings from predators until they’re old enough to fly.
This year I’ve been marvelling at a black duck mother with her nine half-grown ducklings. Every day I watch her through binoculars from our living room window, exclaiming out loud, “What a good mom you are!” She marches them to and from the pond, through the protective tall grass, preceding them into the mowed areas to make sure the coast is clear before calling them all in a quick line to the pond.
This morning we awoke to a downpour. So much rain fell so quickly that a puddle formed on the grass near the pond. Mama duck, perhaps confident that predators wouldn’t be out in the rain, brought her ducklings to the pond, but on the way they stopped in the glorious-to-a-duckling puddle.
I wonder sometimes whether she is full of anxiety, worrying about her nine charges; whether she endures her own sort of bird angst, or whether she is confident that she is a good enough mother. I cannot know what she thinks and feels, but when I watch her, she seems to trust herself to raise them right, to keep them alive until they fly the proverbial coop.
I think there’s something to learn from her. She is protective, certainly, but she ventures far and wide with her ducklings. She scurries them to safety, but she indulges them, too — as in the puddle. From my vantage, she is preparing them for the wide world, neither too coddling nor too lax. Good enough.
For all you parents out there, perhaps she can be a soothing balm on the anxiety fostered by a relentless pressure to do everything just right — as if there is a “just right” to be found in every moment, every decision. Perhaps it’s enough to be good enough.
Good enough is a vague goal, but here’s some of what good enough means to me:
- Ensuring our children are well fed, well rested, well loved and deeply appreciated for who they are.
- Striving to impart and nurture the most important values in them, such as kindness, compassion, respect, generosity, honesty and responsibility.
- Teaching them to be good critical and creative thinkers in a world that needs their good minds along with their big hearts.
- Helping them find the place where what they care about in the world, what they are good at and what they love come together in a path that suits them, not us.
All the rest is gravy.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Edwin Barkdoll.