If there’s one thing I learned in graduate school, it’s that the poet Philip Larkin was right. (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do.”) At the time, I was a new mom with an infant son, and I’d decided to go back to school for a degree in clinical psychology. With baby on the brain and term papers to write, I couldn’t ignore the barrage of research showing how easy it is to screw up your kids. Of course, everyone knows that growing up with “Mommy Dearest” produces a very different child from one raised by, say, a loving PTA president who has milk and homemade cookies waiting after school. But in that space between Joan Crawford and June Cleaver, where most of us fall, it seemed like a lot could go wrong in the kid-raising department.
As a parent, I wanted to do things right. But what did “right” mean? One look in Barnes & Noble’s parenting section and I was dizzy: child-centered, collaborative, or RIE? Brazelton, Spock, or Sears?
The good news, at least according to Donald Winnicott, the influential English pediatrician and child psychiatrist, was that you didn’t have to be a perfect mother to raise a well-adjusted kid. You just had to be, to use the term Winnicott coined, a “good-enough mother.” I was also relieved to learn that we’d moved beyond the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother,” who’s solely responsible for making her kid crazy. (The modern literature acknowledges that genetics—not to mention fathers—play a role in determining mental health.) Still, in everything we studied—from John Bowlby’s “attachment theory” to Harry Harlow’s monkeys, who clung desperately to cloth dummies when separated from their mothers—the research was clear: fail to “mirror” your children, or miss their “cues,” or lavish too little affection on them, and a few decades later, if they had the funds and a referral, they would likely end up in one of our psychotherapy offices, on the couch next to a box of tissues, recounting the time Mom did this and Dad didn’t do that, for 50 minutes weekly, sometimes for years.