When I was feeling crazed from sleep deprivation and looking after a toddler and a screaming baby who, unbeknownst to me, was suffering with silent reflux, the same questions would tear through my mind. Why can’t I do this? Why aren’t I good enough?
It was 2016 and I felt utterly dismayed at how motherhood was panning out compared with the pin-up version I’d dreamed of. Instead of being the calm, patient mum who could instinctively soothe her children’s woes while knocking up a two-course dinner for her husband, I felt broken by exhaustion and self-doubt. At night time, I’d banish my husband to the spare room because I didn’t want him to see me “fail” at trying to calm the baby. I was a mess, at my darkest moments even believing that perhaps my family would be better off without me.
Thankfully, some friends intervened and marched me to the GP, who diagnosed me with postnatal depression. I was offered medication to help pull me out of the hole I was in yet what transformed my situation was a dawning realisation: that if motherhood meant meeting this set of impossibly high standards, I couldn’t do it. For the first time, I embraced being “not good enough” and it completely transformed my state of mind.
Now I’m on a mission to convince other parents to do the same, whether they’ve got newborns, difficult teens or even grandchildren. Why? Because I’ve seen women wake up to this in their 50s and 60s and wish that they’d done it sooner.
As a psychotherapist, I speak to countless women who come to me with the same script ringing in their ears. It says, “I’m not doing a good enough job” on repeat. I’ve seen strong, capable women reduced to tears by the feeling that they’re failing at motherhood because they feel overwhelmed by the endless demands of children, work and domesticity. Some might have been plugging away for two decades and yet still feel like they’re missing the bar, almost believing that the later you get in life, the less deserving you are of a life well lived. The words that always make them sit up and listen are: “Perhaps you’re right – you’re not good enough. And guess what, none of us are. We’ve been set up to fail.”
This message contrasts starkly with the “You got this!” mantra that often fills up people’s pretty Instagram squares. My message is: “You haven’t got this – and that’s OK”. The way I see it, mothers in 2022 are under more pressure than ever before. We’re bombarded with information about everything from how and when a baby should sleep through to screentime, school choices and how to parent an anxious teen. Where previous generations had a small circle of trusted friends and neighbours to impart their wisdom, we have a cacophony of voices offering contradictory advice.
On top of that, social media feeds us a diet of curated images that can make us feel like everyone else is coping better, their house somehow pristine, their toddler happily crayoning in a corner. “Good enough”, which used to be the standard for our mothers and grandmothers has been steamrollered by perfectionism and comparison, and it’s driving many of us to breaking point.
As mothers, we’re often skilled at making it look like everything is fine. But over the past two years, with the added pressures of the pandemic, I’ve spoken to more mums who have experienced explosions of rage than ever before. So often, rage is a culmination of unmet needs and unexpressed feelings – two things that build up if you’re trying to be “the perfect mother”. Rage, I’ve realised, is a natural reaction to feeling chronically overlooked. Unmet needs and feelings don’t slink off when they’re ignored. Instead, they silently build and build until finally making themselves known as a pan of spaghetti hurled against the kitchen wall.
With three children aged three, five and seven, I’ve experienced that adrenaline-coursing rage on plenty of occasions and the truth is, it feels horrible. It adds a grim layer of guilt and self-loathing to the depletion you’re already suffering, and it sends that “not good enough” voice into overdrive.
As I recovered from postnatal depression, I actively decided that I was going to accept help and lower my standards. I went big on self-compassion, or in other words, I cut myself some slack – from asking my husband to come back and be with me when the baby was screaming at 2am to stocking up on microwave meals for the days I felt spent. I started being open with friends about what I was finding hard and accepted that just because I counsel people for a living doesn’t mean I’m immune from struggling, too. For months, I’d felt that I should be able to get myself better but then I reasoned, a heart surgeon can’t operate on himself. So why would I be able to fix myself?
Our culture seems to prize self-sufficiency and a lot of what I do is helping other mothers see that there’s no weakness in accepting help. There’s nothing wrong with saying: “I’m one person, I have limits, and when I reach them, I need to step away and build myself back up again.”
If anything, it’s healthy to be the not-good-enough mum. Famous paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was the first to articulate, in the 1950s, that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting. His research found that children need their mothers to fail them in tolerable ways in order to be able to function well as grown-ups.
Why? Because being “not good enough” shows our children how to survive in an imperfect world that will inevitably disappoint them at times. It proves the importance of perspective – that failing on one small thing like forgetting a birthday or a bake sale or being in a bad mood doesn’t make you a failure. It shows that not everything is within our control – a feeling you need to get comfortable with, especially as kids turn into adolescents and adults.
On top of that, letting your children see you do the things that recharge you – whether that’s reading a book quietly in the garden or going out with friends – sets the example that you respect yourself, and that boundaries and self-care are important. Doing something you enjoy is a vaccination against burnout and yet it’s something mothers often deny ourselves.
I sometimes wonder how we’ve reached the stage where mothers (I never hear from dads who do this) talk about taking a shower and stopping for “a quick glass of water’” as indulgences – those things are essential, they’re about self-respect not self-care. We wouldn’t deny them to anyone else, so why do we deny them to ourselves? We mother through sickness, highs and lows, sleep deprivation and fluctuating hormones. We need to have compassion for ourselves otherwise we will consistently be shaming ourselves for missing the impossible bar.
When the penny drops among the “perfectionist” mums I see on my therapy couch, it’s an incredible, truly life-changing moment, especially if it’s someone who’s told herself for many years “this is just how life is”. However, it can take time. Culturally we’re fed the narrative that women are natural multi-taskers who can absorb whatever life throws their way. Having to accept this isn’t the case can be hard. I’ve seen women grieve the loss of the picture-perfect mother they’d always hoped they’d be.
It’s also true that when you start putting boundaries in place – and by that, I mean prioritising yourself, some people might not like it. You not having boundaries might have served them very well – especially if you’ve sacrificed your own needs for many years. But ultimately, once all of that passes, everyone around you benefits. We need energy to parent well and deal with life’s curveballs. We also need energy to enjoy ourselves. When you respect your needs and bring yourself back form the brink of burnout, your family gets you at your best.
So how to spot a fellow “not good enough” mum? For a start, she doesn’t hide the chaos of her home life whether that’s on Instagram or an impromptu play date. You won’t hear her talk about her latest #parentingfail and she doesn’t mind admitting that she’s tired or needs a break from her kids.
If you offer to take them off her hands for an afternoon, she’ll happily nod “Yes please!” And you’ll often hear her say “no” – especially if someone’s asking for something that will take up her time. All of those little things that might make her seem not good enough, actually mean that when she’s with her kids, she’s more likely to be relaxed and content. Plus, when she does offer to look after your kids, she means it. She has capacity. She’s no longer at her limit because being not good enough has set her free.
The Little Book of Calm for New Mums by Anna Mathur is out on May 26, but is available to preorder now (Penguin Life, £12.99). Order your copy from the Telegraph Bookshop