When everything goes wrong, being a good enough mother

By Diane Pomerantz

I handed the parking attendant $30.00 and pulled out onto Charles Street.

“That parking was expensive,” Elli shook her head. “But now at least you can pay for it! Do you remember that time in New York when we didn’t have enough to get out of the parking garage?” There was a familiar tightness in her laugh. “We had to search under the seats to find money.” Elli, now 25, was chuckling, but I could hear, and still feel the pain, both hers and mine, about that day, years ago.

I remembered the moment. “It was after we were out of the parking lot that I told you and Sam, who must have been eight at the time, that we needed to have a treasure hunt to see how much money we could find under the seats.”

“We had just enough to get us over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.” Elli laughed again, but the high pitch was still like a needle piercing my heart.

As my daughter spoke, I was transported back to that time fourteen years earlier, right after my husband, Charles, and I had separated. My confidence in myself as a parent, a wife, and a woman were badly shaken. I was a mess. I had been in an emotionally abusive marriage for years, but the two years before we separated, when I was being treated for aggressive breast cancer, Charles’ controlling ways, sadism and emotional abuse had gotten much worse.

Although I was a psychologist, I wasn’t working. I had to close my practice when I was hospitalized for a stem cell transplant. If I chose to leave my marriage, it would mean I would have no job, and no money. So I stayed. But when my treatment ended, his sadistic behavior continued and it got to a point where I had no choice but to leave. When I asked my attorney for his opinion, he said that based on everything I’d told him, remaining in the same house put me in grave danger of a recurrence of my illness. He told me I could leave on the grounds of constructive abandonment. It would be destructive, or dangerous for me not to leave. It would be for my own protection.

The fiasco of not having enough money in the parking lot came one weekend when the kids and I had driven up to New York for a friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. Charles had told our children that they didn’t have to go, because they didn’t know the people that well. It was my weekend, and I said they were going. Then came the familiar feeling that I was doing something wrong by asserting myself. And so I promised the kids we’d go to our favorite “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant in Chinatown for soup dumplings an inexpensive treat. Elli and Sam were elated.

I was broke. We hadn’t gotten a court date yet so Charles was able to get away with giving me $10.00 per week for each child. Things were not good. My mother had died several years earlier and then, in the midst of all of the chaos, my father died suddenly. I was alone, with two kids, and no money. still physically weak from my cancer treatment, I was trying to start my own practice or find a job, but being overwhelmed and depressed from all that was going on wasn’t making it easier. I was selling whatever possessions of any value in order to make ends meet. I was literally juggling air, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

I would write checks at the supermarket, smiling sweetly, hoping the checks I deposited in the bank would clear before the one I was writing at the cash register reached the bank. There were times the cable was turned off because I was too late with the bill and I feigned anger at Comcast so the kids wouldn’t know that things were so tight that we were on the verge of financial disaster. In the end, I always made it work, but it was exhausting.

“You know, Mom … you worked so hard so we got the things we needed and more… it’s as if you wanted everything to turn out perfectly for us.”

Elli’s words brought me back. “I guess I did. I felt so guilty that you didn’t have the ideal family anymore, about your pain and loss. I felt that I had to make it up to you.”

“Mom, that’s ridiculous! You just do the best you can do with what is presented to you … you taught us to think of life’s problems as ‘adventures.’”

I smiled at Elli. Her statement reminded me of Donald Winnicott, the British Child Psychoanalyst who coined the expression The Good Enough Mother. Nowadays, when speaking to parents I often say that he didn’t talk about The Perfect Mother, only the Good Enough Mother. His point was that not parenting “perfectly” gives kids room to grow, it gives them the chance to learn to tolerate frustration and to solve problems. It helps them to become resilient. Looking back on my life and my kids, I’m okay with being good enough.

Dr. Diane Pomerantz is a clinical psychologist who has been in practice working with children, adolescents, and adults in Baltimore, Maryland for over thirty-five years. She is a breast cancer survivor and has two wonderful grown children. Diane’s debut memoir, Lost in the Reflecting Pool (on sale: October 10), deals with adoption, infertility and a relationship turned dark.

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