Recovery Tips from a Good Enough Mother
By Dina Cohen, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S
I don’t know when I realized I was a perfectionist, but I do remember when I realized I couldn’t afford to be one any longer. It was about a week after I gave birth to my twin daughters. Being a first-time mom is stressful; being a twin mom is even more so. And as I quickly realized, being a perfectionistic twin mom is untenable. Even if it were feasible to parent one baby “perfectly”, I couldn’t be a perfect mom to both because my attention was always divided. If I was focused on one, I wasn’t focused on the other. By the time I fed one, the other was hungry again. The regular first-time mom doubt and uncertainty were compounded, because what worked for one twin wasn’t necessarily working for the other. It wasn’t long before it dawned on me that the time had come to break up with my perfectionism.
As I adjusted my standards, what helped me tremendously was being mindful of the concept of the “good enough” mother. British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed this little gem in 1953, and by doing so, he conveyed that fulfilling a child’s every desire is not only impossible but would also be unhelpful to him. When kids don’t get their way all the time, they learn resilience. They learn that they can be unhappy about something and still be okay and that life isn’t perfect but they’ll be fine in spite of that. I learned that doing my best without being perfect does not mean being a bad mom. It actually means being a good parent, because it is not only caring for my children but also teaching them how to be in the world.
Because I am an eating disorder dietitian as well as a mom, I can’t help but see parallels between parenting and recovery. Especially as I battled to let go of my perfectionistic tendencies and redefine myself, I found my struggle mirroring that of my clients. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
- Perfection is Impossible (But That’s Okay)
As Jill Churchill put it, “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” Motherhood is broken up into a million little moments. There are countless opportunities to bring joy into your child’s life, to teach valuable lessons, and to build connection. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even if you slip up, you can repair it and create more closeness.
Similarly, there’s no way to eat perfectly, but there are a million ways to eat well. Diet culture tells us that to achieve a specific result, you need to eat in a specific way. It proclaims there’s a certain path to follow and you need to follow it perfectly. Individuals in recovery often struggle to make the shift to a more nuanced way of approaching eating. They sometimes try to recover “perfectly”, or be a “perfect intuitive eater.” But life is much bigger than having perfect or imperfect eating. Eating well is something that should ultimately be a part of life but not something around which your life revolves. Sometimes you eat out with friends and have a really satisfying meal, plus dessert, and you’re full for a while. That’s okay and appropriate and may also be totally different than how you ate the day before, when you were busy at work and only had time for a quick lunch. Your eating can vary from day to day and may shift over time. Sometimes you might eat past the point of satisfaction and feel uncomfortably full, and other times you might forget to bring a snack along on a trip and arrive home uncomfortably hungry. There is no perfect, and there doesn’t need to be, because eating is not an end unto itself. Eating is just a way to fuel our lives.
- You Deserve No Less Than Anyone Else
If your rules for yourself are different from your rules for other people, there’s probably something pathological about those rules. Take a moment to question your rules and ask yourself if you’d expect the same of a friend. Learning to do this was incredibly helpful for me. Would I expect someone else with two-week-old twins to say yes when asked to write a book chapter? Would I expect a friend to never have a spot on her clothes when she left the house even though she had two infants who spit up regularly until they were nine months old? No. No, I would not.
If you feel like it’s fine for a friend to eat a certain way, to weigh a certain amount, or wear a certain clothing size but you feel those would be unacceptable for you, it’s time to question your rules. Your standards are pretty likely unhealthy ones. I’ve so often heard variations of the following statement: “It’s okay for other people to look that way/do that thing/ask for that, but not for me.” Really? Why? What makes you so different? What you’ll probably find isn’t a problem with you, but a problem with how you view yourself. This is one of those times when you might just need to fake it ‘till you make it. Tell yourself what you’d tell a friend, even if it feels terribly inauthentic. Practice treating yourself with compassion and respect. One day it will ring true.
- Tolerating Uncertainty is a Worthwhile Skill
That’s because tolerating uncertainty is basically in the job description of being a mom. You never know how your children will turn out, how you’ll react to the various stages of motherhood, or how your life as a parent will unfold. You’ve just got to hang on for the ride.
Similarly, you don’t know what your recovered body will look like – or what your recovered life will be like. Most likely, recovering from your eating disorder will open up your world and allow for a richer, fuller life. It should be a better life. But we don’t know exactly how that life will look. There’s no way to predict how things will be.
It’s scary because it’s not in your control, but it was never in your control anyway. Being ok with this might mean facing some of your deepest fears. When you are able to tolerate uncertainty in recovery, it shows you’ve done some really hard work. It means you’ve learned to experience the discomfort of facing the unknown and can trust that even if things don’t turn out as planned, you’ll still be ok.
- Doing it Alone Might Mean Not Doing it At All
And going it alone might mean going nowhere. If you are used to being self-sufficient, it can be really tough to ask for help. You might have been able to push through on your own for a while. But when life becomes more overwhelming, you have a choice: you can fight an uphill battle or you can ask for help. Admitting I couldn’t manage by myself allowed me to say yes to generous offers that made my life less stressful. Accepting I would need to ask for help (much more regularly than I’d imagined) enabled me to maintain my sanity and enjoy my babies. Nowadays, it’s much less of a deal for me to recognize my limitations and call in reinforcements when needed. We aren’t supposed to be able to do everything.
Eating disorder recovery is a very challenging road and it is not intended to be walked alone. If you are able to obtain professional help, your road will be much easier to navigate. And if you can get the support of other people in your life, such as family, friends, or other individuals in recovery, you will find that road a lot more manageable. There are many resources available that can connect you with mentors and peers who can support and encourage you in the recovery process. There’s no doubt that asking for help takes bravery. But if you’ve taken even a single step in the recovery journey, bravery is something you already possess.
- You Aren’t Letting Yourself Go; You’re Letting Yourself Be
Your standards may have become part of your identity, as I discovered when I tried to let some of them go. After my girls arrived, I had to figure out what I could no longer do. The house would not be as neat (or at all neat). The meals would not be as creative. The gym would not happen at all. Letting go of some of these standards was surprisingly difficult. What helped make it easier was remembering that I wasn’t letting myself go; I was just letting myself be.
The same thing happens with certain eating disorder behaviors. They can rapidly become an integral part of how you view yourself. You might feel by letting go of a disordered behavior or ideal, you’re losing a part of yourself. In our culture, many disordered behaviors (such as restrictive eating and excessive exercise) are admired, and so adopting healthier behaviors can make you feel like you’re failing, not succeeding. But in reality, when you shed these behaviors, you shed the artificial parts of you, the parts that were born out of anxiety and fear. When you allow yourself to stand alone, without hiding behind an image constructed from beliefs of how you should be, you are revealing your essence. You are letting yourself be. Getting to know your true self, unencumbered by the rules you may have carried for so long, can be frightening. But it will also be one of the most liberating journeys you will ever take.
About the author:
Dina Cohen, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S is a nutrition therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, chronic dieting, women’s health, and pediatric nutrition. She is the founder of EatWellSoon, a nutrition counseling practice in Lakewood, NJ dedicated to helping individuals and families develop lifelong healthy habits and a positive relationship with food. She is passionate about eating disorder prevention, and her recent projects include providing workshops and developing resources for educators, medical professionals, and mental health providers. You can find Dina at https://www.eatwellsoonrd.com/.