Dr. Elaine Heffner

goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog

VTR Date: April 6, 2013

Dr. Elaine Heffner discusses parenting and her new book.


GUEST: Dr. Elaine Heffner
AIR DATE: 04/06/2013
VTR: 01/10/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…have been for almost 57 years now, a long time.

My guest today is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice here in New York and a Senior Lecturer of Education in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She was the Co-Founder and long-time Director of the distinguished Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne-Whitney Clinic of New York Hospital.

The author of “MOTHERING: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism”, published by Doubleday and Anchor Press some years back, I find my guest’s new book, “goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog” – based on the blog that she posts online each week – particularly touching in its dedication, “To all the parents who have taught me so much”.

Touching, too – and in keeping with full disclosure – is the fact that Dr. Elaine Heffner is my wife … has been for almost 63 years now, also a long time.

Now, my guest writes that the message she intends for parents in “goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog” is that “There is no ‘perfect’. Good enough is good enough.”

And I think I should ask Dr. Heffner just what she means. Greetings.

ELAINE HEFFNER: I’m so glad that you asked me that question because I get very interesting reactions to that statement.

Some people think that it’s just an obvious truism. But a number of mothers have told me they feel as though it’s a put-down because they don’t want to be “just good enough”, they want to be perfect.

And that is really the basis of a lot of what I’m trying to do in, in this book is help them understand the concept of “good enough”.

The idea of a “good enough” mother really is due to a famous pediatrician and psychiatrist, D. W. Winnicott and he wrote and worked in the late forties and fifties. And he came up with this idea of the “good enough mother”.

And what he really meant by it was that the idea of the perfect mother which he felt many of his colleagues … you know this was the era of Freud and psychoanalysis and of big influence of psychoanalytic theory on the whole idea of child rearing. And mothers came in for a lot of scrutiny.

And Winnicott thought they should not be setting such standards of perfection. He talked about the “average”, the “ordinary devoted mother”. So his idea of “good enough” was a mother who really was not going to just be there and jump at every one of her child’s wishes and requests. Because that would not really be that helpful., would not be growth producing.

But “good enough” meant that she would help him, nurture him, help him or her grow and develop. And so that was his message.

But it’s kind of ironic because Winnicott wrote during the period after the Second World War when the … your ordinary devoted mother … was his phrase … was a mother, housewife primarily who was with her child pretty much 24/7 and so the kind of devoted, ordinary mother he was talking about really doesn’t have too much to do with today’s world.

RICHARD HEFFNER: What do you mean?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well, because the role of women has changed. And I think that many women grow up now with a different set of ideas about what life can and should hold for them. They … I mean in, in Winnicott’s day many women felt that that was their primary goal … was to be a wife and mother.

I don’t know that women start out feeling that way. I think eventually many of them do want to become mothers. But they also have a different set of expectations. That they should be out in the world, that they should be able to work at a career or a job and that conflict between this old idea of, of motherhood and today’s reality is something that women today are really struggling with. And I think it is a major burden that they face

RICHARD HEFFNER: But, Elaine, how does, how does this lead to this problem with the concept of “good enough”?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well, the … because the … what I have discovered is that women today, many of them are really struggling to achieve the very thing that Winnicott was trying to dissuade them from.

The difference is that the standards that he set, his definition of the “good enough mother” I think many women today would consider perfection.

I know I kind of smile when I read it because I think he sets a pretty high bar. So, what I’ve tried to do is re-define the concept of “good enough” and show that, that maybe we need to think about what, what mothering and parenting is, in a slightly different way.

Because the kind of mothering that I think has been handed down through a lot of research, developmental research and especially a lot of the writings of that whole psychoanalytic influence is, is an idea about motherhood which first of all may or may not really be appropriate at any time, but certainly does not fit the life that women today want to lead.

And that, that standard was possible only when women were ready to devote themselves in a certain way to child rearing which I, I’m not sure that many women are today.

And even though who are, they get really very invested in doing it perfectly. And, and they have an idea of perfection which is, is not realistic.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Well, when our kids were born … this is a long, long time ago …

ELAINE HEFFNER: (Laugh) Don’t make it sound so long ago.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Well, but it was … I remember getting a second copy of Dr. Spock …


RICHARD HEFFNER: …and you used Dr. Spock pretty much as a guide …

ELAINE HEFFNER: Absolutely. And Dr. Spock has gone through … in fact … my first book Mothering … I have a chapter in which I show the various editions that he went through … various printings, in which he changed his mind about a lot of things. Because he, he also realized that he … he … Dr. Spock was very much influenced by psychoanalytic theory … he, he had a lot of psychoanalytic training. In fact, he had a training at Payne Whitney and I’m not supposed to say this, but I actually saw some of his records when I was … years ago when they still had paper records that you could read and didn’t have to go and look at on a computer.

And he, he was trying to translate psychoanalytic theory into child rearing practices. And so he, he said a lot of things about parenting that he changed his mind about.

In fact … this is just an aside, but I don’t know if you remember that somebody gave us a present of a book that said, “What Dr. Spock Never Told Us” … (laugh)

RICHARD HEFFNER: I do, indeed.

ELAINE HEFFNER: And he had things like Arcaro’s disease … I don’t know if anybody remembers who Arcaro was anymore, a famous jockey. And he talked about children who rocked back and forth.

But the one I love is the one he called “Traitor’s Throat”, when a child, a baby cries loud enough to wake his father, but not loud enough to wake his mother. And, and that is really a made-up category because I, I don’t know babies like that. (Laugh) The mothers always wake up.

RICHARD HEFFNER: But, look … a) that’s not true. As the father I can testify it’s not true. But b) I know from over the years that you’ve always been very much concerned with the negative impact upon mothers of “expert” advice. What, what always raises your hackles …


RICHARD HEFFNER: … about the experts?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well, I’m often considered an expert myself so I, I have to be … I’m always trying to disabuse people of that, that idea. I, I think what I’m talking about is a prescriptive approach …

RICHARD HEFFNER: Prescriptive?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Yeah, prescriptive. In other words, if you do this and this and this … then, then everything is going to be wonderful.


ELAINE HEFFNER: And the idea that if you don’t do it exactly as you’ve been told to do it, something, you know, you’re going to have pathology, you’re going to have all kinds of things going wrong.

RICHARD HEFFNER: And you think mothers have been misled by that?

ELAINE HEFFNER: I know they have. And they … but they don’t feel secure about what they’re doing. It’s interesting because you know I, I participate in a seminar at Cornell … a training seminar for, for Fellows in Child Psychiatry.

And yesterday at the seminar we were discussing siblings. And the whole … as background there was readings in some of the psychoanalytic theory, some of Freud’s theory about siblings and so forth.

And it was an interesting discussion because much of what was discussed was what parents today … how they react to that and, and I know my own experience is that parents tend to think of sibling rivalry … they, they know about it intellectually, but they get really nervous when they see any sign of children being angry or, or fighting.

Aside from the fact that it’s not too pleasant to live with. But it, its … and what I find is that they think if they do everything just right. If they prepare the older child in, in just the right way, if they don’t take away the crib to give it to the baby, too soon. If they don’t take the bottle away from the older one in too close proximity to when they’re going to have the baby … a whole bunch of things like that, then they’re not going to have any sibling rivalry, everything will be perfect.

And that’s what I mean about thinking that you can make something perfect, or that it’s even desirable. And in that I agree with Winnicott completely, because one of my main messages to parents is that even if you could be this perfect mother that you somehow idealize, it would not be good for your children, because they would never grow up.

(Laugh) If somebody is, is taking care of you and, and, you know, making you totally dependent, well … you’re not going to be a very strong individual.

So there has to be frustration and things not going the way you like. And one of the things about (clears throat) … sorry … about our culture is that we, we don’t deal very well with negative feelings.

Negative feelings are suspect, you’re not supposed to feel bad. We have pills for everything. And all the commercials tell you that. You know, everything that … anything that’s bothering you … well, we have a … something to cure that.

So we don’t accept the idea that adversity is part of life. And, and this is how people get … this is how children get strong by facing things as they grow.

Not … obviously we don’t want to give them more than they can handle. But neither do we want to try to create a bed of roses.

RICHARD HEFFNER: You know … I … if I think back on our 63 years … no bed or roses …


RICHARD HEFFNER: If I think back on those years, I know that what you have always been concerned about was the bad rap that mothers get.


RICHARD HEFFNER: I remember when … in your first book on Mothering … you, you … Philip Wylie figured in that, in the Generation of Vipers …

ELAINE HEFFNER: I quoted him as saying “Mama’s a jerk”.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Yeah, and a) do you feel that now in the 13th year of this century, that we’re still involved in getting after mother, blaming mother?

ELAINE HEFFNER: I absolutely do and I, I think … I have my own theory of … well, I don’t know if it’s … only my theory … but I think that everybody has an idealized image of, of what mother should be …who mother should be.

We all wish our own mothers had been this, that or the other thing. I mean either people idealize their mothers and make … you know … try to persuade themselves that everything was wonderful.

Or they, they tell me … the one thing I don’t want to be .. the kind of mother my mother was. And they try studiously to avoid with their children some of the mistakes that they think that their mother made with them.

So, I do think that that’s a kind of … if you forgive me … an unconscious thing that goes on …

RICHARD HEFFNER: Hostility toward ma?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Sort of … or … yeah … a feeling that mother is not as good as she should be, and a wish that she be something different than she is.

And so I think there are a lot of fantasies about who a mother should be.

But there’s also something else that is … I … I’m very interested in …which is that … we have, in our society a history of what I call social engineering through child rearing and education.

In other words, if there’s a problem that we see in society, we want to fix it by the way people raise their children. And we blame parents and mothers in particular.

And these days mother gets a lot of blame because there’s a whole segment of our culture that believes if women would just go back to the home, do what they’re supposed to do … stay barefoot and pregnant … then we wouldn’t have all these social problems.

And to a certain extent that is correct. That when women took that responsibility and life was very tidy and men went to work and women stayed home and took care of the children, that life was a lot more orderly.

But this was all being done on the backs of one, one sex. And I think that women rebelled against that and they, they really don’t want to be the carriers of the sole problem of how, how to be an active member of society and at the same time raise children.

So we really have not solved that problem. That is a, a social problem, a cultural problem that is very active … right now, that women in particular experience it. They feel very conflicted … I find often that mothers who are working, if any … what I call “bump in the road”, because you can’t raise children without having bumps in the road …they attribute it to the fact that they’re working.

And that they think that that’s somehow responsible for what’s happening.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Why have we … American mothers been attacked so in terms of other peoples … Chinese, French …


RICHARD HEFFNER: … you name them.

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well … what, what … it seems to me as I’ve looked at this … is that what’s really going on is a struggle about an authoritarian approach to child rearing versus the more permissive … I’ll say democratic approach that we have adopted in this country.

And we’ve gone through an evolution … (cough) … I’m sure … you’re a historian you are very well aware of what child rearing was like in the Puritan era and then (cough) in the years that followed.

There was … you know … “children should be seen and not heard” … “respect your elders” … the … the whole idea that … you know … I always … I always quote that old joke about … “When I was a child my parents got the white meat of the chicken. Now that I’m a parent, my children get the white meat of the chicken. When is it going to be my turn?”

So, not that everybody loves the, the white meat of the chicken, but the idea being that at one point children were supposed to defer to parents. And now it seems to have gotten turned around in which parents defer to their children … a great deal. And, and I think that if you read things like the Chinese type of mother or Raising Bebe … or some of the other stuff that has come out, you’ll see that what they’re admiring is the authoritarian … “I’m the boss” approach.

RICHARD HEFFNER: And I know, I know from our Sunday night discussions when you send out your … when you post …


RICHARD HEFFNER: … your blog … I must use the right language … I know that you address yourself to so many of these questions, problems. Two parents, two mothers … in particular, but not only to mothers … I’m always delighted when father …

ELAINE HEFFNER: … when father …

RICHARD HEFFNER: … sneaks in to one of your, one of your posts. Do you find that as you write these blogs that the response to them indicates that there is a continuing hunger on the part of mothers … young and not-so-young … for information and for orientation, perhaps the orientation that you offer most of all, and that has to do with “nobody’s perfect”.

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well I do try … I try to be reassuring and supportive (clears throat) that, that is a primary goal that I have because I think that, that mothers and fathers get enough criticism.

They … every magazine article that you pick up tells you what some latest research finding is that indicates some problem that is coming out of parenting.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Really? Is that the pattern?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Ah, there’s, there’s a great deal … yes. Because this is … as I say … there’s, there’s an idea that somehow if you fix this … then we’ll get rid of this problem.

RICHARD HEFFNER: You mean if you fix mothering …

ELAINE HEFFNER: Yeah … if you fix what the writer has identified as the particular issue that they think is destructive or what-have-you and just, just somebody … actually a member of our family recommended a book on … about narcissistic mothers and what they … how they damage their children. Well, that is so typical. I mean … to … people come up with these labels … they … you know ways of … it, it … well, it sells books for one thing.

But it is very destructive and I think that women and mothers take … do take a lot of this seriously. And I, I know that any, any time I’ve written about any of those articles … and indicated … kind of supported the parents’ viewpoint or role … that I get a lot of positive response because I think, I think women … and men, too … are hungry for a, a feeling of validation.

RICHARD HEFFNER: What do you mean “validation”?

ELAINE HEFFNER: That, they they’re doing a good job … and that … you know … (laugh) what was that movie … “The Kids Are Alright”?

And, and I think that we’re, we are in such a competitive society and the educational system is broken, as everybody is aware, so there’s such a competition for good spots in schools.

And I, I think so much of raising your children is really a matter of values. I mean, what’s important to you?

When somebody says to me “I, I want to be perfect. I want to be a perfect mother”. Well, does that mean that you want to raise a perfect child?

So, who is this perfect child? Is this a child who gets a straight grade A? Is this a child who excels at sports? Is this a child who is an outstanding musician? A creative genius … what, what is this child? Who is this child who’s going to make you feel like a perfect mother?

So the … we’re demanding something impossible of our children, that they should turn out in a way that help us feel like perfect parents. And that’s just not going to happen.

So, my philosophy and my outlook is that children … there are … they are going to be … what … influenced much more by who you are than by what you do.

Who you are as people. What your values are. What’s important to you. How you treat each other. How you, how you treat your children in that sense of … you know … mutual respect … I think in the end is much more important than, you know, whether, whether you’ve done exactly the right thing about weaning, or exactly the thing about toilet training or all these things, that you know, mothers worry about with their little children.

RICHARD HEFFNER: Talking about all the things they worry about. You have a blog here “No Fault Mothering”.


RICHARD HEFFNER: What do you mean?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well, that … it was very interesting actually. Because a mother wrote to me and she told me that somehow the feeling that something is your fault is empowering because then you can do something about.

Whereas if it’s, if it’s something genetic or, you know, some …something is terribly wrong with your child then, you know, maybe … you’re helpless to do anything.

But, but if you can believe that it’s your fault, then you can fix it. And I … (laugh) … that’s quite a burden.

And I, you know, I’ve seen this working, working in the hospital with parents who really … they really would prefer to see a child’s problem as something they caused than as something inherently in the child that can’t be fixed.

RICHARD HEFFNER: One minute we have left. What do you mean?

ELAINE HEFFNER: Well, sadly there are some very unhappy disorders that, that children have … and … but … which a limited amount can be done about.

And the parents would, would prefer to see … feel that they … that whatever is wrong … they can fix it. And so, that … you know that’s a great burden to carry around.

And you know we, we’ve also …we used to think that mothers were … we used to blame them psychologically, but now with all this brain research and all this biological research, the whole idea of what you’ve contributed genetically and every other way … is just …the burden is really, too much.

RICHARD HEFFNER: I get the signal, our time is up. Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk again and maybe you’ll even come back and we’ll continue this discussion. Meanwhile, thank you Dr. Heffner for joining me today.

ELAINE HEFFNER: Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you … (laugh)

RICHARD HEFFNER: For this long. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.