Why we shouldn’t strive for the perfect family

Being just 'good enough' is far healthier and will make you much happier in the long run

Last week, people in Britain celebrated Mothering Sunday – an unabashedly Christian recognition of this unique vocation – and I have been reading a frank, funny and thoughtful book on being a mother, Good Enough is Good Enough, by Colleen Duggan (Ave Maria Press).

There is pressure on mothers from all sides: For Catholics there is the example of Our Lady, which can seem intimidating until you realise that she is a loving mother to all mothers rather than an impossible standard for ordinary mothers to attain, alongside the well-intentioned yet smug stance of other, seemingly more successful, parents. In the secular world it is harder: you have to prove yourself in a career as well as at home, struggling with the myth that you can “have it all.”

Duggan describes her own unrealistic expectations of herself; with six children she had wanted to be a perfect parent: “a perfect Catholic, look perfect and maintain perfect familial relationships”, concluding ruefully that “it was all a lie.” She comes to see that growing up in a dysfunctional family herself, with a father who was a veteran of Vietnam and an alcoholic, she had brought her own “past wounds, imperfections and frenetic lifestyle” into her marriage – making her perfectionism difficult for her husband and children to live with and endlessly frustrating for herself.

She finally found a Catholic counsellor who helped her to see that a “good enough” approach was more fruitful than a “perfect” one and that her unrealistic quest for “The Perfect Catholic Family” was bound up with broken aspects of her own childhood that she was struggling to repair.

Many readers, caught up in the same predicament, will find this book a sympathetic guide as they come to the same realisation as Duggan that “We must accept ourselves just as we are, if the Holy Spirit is to change us for the better.” Instead of expecting her children to be “patient, kind and loving”, Duggan comes to see that she has to try to model these virtues, “even when [they] can’t or won’t return the gesture.”

To those parents who lament that their children have stopped practising the Faith they so carefully raised them in during childhood, Duggan comments wisely, “We aren’t responsible for whether our children become Catholics.” She concludes, “What my kids really need is a sane, attentive, fully present mom; a peaceful home; and parents who love each other.”

She advocates the frequent practice of Confession which she discovered “has supplied me with the gifts a parenting book, parenting practice, advice and counselling hasn’t.” In other words, raising children is a supernatural activity, not merely a natural one, and we need all the supernatural grace we can get, both to remind us that our goal for our loved ones is heaven and to counteract the endless number of magazine gurus offering their slick solutions.