Ask the ExpertFeelings

Psychotherapy: A Prescription for the Good-Enough Mother

by Malina Spirito psyD

I’m sighing and shaking my head more than a little as I write this–laughing at the irony of this blog post. I’m supposed to be writing about therapy for maternal mental health–therapy for wellness and enhancing our sense of being “good enough.” The crazy thing is that I’ve put off writing for days (really it’s been weeks, maybe even months) due to that nagging voice in my head that keeps saying, “Will the words come out okay? Will I make the point I’m striving for… What is the point anyway? Maybe if I wait a little while, something really profound will just come to me…”

When I finally acknowledged that I had completely and totally succumbed to full-blown procrastination, I stopped and listened to the things I was saying to myself about this blog. It was only when I took that moment to stop and listen to what I was saying to myself that I realized I was struggling with the very same obstacle I aim to support mothers in rising above every day: the fear of not being good enough–the internalized pressure (or, perhaps, hell-bent, irrational desire) to be perfect. The fear of not being as good as I perceive those around me to be. The fear of not measuring up to the insanely high standards I believe everyone else has set for me. And, finally, the realization that I am the one setting those standards; no one else is really that worried about whether or not I write something profound. Frankly, if anyone else is thinking about this at all, they are probably just hoping I get it done.

So here I am, desperately trying to conjure up the messages that are always so much easier to genuinely believe when I’m doling them out to my therapy clients, trying to remind myself that this post does not need to be earth-shattering or Pulitzer Prize winning. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be perfectly adequate. It just needs to be good enough.

I find myself using the phrase “good enough” an awful lot in my work .The concept of being “good enough,” or as a colleague of mine recently put it, “Damn adequate!” is a core underlying thread that runs throughout the work I do as a psychologist. I work with the perinatal population–women who are trying to conceive, women who are pregnant, and women who have recently delivered. Some of the women I see are coping with postpartum depression. Some are experiencing other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, like postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some are battling to continue coping with severe and persistent mental illness, such as Bipolar Disorder. Others are processing traumatic birth experiences or past traumas triggered by the transition of pregnancy or delivery. Some are grieving incredibly painful losses. These women have varied backgrounds and experiences. They may have explicitly stated challenges or goals that separate them. But they are unified in a sense of feeling disappointed and unsatisfied with themselves. They feel inadequate; they believe they are not enough.

Mothers often have an incredibly tough time imagining the notion of “good enough,” as they frequently chase the delusional image of perfection, and all too often feel like they are never enough. As a therapist, I strive to help these mothers come to terms with the reality that their children don’t need perfect mothers; they need reasonably adequate mothers who are willing to admit to, learn from, and then rise above mistakes and past challenges.

Psychotherapy for each of these women is about getting the chance to share her story–to put words to the varied and complex emotions and images she has been carrying around in her mind, all the while wondering what is wrong with her. I strive to help each of these mothers understand and see and believe that she has a story, and her story is about what has happened to her and what she is doing with that experience–not what is wrong with her or why she isn’t enough. Therapy is about helping this mom to better understand what she is thinking, feeling, and doing. It is about helping her to figure out what to do with all that has happened so that she can bring herself to a place of feeling secure in her own unique form of adequacy.

Sometimes, that security comes from finally putting words to experiences that had previously been told and experienced solely through painful emotions and images. Other times, the security comes from concretely working through challenges and practicing techniques to help strengthen our capacity for responding to stress. Occasionally, the process will involve some much needed tough love. Quite often, the security and that sense of personal adequacy is attained by moving away from the myth of balance that so many–too many–mothers are constantly chasing, and instead embracing the notion of finding peace in the unbalanced ways of parenting and living.

In my personal life, I am frequently struck by the myriad rationalizations mothers will offer for not considering psychotherapy for herself: I don’t have the time. It’s too expensive. It’s too self-indulgent. Therapy is only for people with real problems. I wouldn’t know what to talk about when I got there. Therapy is for crazy people. I’m too crazy for therapy. The list is endless. The list is also meaningless. These rationalizations are made by the woman who is focused on doing things right or doing things perfectly. Therapy is not about being perfect or doing things just right. It is about self-care. Therapy is about taking time to explore what is going on in a woman’s life and finding ways to make sense of it.

I cannot promise that therapy will make a mother feel like she has more balance in her life (I’m still chasing that dream myself) or that therapy will solve all her problems–it definitely won’t.  I definitely cannot promise that therapy will always be easy or feel like a trip to the spa–sometimes therapy is really hard work! But I can promise that there is never anything wrong with a woman taking time to try to explore the issues or challenges that are getting in the way of her feeling that she is good enough.

Join us for the Climb Out of the Darkness walk for Postpartum Depression!


About the Author:

Dr. Malina Spirito is a Delaware-licensed psychologist and a mama. For the past two years, she has had the privilege of working at Christiana Care Health System’s Center for Women’s Emotional Wellness (CWEW). She provides consultation, assessment, and individual and group psychotherapy to pregnant and postpartum women. She also devotes a portion of her work to women coping with perinatal loss and grief. In her role as a psychologist, she strives to bring a combination of research-based intervention along with compassion, hope, and humor into the therapy room.  While it is never easy to see a woman struggling, especially around issues of pregnancy or motherhood, it is incredibly satisfying and uplifting to witness women as they work through the challenges of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues to be able to embrace this chapter of the journey.

Prior to her work at CWEW, she served as the Clinical Director of Supporting Kidds, a bereavement agency for children and families. She has extensive training in the areas of trauma, loss, and grief, in addition to training and certification in the treatment of perintal mood and anxiety disorders. In addition to her doctorate in clinical psychology, she also has a Masters Degree in human sexuality, which helps inform her work as she supports women in embracing the identity and role changes that accompany the transition to parenthood.

Malina writes, “I can honestly say that I love my job and I consider it a privilege to work with this incredible population of women. I’m incredibly excited to be a part of the planning team for Delaware’s Climb Out of the Darkness Event and to collaborate with so many women from different backgrounds and professions who are all working to improve the state of maternal mental health in Delaware!”