“The Good Enough”, anti-racist parent

Recently, I went to hear journalist and Black Lives Matter activist, Shaun King, speak to students, faculty and community members at Agnes Scott College, a women’s college here in Atlanta. While his talk spanned many topics, it was his response to a student’s question that resonated with me most. The student asked for advice on ways she could participate in the fight for racial justice while being a student and having family responsibilities; she expressed reservations around how much time she had to make a real impact. King reassured her rather than admonish her for being limited. He said each individual can only do the best he or she can given their current life circumstances and resources. Not everyone can sleep on the courthouse steps in protest; not everyone can donate money to the cause; most people cannot make the pursuit of racial justice their full-time job. That said, King suggested to focus on what you can contribute and start from there.

While these comments are not necessarily revolutionary, Shaun King’s message to do the best I can with what I have and where I am in my life felt like a gift. I often feel guilty that I’m not doing more when it comes to anti-racist work, but King reminded me that the efforts I do make have value.

His reassurances made me recall one of my favorite counseling theories in graduate school, the “good enough mother,” by Donald Winnicott. This article explains the theory well, but in essence, Winnicott believed pursuing perfection in parenting is futile. In fact, not satisfying a child’s needs or wants 100% of the time builds resilience and grit, characteristics that are important to long-term well-being.

Being a “good enough” parent is not the same as being mediocre, or putting in the bare minimum. It is not saying, “meh, that was good enough.” As the above author notes, being a “good enough” parent means that “if we are good enough…then we mostly get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.” And that’s okay. Better than okay, because in the moments we get it wrong our children learn and we learn as parents.

Applying the “good enough mother” theory to anti-racist work feels relevant on a variety of levels. On a macro-level, as a white person striving for racial justice, I’m not always going to get it right. I’ll make mistakes, continually need to confront my own biases, need reminding to listen more and talk less, perhaps even cause offense. I shouldn’t expect myself to be perfect; in fact, I may learn the most through the stumbles along the way. If I obsess over getting it right every time, am I letting myself be vulnerable? Am I truly allowing the inner, most ugly parts of myself to be aired out and worked on? The answer is no. I don’t want to be the perfect anti-racist, I want to be the “good enough” anti-racist who continues to show up, humble with the knowledge that I’m flawed and have much to learn.

On a personal level, Winnicott’s “good enough mother” theory can be applied as well. Rather than feel guilty about what I can’t do with regards to racial justice work, it better serves me to focus on what I can and will do. Right now, as a stay at home mother to young children, most actions will happen inside the walls of my home. And in the spirit of Donald Winnicott, I challenge myself to define those efforts as “good enough.”

Here are some of the things I’m currently committing to as a “good enough”, anti-racist parent:

Considering myself a “good enough”, anti-racist parent is not to say I don’t need to periodically reflect and question whether my current efforts match my true capacity. I don’t think Shaun King was giving the audience at Agnes Scott a free pass to rest easy on our laurels and believe racial justice will magically be achieved. I don’t think Donald Winnicott’s “good enough mother” theory was created to excuse a parent’s mediocrity. Instead, I believe both men recognized guilt is an emotion that stalls, not inspires.

I’m never going to be a perfect parent, a perfect wife, a perfect daughter, a perfect sister or a perfect friend. I’m certainly never going to be a perfect anti-racist, but I’m okay with being “good enough.”



2 thoughts on ““The Good Enough”, anti-racist parent

  1. Megan says:

    Wow! Shannon, this blew me away! You touched on so many important aspects of parenting and standing up for social justice. Well done, you motivate me to be better!


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