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House Cleaning, Part 2: Good Enough

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

The good fairy at my cradle gave me a couple of gifts for which I’m grateful. But the bad fairy did me a terrible turn: she instilled in me the conviction that whatever skill I tried to develop, especially the domestic arts, the result was never quite good enough.
Apparently, I am not alone. If the messages from readers of my post about house cleaning are any indication, swarms of bad fairies hover above the cradles of baby girls, and a few baby boys, raining domestic performance anxieties on their innocent heads.
Fortunately, one of you reminded me of the brilliant concept of “good enough.” The term originated with Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist who worried about parents (mostly mothers) tormented by the anxiety that they were falling short of the parenting ideal. Children, Winnicott reminded them, did not evolve to require perfect parents. What they need in order to thrive is mostly reasonable, well-intentioned, usually kind, generally stable, “good enough” mothers and fathers. What they don’t need is parents driven to neurosis by the compulsion to be perfect.
In light of Winnicott, Saint Benedict’s instruction to treat all utensils as if they were the vessels of the altar can seem neurosis-provoking. I may be able to wipe one glass as if it were a consecrated chalice, but a whole sinkful of dishes? Also in light of Winnicott, my compulsion to dust every single book and the shelf behind it was in fact counterproductive, since it led not to my having feelings of reverence towards those yellowing tomes, but to my wanting to throw them into the flames.
If you’re like me, the problem with never thinking that what you do is good enough is that, aside from making you crazy, it paralyzes you. Weary of aiming for, but never achieving, Martha Stewart-levels of domesticity, you may give up cleaning altogether and live in squalor.
The danger is especially critical for those of us who regularly take off our clothes in public—by which I mean paint, write, dance, play the tuba, or engage in any of those vulnerable-making practices known as THE ARTS. The road to the unwritten novel, the unpainted canvas, and the undanced dance is paved with visions of perfection. On the other hand, the road to any accomplishment is paved with that hard to achieve combination of humility and self acceptance that allows the artist, the would-be domestic goddess, and the parent to get something done.
As with everything else, it’s a matter of balance (and alas, balance is so not my style). “Good enough” doesn’t mean perfect, but it doesn’t mean sloppy, either. To me it means “good enough for me,” for who I am, for the moderate gifts that the good fairy bestowed on me at birth. And, as I oscillate on that endless tightrope between perfection and slovenliness, “good enough” also means forgiving myself when I occasionally (frequently) fall off.

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