February 23, 2020

When Is a Mother Good Enough

““We’re going to the beach!” Ridley yelled out when she saw me. Thin and jittery, she approached, then retreated, then approached again, meeting my eyes. She was yards away from her mother, who stood constrained with a fierce smile carved into a flat face. This mother had been clean for six months and wanted her daughter back. Standing next to Ridley was their DCF social worker, who seemed to approve of this plan.

A walk to a beach for an observation visit isn’t too unusual. Outings give me a chance to evaluate a mother’s ability to plan ahead. And planning ahead is one of those things mothers are supposed to do. Before visits, the mothers’ social workers advise them to be sure to provide food and other necessities their child might need during visit time. I can then evaluate how well this coaching has worked. Does a mother remember the diapers and wipes for an infant? For a toddler, a bottle and a hat to shield his lovely tender head from the sun? For an older child, water, snacks, and a few toys? No mother remembers everything, but given the importance of the visit, the performance of being a competent mother who remembers everything is what’s required.

When I require mothers to have one of their visits at my office, for a second observation, after having observed them at their usual place, they typically arrive with big backpacks and floppy, overflowing shopping bags. Children who are used to the visit routine hug their mothers quickly and then dive into the bags as if it were Christmas morning. Will there be a present or a favorite snack? I have seen a child collapse on my office floor in disappointment when a snack she had asked for wasn’t there. I recall another child obsessing for the entire visit about the promised snack that did not arrive.”

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