Books

The Story Behind the Book

Professor and clinician Sharon Lamb explores how mothers mother

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

“I was really trying to write something different,” said Sharon Lamb.

A professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Lamb is also a clinician and serves as an expert witness, assessing mothers at risk of losing their parental rights. While her previous books have all been scholarly tomes, in “The Not Good Enough Mother,” Lamb braids together tales of mothers and children she’s observed, along with the deeply personal story of struggling with her own son’s opiate addiction. 

Delving into such intimate territory was daunting. “I wrote this by telling myself, ‘I'm writing this, but I don't have to decide whether I'm publishing this,’ ” Lamb said. She read chapters to family members, checking in. Despite everything her academic and clinical experience taught her about the role of individual temperament and the influence of peer relationships, as a mother she couldn’t escape “the tremendous guilt” she felt. 

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In evaluating mothers, trying to judge whether or not their children would be better off raised by other people, Lamb has to assess the empathy they exhibit. She doesn’t turn off her own. “I am just filled with such emotion and concern and mixed feelings after meeting with a mother, or watching a child and a mother in an observation,” she said. 

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So what is a “good enough” mother, and what makes some fall short?

As Lamb writes, the phrase comes from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who studied the relationship between mother and child. A good enough mother is empathic; she can understand and attend to a child’s emotional needs, validate them, and see them as individuals. “Does every mother have to be a psychologist?” Lamb asked. “No, but every mother or parent does have to try to figure out what’s going on with their child on the inside, because that’s who they are.” 

Sharon Lamb will read at 7 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Belmont Books.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.