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When It Comes to Mothering, What Is Good Enough?

A Q&A with Sharon Lamb

Sharon Lamb

A mother’s parenting is always under scrutiny. This is especially true in high-stakes cases concerning the termination of parental rights. Psychologist and expert witness Dr. Sharon Lamb evaluates mothers struggling with mental illness and poverty in these cases and in the conclusions of her forensic evaluations must ask: Do they understand their children’s needs? Have they turned their lives around under child welfare’s watchful eye? Are they good enough? There are never easy answers. Lamb turns the last question on herself when her son’s struggle with opioid addiction comes to light and she starts to doubt her right to make judgments about other mothers. She reflects on these points in her latest book The Not Good Enough Mother. In this Q&A, she tells us about the inspiration for the book, how she got started as an expert witness, what she’s learned about addiction, and more.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: I don’t know whether it was inspiration or necessity. I wrote this book because I had to. When I would come home from a parent interview or an observation during a visit with a mother who maybe could lose her child, I had to get my thoughts down on paper. And I couldn’t write up my report in that dry, impersonal, professional style. I needed to express the enormity of what I was witness to that day. Then, when my own parenting came into question, via my son’s addiction, I started to compare myself to the mothers I saw. Was I good enough? What is good enough? Writing helps me to structure wildly incompatible thoughts and feelings. It was a kind of therapy.

Q: How did you get started evaluating the fitness of parents whose children had been removed from their custody?

A: I began being called as an expert witness in the early nineties because of some research I was doing on sexual abuse. When I moved to Vermont, lawyers began to seek me out to perform what they called “attachment” evaluations, to assess the amount of attachment a child still had to a birth mother (or father) after being in the foster care system for many years. At that time, parents’ attorneys were arguing that because of attachment, a child would be harmed if freed for adoption. I was seeing children in therapy and knew the field of developmental psychology from my graduate work with Jerome Kagan, one of the early critics of attachment theory, and from teaching Human Development. I knew I would be able to use what was good and solid about attachment research and assessment and throw out the rest. I’d also had some significant assessment training. And finally, as a feminist, I am wary of all the mother-blaming that goes on and am able to have empathy for the plight of mothers dealing with trauma and poverty.

Q: And were you successful?

A: Although there are tens of thousands of psychology articles on attachment theory and research, I think attachment between a mother and child is very hard to measure, but I think I am open-minded, knowledgeable, and curious, and that helps. The chapters in the book about assessment show how suspicious I am about traditional methods. Regarding mother-blaming? God, I try, but as the book shows, my self-blame and underlying beliefs that I should have been better than “good enough” are something I need to always keep an eye on.

Q: Do you think you are ever biased in your approach?

A: I don’t. Not really. We all have hidden biases, I guess, but I’m beholden to ethical guidelines of my profession that state that no matter who hires me for an evaluation, I need to be true to what I’m observing and assessing. I write about how I have to watch myself around the charming fathers, who look good in comparison to the bedraggled and often traumatized mothers. And I do have a belief, though I wouldn’t call this a bias, that older children who are separated from their parents would do well to continue to have some contact with them if they are being raised by someone else.

Q: Your book follows the form of a braided memoir. Can you explain a bit what that means?

A: The core of the book is the individual chapters that describe a mother, sometimes a father, sometimes a child, at some part of the evaluation process. I might describe what I was seeing in an interview or at an observation I was doing at a supervised visit. Then “braided” throughout is the discovery of my son’s addiction and how that unfolded—first, my blindness to it, then my frantic search for the right treatment navigating the “big business” of addictions treatment, then the experience of attending one of these “family weekends” at a rehab, and coming to understand the biology of addiction and relapse. But there’s another plait in this braid and that’s a description of Vermont, its rural poverty, and my own class consciousness having grown up in a poorer family with uneducated parents. I try to take readers down the long empty Vermont roads that I drive down to do home visits, inside trailer parks, small homes, abandoned homes, and reflect on my prejudices borne of my own strivings to overcome my beginnings.

Q: Evaluating other mothers, do you evaluate your own?

A: Attachment is a theme in the book, and I do, in the end, have to look at my own attachment to my own mother. There are no big revelations, but an authentic self-inquiry throughout, grounded, unfortunately, in the burden of motherguilt that most mothers carry.

Q: What did you learn about addiction and how did that change you?

A: I finished this book a couple of years ago, writing most of it in 2016. We now know how addiction has ravaged many states and over time, I learned more about how drugs became an answer to underlying mental health issues like anxiety, attachment issues, and trauma. But I think the most important thing I learned was that relapse is part of the process of recovery. People relapse an average of seven to nine times, and this is the norm. The longer the time between relapses and the shorter the relapse, the better. Cravings, as I understand them, are so much more powerful than we think, and our blaming individuals for lack of willpower is damaging and a way to let the state and insurance companies off the hook for treatment.

Q: Are there any stories in the book that are particularly important to you?

A: I like the story I tell of the observation I did in a church basement of a child I call Mirabel visiting her mother. This story shows the ambivalence in a child who both loves her mother and who is angry at her, who is happy in her current foster home, and wants to be kept safe but who also wants to run away with her mother and hide. I also like my description of Family Weekend at a Texas rehab because I got to throw in some Texan witticisms I heard there, and to use a bit of humor about this dark subject.

Q: Is there a message you’d like readers to take from the book?

A: Oh, I think there are many messages, but I like best the takeaway message about “othermothers.” “Othermothers” is a phrase coined by Patricia Hill Collins to discuss the legacy of how Black motherhood involved the support of and reliance on other mothers. When children have multiple supportive adults who truly care about them, and are concerned about their welfare, they are better off. And if mothers mothered within a network of supportive others, if their responsibility could be shared, not only with fathers but with a variety of other adults, mothers would be relieved of the enormous individualized and unrealistic burden society places on them.


About Sharon Lamb 

Sharon Lamb, EdD, PhD, ABPP, is a professor of counseling psychology at UMass Boston. An experienced clinician, she sees children, adolescents, and adults at her therapy office in Shelburne, Vermont. She’s the author, editor, and coauthor of many books and articles about children, women, and trauma. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @drsharonlamb.