The term “good enough mother” appears frequently in the media these past few weeks. A new book entitled Good Enough is the New Perfect by B.B. Gillespie and H.S. Temple (Harlequin Press, 2011) offers a new way of looking at work/life issues and of finding success and happiness in modern motherhood.
I thought it might be interesting to explore the origin of the term “good enough mother,” given its centrality in the lexicon of child psychology.
The term “good enough mother” was coined by D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971), a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst whose work with psychologically disturbed children and their mothers helped him develop his widely influential theories about how a healthy mother-child relationship works.
Winnicott spoke of the “good enough” mother who adapts to her baby, and in so doing – gives it a sense of control and comfort. “The good-enough mother,” wrote Winnicott in 1953, “starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.” It is the mother’s responsiveness to her baby’s cries for food or comfort that allows the baby to know he exists, to believe he is in control; he believes in his early months that his mother is, in fact, merely an extension of himself.
Gradually, as the mother begins to present objects to the baby and the baby interacts with these objects, he comes to understand that they have an existence outside of himself – that there is in the universe such a thing as “me” and “not me” (objective reality).
In time, the mother begins to move away from her state of total and constant preoccupation with and instantaneous gratification of the baby. She begins to offer small doses of “optimal frustration” to her child, just enough to create a proper environment for the child to learn and build his character (“I will come bring you the cookie shortly, sweetie, as soon as I finish my phone conversation”).
The “good enough” mother is gentle with this transition, to ensure that the child does not become overwhelmed or feel abandoned. Security blankets (often referred to as blankies or lovies) allow the child to alleviate his anxiety and find his emotional balance, as he moves from his state of “complete control of the universe” into the real world. He can then experiment with being in a world that contains other people who will not necessarily meet his needs, yet still maintain a sense of security and of being “held.”
Two-year-olds shouting “Mommy, you are BAD,” are projecting their fears and frustration onto the mother; by reacting calmly and with equanimity to these protestations the mother helps her child reintegrate his feelings back into himself. (Come to think of it, teens resort to similar behavior, and probably for similar reasons!)
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of Winnicott’s “good enough” parenting.