I’ll be honest, as I walk through my house dutifully closing the windows and locking the doors before bed, my mind often wanders to how I failed as a mother that day. Harsh, I know, but true. I think about how, during the short amount of time I had with my daughter between the end of the school/work day and bedtime, I had been preoccupied with thoughts of a challenging patient from earlier in the day or was otherwise so depleted that I could not muster the energy to really listen when she shared the details of her day. Then, of course, there are the other, more tangible times when I’ve failed to remember to pack a school snack or library book.
Each night, while I resolve to do better the next day, I am simultaneously comforted by Dr. Donald Woods Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough” parent. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychanalyst, introduced the idea of the “good-enough mother” in 1953.
What Is Good-Enough Mothering?
During the newborn phase, a mother figure avails to meet a baby’s needs as immediately as possible and the infant perceives the two of them as a unified being. Though this phase is necessary to develop an infant’s sense of safety and trust, a parent is not able to sustain constant availability. And so comes good-enough mothering.
The process of good-enough mothering involves a gradual back and forth between a baby and his mother figure. According to her baby’s growing ability tolerate frustration, a mother gradually lessens her adaptation to his needs, which has the full-circle effect of frustrating him. Why is this a good thing? At the beginning, a parent’s almost exact fulfillment of an infant’s needs resembles the work of magic; it’s as if he only has to wish for a need to be met and poof! —full tummy and a clean diaper. Given the opportunity to experience small amounts of frustration, a baby begins to understand that his mother, in her imperfection, is REAL and separate from him. With this, he begins to grasp the idea of the real world that exists outside of himself.
The Benefits of Good-Enough Mothering
- I’m getting better at it, but when my daughter was younger, I forgot to pack a school snack or two. As a result, she was tasked with approaching the teacher to request one from the school stash. This marked the beginning of building assertiveness skills and learning how to advocate for herself.
- In my family, I am not one to cater meals to each person’s liking—you get what you get. Shocker, I know, but sometimes my daughter is less than thrilled with what is served. But when she decides to eat her less-than-favorite meal, it develops flexibility. And if she’s served food she doesn’t love at a friend’s house, I hope she’ll exercise flexibility and try to enjoy it.
- My daughter has been asking to get her ears pierced for months. It’s on my mile-long to-do list, but I can’t seem to find the time for it. I’ve validated her disappointment and assured her I will take her in the near future. And, she has been learning that she will be okay even though she is disappointed, building her resilience.
- Whether related to distracting thoughts, fatigue, or any number of things, I admit it is sometimes difficult for me to be fully present for my daughter. When this is the case, I explain myself (i.e., that it is not her fault, I am tired from work, and I will be ready to talk after I rest for a moment). In doing so, she begins to learn to take another person’s perspective and to develop the capacity for compassion. Also, though steeped in the ego centrism inherent to childhood, it is helpful for kids to have the opportunity to realize that they are not, in actuality, the center of the universe.
- In reality, I cannot always drop what I am doing to play. When this happens, I explain to my daughter that I would love to play, let her know when I’ll be available, and validate her frustration. By not immediately meeting her wishes, I provide an opportunity for her to develop frustration tolerance and emotion regulation skills.
- Occasionally I have to respond to work messages while home with my daughter, leaving her to entertain herself. This often results in her feeling “bored”. But allowing her to experience boredom stokes her creativity and provides her with the opportunity to explore her likes and dislikes, promoting the development of her independence.
What Good-Enough Parenting is NOT
I’d like to emphasize that, during the newborn phase, it’s important and necessary to meet a baby’s needs completely. Doing so builds the sense of trust in people and the environment necessary for favorable development. Without this trust, a baby will not be able to manage the frustration that goes along with good-enough parenting, further slowing his development. In addition, abuse and neglect do NOT, in any way, reflect the concept of good-enough parenting. Using physical discipline, regularly failing to meet a child’s emotional or physical needs, or not actively and connectedly participating in a child’s life can be psychologically damaging.
A Good-Enough Mother Is a Good Mother
Some of you may think I’m rationalizing my shortcomings, and you may not be wrong. But I am of the opinion that imperfect mothering is good mothering. If we “fail” our kids in small and tolerable ways, they learn how to manage the challenges and frustrations that inevitably arise while living in an imperfect world.
And do I dare go even further and apply the concept of “good-enough” to other aspects of my life? My house is nowhere near clean, but I suppose it’s clean enough and, though far from perfect, I’m content to abandon writing this post in exchange for spending time with my daughter. Fellow moms, our imperfection is a gift that provides space for growth and for real life to happen. And it’s exactly what our kids need for their healthy emotional development.
Winnicott, DW. Playing and Reality. London and New York, Tavistock Publications, Ltd. 1971.