D. W. Winnicott coined the term “good enough mother” in 1953. The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst suggested that mothers need not be concerned with perfection, but rather with being good enough. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to explore a bit about what that means.
While it stung a bit when I first heard it, my eldest child sometimes says: You’re not the best mom, there is no best mom, but you are a good mom and I am glad you’re mine.
Of course, a part of me really wanted to hear him say that I was “the best.” After all, I put so much energy into parenting. Perhaps, I wanted a bit of recognition. Another part of me knew that it wasn’t his role to meet that need. I also admired both his logic and the fact that he didn’t feel the need to take care of me emotionally by expressing himself in a way that was anything but true to his thinking and feeling.
Throughout the last 16 years, and especially the recent teen ones, he has invited me to more fully embrace what it means to be “good enough.” This has been hard considering my perfectionist tendencies, nurtured well in my own childhood by a cultural and parental focus on doing over being as well as rating/judging. Recently, I described my spiritual work as “letting go of the always-nagging feeling that I ought to be doing something else or making something better.” And instead to truly embrace and enjoy my downtime and the moments I choose not to do anything at all.
Nearly 70 years ago, Winnicott wrote (1953): “a mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
This observation has since been validated by science. We now know that children who do not get good enough care, during the vital early months and years especially, go on to suffer psychological and physical consequences. While the consequences of not getting enough are dire, there are no comparative benefits for receiving more than enough. In fact, for a parent to assume that more is better, and strive to be the “best” (which does not exist), may cause more harm than good.
One of the detrimental benefits of perfection-achieving parenting is that children may be sheltered from frustrations. Yet, frustration is central to development. Another risk of perfection-achieving parenting is that parents may evaluate their own performance on their children’s happiness. Or, children may perceive that their parents’ happiness is dependent on how well the child performs. In both of these scenarios, children may learn to disguise their feelings or neglect them in order to please their parents. A child may learn to cover other “negative” emotions with happiness, or they may cut themselves off to their own emotional experience in order to comply and/or do more and do it better.
Yet, what children are really needing is for parents to be available for authentic connection and attunement to their experiences. Especially their negative ones.
One of the scientific measurements of good enough comes from what we know of attuned communication. Attuned communication occurs when we accurately sense another person’s internal state and communicate it to them both nonverbally (more important) and verbally. Attuned communication is essential to forming secure attachments. Thirty percent relational attunement is enough. In fact, the process of recognizing misattunement and repairing it is also central to the process of building a trusting relationship. We need both attunement and misattunement.
Hidden within our missed opportunities for accurate perception of children’s internal states is another key to the process of relationship building. Without opportunities to know that we are not perceived and then find our way toward feeling perceived, we miss out on key, fundamental experiences that build the foundation of empathetic resonance, relational trust, etc.
Tronick (2017) wrote, in an article that the benefits of reparation are:
The infant learns which communicative and coping strategies are effective in producing reparation and when to use them. Reparatory experience leads to the elaboration of communicative and coping skills, and the development of an understanding of culturated interactive rules and conventions. Reparations are associated with positive affect and with the experiential accumulation of successful reparations and the attendant trans- formation of negative affect into positive affect: the infant establishes a positive affective core. This internal positive affective core is a resource that allows the infant to come to new situations feeling positive about him or herself and the unknown situation. The infant also learns that he or she has control over social interactions. Specifically, the infant develops a representation of himself or herself as effective, of his or her interactions as positive and reparable, and of the caregiver as reliable and trust- worthy. These representations are crucial for the development of a sense of self which has coherence, continuity, and agency and for the development of stable and secure relationships. P. 565
I’m learning to embrace my good-enough mothering. Part of this process includes my embracing of myself as having worth and value no matter what I do, not just in parenting but in life. As I go through my own day, I am modeling for my children how to value themselves. No matter how much I demonstrate my valuing of them, they will internalize my valuing of myself (how I related to myself) as they work out their own I-Self relationship. In life, sometimes I excel. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I achieve. Sometimes I miss deadlines. Sometimes I am emotionally regulated and sometimes I am not. Oh well. No matter what, I have worth and value as a human being. Ultimately, that is what I want them to learn.
For similar reasons, I highly value family play therapy. I enjoy working with parents because like me they have their own Child ego-state inside. Sometimes, one of the best things I can do for child clients is to help their parents rework relationships with their own Child ego-state. Then, once the parents respond with love and understanding to themselves, they can more readily connect with love and understanding to their children.
Browning (1997), wrote that the very best caregiver training may “involve facilitating self-knowledge, self-empathy, healing, and self-transformation for the caregivers themselves.” (p. 96)
Again, I believe my spiritual work—to heal what I perceive to be a culturally driven soul wound that links the worth and value of my spiritual being with what and how well I do—is to continue to release even the ghosts of this nagging feeling that there is something I ought to be doing or improving upon when in reality, it can wait. In fact, it often doesn’t need to be done at all.
I owe a lot of my freely delighting in moments of being and presence to a regular yoga practice. By showing up regularly and focusing on the moment, my breath, and my body’s full experience, I’ve come to know more of the spiritual truth of my worth and value.
My invitation, in light of Mother’s Day, and any day for any caregiver, is for caregivers to take Browning’s words to heart. To truly examine the gift of tending to our own healing and transformation. And to truly accept our good-enough-ness … and that of others.
Browning, R. (1997). The Primal Wound. The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth, 89.
Tronick, E. (2017). The caregiver–infant dyad as a buffer or transducer of resource enhancing or depleting factors that shape psychobiological development. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38(4), 561-572.
Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97