In psychology, what does the term "good-enough mother" refer to?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Donald Winnicot was an English psychoanalyst and pediatrician who did many things in his life; however, one of the most significant was his work with children. He did most of his life's work with children's hospitals as well as children who were evacuated during and After World War II. His lifetime of work includes books on children, on mothers, on parenting, and other related topics.

He was a staunch proponent of children having the opportunity to play. By this he did not just mean time to play with toys but time to imagine and create and dream. A normal, healthy child would naturally do these things when given the chance, his research documented, and he believed that all children are capable of rediscovering this sense of play even if they had been denied this opportunity during the first few years of their lives. 

Connected to the idea of play was his belief in a "transitional object," something that is both real and which can also stimulate the imagination. For example, a teddy bear is both real (tangible, able to be touched) and can be used in imaginative play. Blankets and other objects often suit this need, as well.

An area of pediatrics which Winnicot studied extensively was the relationship between mothers and their children. One of the common theories about mothers was that that they are the first people that all children fall in love with, and this idealized love can become a problem because it tends to be more like a fantasy (unreal) relationship rather than an actual relationship. Children expect their mothers to be perfect and are inevitably going to be disappointed when they prove themselves to be human (which simply means they are flawed, like we all are). 

Willicot wrote about something called the "good enough mother," referring to the mothers who do their best to provide a loving, nurturing environment and growing-up experience for their children.

Winnicott’s good enough mother is sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She pays attention to her baby. She provides a holding environment. She offers both physical and emotional care. She provides security. When she fails, she tries again. She weathers painful feelings. She makes sacrifices. Winnicott’s good enough mother is not so much a goddess; she is a gardener. She tends her baby with love, patience, effort, and care.

Of course this concept of motherhood releases mothers from the guilt of not being perfect--something that was an impossibility from the beginning, of course. In fact, Winnicot allows for the fact that sometimes a mother may even experience negative emotions, such as hate and distrust, toward her children without feeling excessive or debilitating guilt. 

What is most important is that each mother does the best she can to meet her children's emotional and physical needs; after that, she can release any guilt for not having been perfect. While there are of course women who do not provide this kind of nurturing environment and therefore do not fall into this category of mothers, most mothers are, in fact, "good enough mothers."

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