A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

In Search of the "Good Enough" Mother

How to honor the complexity of motherhood

It’s that time of year again. With Mother’s Day right around the corner, it’s time for us to go off to the Hallmark store and pick out a card for the mother or mothers in our lives. Most of us dread it. We know how hard it is to find the “just right” card that really expresses what’s on our minds. Frankly, we may not even want to express what’s on our minds. Relationships between mothers and their children are very complicated. And most Mother’s Day cards just don’t get it.

You know what I mean. Mother’s Day cards tend to be way too idealistic. Most of them go on and on in a sappy way, expressing how mother is so wonderful, supportive, kind, beautiful, generous, and wise. The sentiments are so over-the-top that they might as well include adjectives like saintly, perfect, and divine!

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And we all know that no mother can live up to that kind of hype.

Yes, mother is the first person every baby girl or boy falls in love with. As psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, mother is felt to be the source of all beauty and goodness, the wellspring of life itself. She is the center of the baby’s universe—the baby’s first love, first savior, first provider, first hero, first comforter. We like to believe that it is a mutual love affair, that mother adores the baby in the same way that the baby adores her. It seems to me that the typical Mother’s Day greeting card is really describing a baby’s fantasy of his mother.

But what shall we do with reality? What shall we do with our actual mothers and our relationships with them?

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott had a lot to say about real-life mothers. As a pediatrician at the Paddington Green Hospital in London—and then later as a child psychoanalyst and consultant—Winnicott interacted with literally thousands of mothers and their babies. Through these experiences, he came to believe that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. For me, that phrase says it all.

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.

What I like about Winnicott’s picture of the good enough mother is that she is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication yet she is also prone to resentment. Winnicott even dares to say that the good enough mother loves her child but also has room to hate him. She is not boundless.  She is real.

Real mothers are the best kind of mothers (and the only kind!). It takes an imperfect mother to raise a child well. You see, children need to learn about life through real experiences. They need to learn to deal with disappointments and frustrations. They need to overcome their greed and their wish to be the center of the universe. They need to learn to respect the needs and limitations of other people, including their mothers. And they need to learn to do things for themselves. 

If you have had a good enough mother, you are most fortunate. If you are a good enough mother, you are to be celebrated. If you have a painful, troubled relationship with your mother—or with being a mother—you are among friends who understand. Motherhood is a most wonderful and dreadful thing. It is a mixed bag, a wild ride, a great adventure. Rather than idealizing motherhood, we do well to honor the complexity, find reasons to be grateful, forgive the failures, and use the disappointments to grow ourselves.

Wouldn’t it be great to find the Mother’s Day card that says, “Mom, thanks for being good enough. Really.”

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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