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What Is a "Good Enough Mother"?

Good mothering involves more than devotion.

The phrase "the good enough mother" was coined by the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott in his famous book Playing and Reality.

In discussing the mother (or other caretaker's) adaptation to the needs of the baby, Winnicott thought that the "good enough mother" starts out with an almost complete adaptation to her baby's needs. She is entirely devoted to the baby and quickly sees to his every need. She sacrifices her own sleep and her own needs to fulfill the needs of her infant.

As time goes by, however, the mother allows the infant to experience small amounts of frustration. She is empathetic and caring but does not immediately rush to the baby's every cry. Of course, at first the time-limit to this frustration must be very short. She may allow the baby to cry for a few minutes before her nighttime feeding, but only for a few minutes. She is not "perfect" but she is "good enough" in that the child only feels a slight amount of frustration.

From Illusion to Reality

The fascinating thing about Winnicott's notion of the good enough mother is that he connects the mothering process to the child's cognitive development and the development of a healthy concept of external reality. At first, the baby experiences the mother as part of himself. The baby is in love with his mother and experiences her not as a separate person, but as a part of himself. As time goes by, the moments apart from the mother's total emphatic attuning to her baby's needs spark the beginnings of the baby's mental activity and sense of an external world.

If the mother's complete adaptation to the baby's need goes on too long, and does not decrease naturally, the baby's growing sense of a real external world apart from himself is interrupted. He lingers in the magical world of illusion and hallucination. That is, he believes that simply having a need will lead to its immediate fulfillment. This, says Winnicott, is an illusion although a necessary illusion.

Although Winnicott insists that if the baby does not feel small amounts of frustration, he will not form a concept of external reality, he emphasizes that the earlier phase of mothering is equally essential for the baby's healthy development. The ability to have an illusion is a necessary prerequisite to developing a sense of reality:

"At the start, [the mother's] adaptation needs to be almost exact, and unless this is so it is not possible for the infant to begin to develop a capacity to experience a relationship to external reality, or even to form a conception of external reality."

A Balancing Act

So being a "good enough mother" is fairly complex. It involves a balancing act between two equally important processes for a child's healthy cognitive development and even his future happiness: 1) At first, the mother or caretaker must devotedly attend to the infant's every need; 2) The mother must gradually allow the baby to experience a need apart from its immediate fulfillment--although naturally this time period must be very short at first and increase with time.

In sum, with good enough mothering, a child has the ability to live in two worlds: the world of illusion, fantasy, and magic, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a world that does not always conform to his wishes.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

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