In Search of the "Good Enough" Mother

How to honor the complexity of motherhood

Posted May 09, 2012

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!

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?

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.

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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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.