Good Enough Fathers
This Mother’s Day let’s not forget about fathers.
Posted May 04, 2011
The active involvement of fathers in child rearing is not without precedence. In pre-industrial America, fathers were often involved in many aspects of their offspring's lives. These fathers served as pedagogues, benefactors, moral compasses, role models, disciplinarians, and even in some cases caregivers. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example, who not only relished his role as one of this country's founding fathers but also enjoyed the role of patriarch within his own family. Visitors to Jefferson's home at Monticello will find images of Jefferson actively engaging his children and grandchildren in all types of intellectual and personal pursuits. However, you don't have to be Thomas Jefferson to appreciate the importance that fathers play in children's lives.
The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott wrote several books about the influence of parents on child development. He is known for coining the term "good-enough mother," which reflected his belief that mothers play an essential role in helping their children learn how to regulate their emotional lives. The good-enough mother is empathically attuned to her infant's emotional needs. Winnicott's statement, that "there is no such thing as a baby" implied that without a mother, an infant could not exist. He also described the "primary maternal preoccupation," a psycho-physiological preparedness state that enables mothers to identify with their offspring. As the child develops, the good-enough mother gradually withdrawals from her offspring, giving the child space to emerge into an autonomous and self-reliant being.
I've always liked what Winnicott had to say about child rearing. His writing lacks the stilted and often convoluted style characteristic of so many of his psychoanalytic contemporaries. Much of what he wrote about parenting just makes intuitive sense, like the concept of the good enough mother. It is unfortunate Winnicott did not write more about the role fathers play within the family system. I would be curious what Winnicott would have thought had he lived to see the growing involvement of fathers within families. I bet he would have been supportive of such a positive development.
So what does a "good enough father" look like? Well, I think the adage that "it's more about quality than quantity" holds part of the answer. Research strongly suggests it is less about the quantitative number of hours fathers spend with their children than the quality of those interactions (Nord, et. al., 1997). Good enough fathers are ones who are able to balance the economic responsibility of providing for their offspring while remaining actively involved in their emotional development.
The true gift of parenting is not material but time. I agree with contemporary writers (Marks & Palkovitz, 2004), who emphasize the processes by which fathers create, bolster, and sustain the family unit. These fathers are every bit as important as their maternal counterparts. While there are many things for which fathers are ill-equipped (breast feeding immediately comes to mind), there are other roles for which fathers are particularly well-suited. Fathers are well equipped to participate in their children's physical and intellectual development, as well as serve as sources of safety and security for their children. One of the greatest gifts a father can give his child is to model love, respect, and support for his child's mother. While children certainly need their mothers, they also need their fathers; and a father who is willing to love and respect his wife and children is truly a "good enough father."
Marks, L., & Palkovitz, R. (2004). American fatherhood types: The good, the bad, and the uninterested. Fathering, 2 (2),113-129.
Nord, C., Brimhall, D.A., & West, J. (1997). Father's involvement in their children's schools. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.