The Good-Enough Mother: NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

[Written around 2006.]

“The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure…” [D. W. Winnicott, from “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” 1951]

There are few psychology concepts that repulse me more than Winnicott’s ever-popular “good-enough mother.” This concept bothers me so much because it looks so good, sounds so sweet and gentle and humane, and yet is so false – and only rationalizes abuse. Mothers do not have to reject their child to help him break away. On the contrary, children naturally and progressively break away when they get all their needs met, just as the umbilical cord dries up and falls off on its own in the days or weeks after birth. Independence is a consequence of nurturing.

If the goal of life is to become an average, mildly neurotic, mildly addicted, mildly split-off, mildly depressed, basically functional but spiritually lost person who doesn’t self-reflect too much to realize just how troubled and false he is below the surface of his personality, then the concept of the “good-enough mother” is true, because that’s what a good-enough mother produces. No wonder the norm loves the concept.

It is true that the “good-enough mother” does not drive her child into schizophrenia or other forms of overt insanity (though of course many of the worst psychosis-causing mothers – and fathers – disguise their extreme rejections and violations of their child to the degree that the world still labels them “good-enough”). Instead she abuses him mildly enough so that her abuse slips under the radar of what is societally unacceptable and she only rejects him (that is, “fails” him, to use Winnicott’s word) to the degree that she and society can rationalize her failure as being for his own good. How convenient for all the failing, rejecting, mildly disturbed, narcissistic, imperfect parents out there!

If the goal of life is to help your child leave childhood behind as a non-neurotic person, fully connected with his depths, to leave childhood behind with no depression and no split-off self-hatred and no unresolved childhood trauma, as an adult with the potential to procreate someday without replicating his own denied childhood abuses on his future innocent children, then the good-enough mother is a farce.

This said, I know very few mothers who believe they are not good-enough. And most think they’re even better than good-enough. Some even think they’re perfect. All this is convenient, because it prevents them from having to feel guilty – a guilt they should legitimately feel because of the very real damage they are causing their children. And their children know this. Deep down in their psyches they know just how not-good-enough their mothers are.

12 thoughts on “The Good-Enough Mother: NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

  1. Dear Daniel, I am a mother of 6, a survivor myself, and surely consider myself a lousy, even toxic mother. (Sorry for my English, as I am German). I was a brilliant mother before i had children, and I thought that I had done – as you put it – my homework. I was utterly wrong, but I only found out after having children. They led me to life, in a way to myself, at least away from the image I had from myself. And here I am… Did you ever do, seeing what you were doing and understanding the effects of it, things utterly wrong, like yelling at a child and worse, and couldn’t help doing it anyway? I am in the middle of a separation, my children are between 15 and 7 of age, and I am fighting on a daily base for our happiness. It would kill me to lose them (even if I can understand why they would break away from me). Ever been there? Mercy!!! kindest regards Kerstin

    • hi kerstin — ah, i’m not sure exactly how to reply!! but thanks for posting. i think life throws all sorts of strange and unexpected and difficult things at us — a major challenge. the biggest challenge is to be humble, try to accept our mistakes, and keep growing. that’s what i’m trying to do. not always an easy journey — often quite difficult. but rewarding, mostly!! daniel

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I was googling “judgement on breaking from parents,” and your article came up. I absolutely agree with you. I think the problem with a lot of abusive (whether overt or not) families is that there are so many people out there, and even more from my parent’s generation (the boomers) who do not ever look within. That was fine decades ago when we didn’t have the discoveries in Psychology and Neuro about how important the emotional aspect is for a human being to thrive. Later, they are left with their adult–age children who are seeking answers to their depression and anxieties and cannot seem to budge and try to fix things, even when their children are expressing their pain.

    I have read and reviewed a top notch book I think you’ll find interesting, by Dr. Jonice Webb, “Running on Empty”. She coins the term “Childhood Emotional Neglect” and you can access my article at http://www.greeleytribune.com/news/feature3/12905151-113/emotional-webb-childhood-neglect

    There isn’t much out there on this topic, like you say, it can be so under the surface of everyday life, but people are hurting their children. To me, blood has never been thicker than water, bc the people that I am currently giving my love to (not family) are not the ones who have hurt me, and they are the ones willing to acknowledge my pain and help me through it.

    All the best and much love,

    Lori

  3. Hi Daniel, I must say, in my personal experience as a parent and as a therapist I have yet to meet a single mother who believes she is good enough as a mother. Most feel buried beneath the psychological pressures of how a wrong turn could lead to a tormented and psychologically damaged child. So her neurotic self absorbed worry about not being good enough is a self fulfilling prophecy robbing her kids of of attunement and the mother the joy of relating.

    • Hi Traci — interesting that you’ve never met a parent who felt they were good enough. I do meet and have met parents who torment themselves as you describe — though I find it a pity that they weren’t more self-aware of this side of themselves before they had kids…and did their homework first. But parents who call themselves good-enough — i see them all the time. in fact, i just googled “i am a good-enough parent” and saw several articles by or about parents who feel they are good-enough. but the worst are the utterly non-self-reflecting parents: they either think they’re great, or, if they contemplate it a little, are sure they are good-enough…… wishing you the best! daniel

  4. So i absolutely loved your website,and i believe (i may be wrong,but the incidents are way too much) that my mother is narcisstic or has the same personality disorder.i donno what to do.the country where im from,emotionally and physically abusing children is such a norm,that i dont know what is normal.i am talking out to you,cause well,there have been times when i had been physically or emotionally embarrassed (slapped and told terrible things couple of times,hint good enough but not too bad to be looked down,emotional things alot) just for her to cope through things.the way she talked to me during growing up,i cant ever do to a child /teen ,and my biggest fear is ill enable the same behaviour on my children and my relationships. (i have difficulties ,extreme ones trying to bond with women.cause maybe because my mom denied me every sign of womanhood ritualistic things you have.she is also controlling)anyways.is it possible for you to be my therapist or counsellor?atleast let me know where i stand on emotional issues,which i fear my mother might have caused in me.annd perhaps help me grieve my loss?

    • thanks for posting, sherry. i appreciate reading what you’ve written. not easy stuff. hmm……i’m actually not a therapist anymore — i haven’t done that for more than three years. perhaps you might like self-therapy? i have found that very useful — much more useful to me than psychotherapy. perhaps these links would be a bit helpful: http://wildtruth.net/on-self-therapy/

      all the best to you on your journey!
      daniel

  5. Alison Bechdel’s book “Are you my mother” is her attempt to understand her mother, their relationship, and her childhood all the same. It uses the concept of the mother who is “good enough” throughout. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, as I personally think Alison felt a certain obligation to idealize her mother, especially at the end, when she abruptly concludes that her mother might be unable to give her whatever it is she wants from her, but in the end, that led her to give Alison something better.

    • hi Aninha,
      I hadn’t heard of the book before now, and I’ll keep my eyes open for it… But….after reading your words above, and also poking around the web and reading more about the book, it sounds to me like your comments are right on target… Idealizing mothers…….all too easy…..all too common……
      all the best, Daniel

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