[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.