Motherhood – what does it mean to be “good enough”

An overview

The term “good enough” was coined by the British Psychoanalyst and Pediatrician Donald Winnicott in 1953. His term pertains directly to motherhood. “Good enough” defines mothers who understand that striving towards the ideal of being “perfect” is impossible to attain. Winnicott wrote about this extensively in his well-known book Playing and Reality. Winnicott begins his theory by discussing infancy. He believed that the “good enough” mother adapts to the needs of their infant, thus sacrificing her own needs and sleep to nurture and fulfill the needs of her baby. Over time, motherhood ‘is empathetic and caring but does not immediately rush to the baby’s every cry’ as explained in this article by Psychology Today.

Define “good enough”

In allowing the baby to cry but only for a few minutes, thus experiencing a nominal level of frustration, the mother is “good enough.” She is not “perfect” because a “perfect” mother would cause infant dependendency, but she is “good enough” to consistently be there for her child and their well-being.  Thus, Winnicott believed that the “good enough mother” was better than the “perfect mother.” My takeaway is that  “good enough” implies that she is trying her best and is continuously striving towards more, whereas perfect doesn’t leave any room for the process of lifelong learning. A “perfect” mother would be doing herself a disservice, thus compromising her own happiness to satisfy her children and causing greater discomfort (given their selfless desire for her happiness) in the process. 

Illusion vs. reality

If perfection is unattainable, the notion of being “good enough” comes close to perfection. Winnicott recognized the need for children to realize as summarized here that:

A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity. 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. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

While I disagree with Winnicott’s use of the word ‘failure’ due to contemporary connotations, I do agree that choosing to parent one’s child in a manner where they can be self-sufficient… is the key to good parenting. Winnicott links motherhood with cognitive development as the baby initially experiences the mother as part of himself (Piaget’s stages of development: self vs. other). When the baby begins to experience the external world, this illusion (of their every need being fulfilled automatically) is broken and the child enters the realm of reality. 

What does this mean? My conclusion

Mothers who demonstrate ‘conscious reflection, maturity and empathy’ are the kinds who are parenting not to prove themselves to others but to do the best possible job under the circumstances for their family. Being a “good enough” mother is a continuous process. More often than not, it requires a balance between unconditional love and devotion, and allowing one’s child room for independence. Winnicott’s term allows mothers to breathe a sigh of relief and know that they have done the best possible job for both themselves and their children, thus providing them with the support they need to succeed going forward.