Parenting: The "Good-enough" Mother

Winnicott formulated and developed the idea of the good-enough mother. The good-enough mother is a mother whose conscious and unconscious physical and emotional attunement to her baby adapts to her baby appropriately at differing stages of infancy.

Three key aspects of the environment identified by Winnicott are holding, handling and object-presenting. The mother may thus hold the child, handle it and present objects to it, whether it is herself, her breast or a separate object. The good-enough mother will do this to the general satisfaction of the child. The good-enough mother tries to provide what the infant needs, but she instinctively leaves a time lag between the demands and their satisfaction and progressively increases it. As Winnicott states: "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" (Winnicott, 1953). The good enough mother stands in contrast with the "perfect" mother who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, thus preventing him/her from developing.

The good-enough mother's behaviour can be described as the graduated failure of adaptation. Her failure to satisfy the infant needs immediately induces the latter to compensate for the temporary deprivation by mental activity and by understanding. Thus, the infant learns to tolerate for increasingly longer periods both his ego needs and instinctual tensions.

Winnicott sees the micro-interactions between the mother and child as central to the development of the internal world. After the early stage of connection with the mother and illusions of omnipotence comes the stage of relative dependence (objective reality) where children realize their dependence and learn about loss. The mother's failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities. As the infant develops, the good-enough mother, unconsciously aware of her infant's increasing ego-integration and capacity to survive, will gradually fail to be so empathic. She will unconsciously "dose" her failures to those that can be tolerated, and the infant's developing ego is strengthened, the difference between "me" and "not-me" clarifies, omnipotence is relinquished, a sense of reality begins to emerge, mother can be increasingly seen as a separate person, and the capacity for concern can develop. This way the mother helps the child to develop a healthy sense of independence. Failure in this stage may result in the formation of a False self.

The trick of the good-enough mother is to give the child a sense of loosening rather than the shock of being 'dropped'. This teaches them to predict and hence allows them to retain a sense of control. Rather than sudden transition, this letting go comes in small and digestible steps, in which a transitional object may play a significant part.

The final phase of development, to independence, is never absolute as the child is never completely isolated. The mother's role is thus first to create illusion that allows early comfort and then to create disillusion that gradually introduces the child into the social world. Winnicott recognized that the child needs to realize that the mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity.

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