Winnicott’s “Good Enough Mother”


Seventy years ago, a middle-aged man walked into a BBC radio studio in London to record the first of a series of talks that would radically change the way mothers thought about parenting. The 50 or so broadcasts made by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott between 1943 and 1962 on a wide range of subjects – from feeding and weaning to jealousy and stealing – popularised his psychoanalytic thinking on the relationship between babies and their mothers to such an extent that some of his catchphrases, such as the good enough mother and the transitional object, have entered everyday speech. (Anne Kampf, The Guardian, 19 April 2013)

Donald Winnicott
Donald Winnicott

David Winnicott (1896 was a-1971) was a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst. Today I pay tribute to the “Good enough Mother”, a concept he introduced in 1953, on the occasion of Mother’s Day 2013. Paul Wadey writes:

“His theories are primarily concerned with abandoning psychopathology in favour of the quality of emotional development of self, and the therapeutic process itself.  In these senses, Winnicott’s theoretical landscape can be simply understood in the form of two overlapping modalities: the first concerning the sense of reality, personal meaning, and selfhood as a distinct and creative centre of ones own experience; the second concerning the ‘use of the transitional object’ in the transitional process from the ‘subjective omnipotence’ of the infant toward a more mature appreciation of objective reality.”

Know your Child
Know your Child

I was introduced to the “Good enough Mother” by my friend Christina in the early 1980s.

The idea of imperfection as something positive was stunning to me.

Winnicott wrote: “There is no such thing as a baby; there is a baby and someone”.

In his introduction to “Human Nature”, Winnicott writes:

“The reader is entitled to know how it is that I come to be able to write about psychology. My professional life has been spent in paediatrics. Whereas my paediatric colleagues mostly specialized  on the physical side I myself gradually veered round towards specialization on the psychological side. I have never left general paediatrics, for it seems to me that child psychiatry is essentially part of paediatrics.”

Mary Cassatt: Under the chestnut tree
Mary Cassatt: Under the chestnut tree

BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” introduces the concept like this (in 2005):

“Fifty years ago the analyst and parenting expert Donald Winnicott first documented his idea of the ‘good-enough mother’; the mother who wasn’t perfect and was free, to some extent, to fail. His writings were revolutionary because he argued that failing was in fact a necessary part of parenting, and through the failure of the parent the child realises the limits of its own power and the reality of an imperfect world. “

Parent and Baby's Hands and Feet

Winnicott wrote in a way that made him easy to understand. Here is a sample (My thanks to “The Present Participle“):

“The good-enough ‘mother’ (not necessarily the infant’s own mother) is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration. Naturally, the infant’s own mother is more likely to be good enough than some other person, since this active adaptation demands an easy and unresented preoccupation with the one infant; in fact, success in infant care depends on the fact of devotion, not on cleverness or intellectual enlightenment.  The good-enough mother, as I have stated, 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.  The infant’s means of dealing with this maternal failure include the following:

1. The infant’s experience, often repeated, that there is a time-limit to frustration. At first, naturally, this time-limit must be short.

2. Growing sense of process.

3. The beginnings of mental activity.

4. Employment of auto-erotic satisfactions.

5. Remembering, reliving, fantasying, dreaming; the integrating of past, present, and future.

If all goes well the infant can actually come to gain from the experience of frustration, since incomplete adaptation to need makes objects real, that is to say hated as well as loved. The consequence of this is that if all goes well the infant can be disturbed by a close adaptation to need that is continued too long, not allowed its natural decrease, since exact adaptation resembles magic and the object that behaves perfectly becomes no better than a hallucination. Nevertheless, at the start adaptation needs to be almost exact, and unless this is so it is not possible for the infant to begin to develop a capacity to experience a relationship to external reality, or even to form a conception of external reality”.

Pablo Picasso: Mother and Child
Pablo Picasso: Mother and Child

Jennifer Kunst, wrote in “Psychology Today”:

“Winnicott’s good enough mother is sincerely preoccupied with being a mother. She pays attention to her baby. She provides a holding environment. She offers both physical and emotional care. She provides security. When she fails, she tries again. She weathers painful feelings. She makes sacrifices. Winnicott’s good enough mother is not so much a goddess; she is a gardener. She tends her baby with love, patience, effort, and care.

What I like about Winnicott’s picture of the good enough mother is that she is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication yet she is also prone to resentment. Winnicott even dares to say that the good enough mother loves her child but also has room to hate him. She is not boundless.  She is real.”


Simcha, in Seatlle’s Psychotherapy blog gives a pretty good description of what the “Good enough Mother” does:

Winnicott spoke of the “good enough” mother who adapts to her baby, and in so doing – gives it a sense of control and comfort.  “The good-enough mother,” wrote Winnicott in 1953, “starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.” It is the mother’s responsiveness to her baby’s cries for food or comfort that allows the baby to know he exists, to believe he is in control; he believes in his early months that his mother is, in fact, merely an extension of himself.

Gradually, as the mother begins to present objects to the baby and the baby interacts with these objects, he comes to understand that they have an existence outside of himself – that there is in the universe such a thing as “me” and “not me” (objective reality).

In time, the mother begins to move away from her state of total and constant preoccupation with and instantaneous gratification of the baby.  She begins to offer small doses of “optimal frustration” to  her child, just enough to create a proper environment for the child to learn and build his character (“I will come bring you the cookie shortly, sweetie, as soon as I finish my phone conversation”).

Possibilities and Limitations
Possibilities and Limitations

In an article, Sarah Liebetrau notes:

It is reassuring to note that Winnicott concluded, “almost all mothers are effective and do not have to meet any one’s definition of perfection to be so.”  It is better for us as parents to accept ourselves as we are, and to do the best we can, than to attempt to be ‘perfect’ and then, necessarily, fail. Winnicott seemed to be trying to move away from the popular idea at the time that there was one set, agreed-upon way to raise children, and if you didn’t do it that way, you were a ‘bad’ parent. Winnicott wanted to do away with the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents as they are abstract concepts that cannot apply to real people. Instead there is only ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’.

Donald Winnicott
Donald Winnicott

I conclude this brief review with a statement that opens the door to a key aspect of Winnicott’s work. The development of the true-self personality, and creativity.

‘Winnicott envisioned the infant as born with the potential for unique individuality of personality (termed a True Self personality organisation), which can develop in the context of a responsive holding environment provided by a good-enough mother.’ Thomas Ogden (1990) (My thanks to Paul Wadey)