The "Good Enough Mother" – According to Winnicott
A mother's role is essential in a baby's emotional development. However, it's not realistic to expect any mother to be perfect and it's not necessary.
Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician and a psychoanalyst who made important contributions to understanding the mother-child bond. He postulates that a mother’s performance influences the subsequent emotional development of the baby. Therefore, he established the concept of the “good enough mother” to explain the minimum essentials for an infant to mature adequately.
The safety of the baby will depend on these first vital stages. Whether or not the mother has been able to cover a child’s needs can lead to different traits and pathologies. However, what’s most powerful and remarkable about Winnicott’s theory is that no mother needs to be or is expected to be perfect. Let’s see why.
The early stages of a baby’s life are characterized by the baby’s inability to differentiate themself from their mother. The emotional bond is extremely close and the child is completely dependent on the mother’s care. For the infant, there is no separation between them and their mother. As a result, the mother’s behaviors must be focused on detecting and satisfying the needs of the child.
For the child to develop properly, the mother has to fulfill the role of physical support. For example, you need to feed a baby, clean them, clothe them, and protect them. You also need to give them physical affection frequently. These are all ways to show your baby love through body language. By identifying their needs, meeting these needs, and being there for them, you can help prevent any distress.
However, in addition, it’s important for the mother to provide emotional support. For example, they need to be open and accepting of all the child’s emotional needs, accepting them, and treating them appropriately.
The mother has to deal with the child’s positive feelings, smiles, and playfulness. However, they also need to be willing and available to handle negative emotions of crying, anxiety, and impulsiveness.
Through the support the mother gives, the child will feel well-being, love, and understanding. Ultimately, they’ll learn to feel safe. If this process has taken place properly, the infant will be able to face the transition to gradual separation from the mother. This will help the baby establish themself as an independent, different being from the mother.
All of these maternal behaviors are motivated by a feeling of “maternal concern” that starts during pregnancy. It’s a special sensitivity that allows women to identify their child and attend to and recognize their needs.
However, it’s not realistic to expect a mother to always be perfect. You won’t understand every cry, gesture, and discomfort of your baby right away and you won’t always be able to solve every problem instantly. We can’t maintain the expectation that you’ll always be in the right frame of mind or have the patience to respond ideally.
This isn’t realistic, and it’s also not necessary. In reality, a child is able to tolerate some degree of frustration. As they grow, this threshold also rises. For example, a mother’s temporary absence, her exhaustion in some moments, or her inability to understand what her child needs sometimes won’t hurt the child emotionally.
A mother doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. For example, a mother should be present and available to the child, attend to their needs, help them when they’re upset, and show love. However, as a human, they will fail at times and this is natural.
On the other hand, there can be harmful consequences for the baby when the mother consistently fails to care for and hold the child. Generally, if the mother isn’t physically or emotionally available, the child can show unpredictable changes in attitude that makes it difficult for them to develop confidence.
Even if this happens, if the mother is able to see and fix her mistakes, she can fix the problem, as she is already showing love and care to repair the damage and build a better bond.
In short, if you’re a mother and you feel pressure to be perfect, don’t worry about it! You can make mistakes, feel exhausted at times, and lose patience. It’s natural and just remember, you’re good enough.