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, thus allowing an optimal environment for the healthy establishment of a separate being, eventually capable of mature object-relations.
Evolving slowly, and underpinning Donald Winnicott's theory of early integration, personalization and object-relating, this concept includes the "ordinary devoted mother" (1949), and "the good-enough environment". It first appears clearly in Winnicott's "Mind and its Relation to the Psyche-Soma" (1949).
Winnicott's emphasis on the particular need for maternal sensitivity begins in his paper "The Observation of Infants in a Set Situation" (1941), and is referred to repeatedly in his work. His statement, "There is no such thing as a baby" implies that without a mother, an infant cannot exist. He describes "primary maternal preoccupation" (1956), the psychophysiological preparedness of a new mother for motherhood, as a special phase in which a mother is able to identify closely and intuitively with her infant, in order that she may supply first body-needs, later emotional needs, and allow the beginnings of integration and ego-development.
The good-enough mother is described as responding to the infant's gesture, allowing the infant the temporary illusion of omnipotence, the realization of hallucination, and protection from the "unthinkable anxiety" (primitive agonies) that threatens the immature ego in the stage of "absolute dependence." Failure in this stage may result, ultimately, in psychosis.
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. Failure in this stage may result in the formation of a "false self."
Winnicott describes how the capacity to be alone can develop out of the experience of the infant of being alone in the presence of another. Ego-immaturity is balanced by ego-support from mother, and this ego-support is in time internalized, so that aloneness is tolerable (1958).
Many writers approach environmental failure (Fairbairn, Kohut, Balint, and others); however, few describe the optimal situation in health as described by Winnicott. Winnicott is accused of romanticism, idealism and optimism in his description of the mother whose adaptation is so exquisite, and of "blaming the mother" when things go wrong. It is important in reading his work to realize the lack of moralism he evinces. Winnicott certainly regrets the failure of those mothers who cannot reach the state of being "good-enough," but acknowledges that this state arises out of their own early relationships, and he emphasizes repeatedly the strength of innate maternal capacity.
See also: False self; Handling; Holding; Maternal care; Object; Self (true/false); Transitional object, space; Winnicott, Donald W.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 300-305). London: Tavistock Publications, 1958.
——. (1958). Mind and its relation to the psyche-soma. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 243-54). London: Tavistock Publications. (Reprinted from British Journal of Medical Psychology, 27, (1954), 201-209.)
——. (1958) The observation of infants in a set situation. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 52-69). London: Tavistock Publications. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 22 (1941), 229-249.)
—— (1965). The capacity to be alone. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 29-36). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39 (1958), 416-420.)
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