Great is the Enemy of Good Enough: The Overextended Parent

Shaindi is not adequately available for her kids and it troubles her.

“Aggghhh!” Shaindi says to herself. Her fourth grade son, Avi, needs help with his homework, and her second grade daughter, Aliza, cut her knee. At the same time, Shaindi is tending to her 6 month old baby, Ephi. She comforts Aliza with one arm as she balances the baby in the other. Then, still holding baby Ephi, she sits down to help Avi, but Aliza keeps on moaning, interrupting them. Shaindi begins to tear.

She isn’t upset at any of the kids. She isn’t even bothered by the tug of several demands on her at the same time. Shaindi explains that her crying is because she feels that she is deficient as a mother. Shaindi knows that children need emotional nourishment to become thriving, successful, well-adjusted adults. She makes sure to show her kids love, care, and concern as often as she can. But she feels it is simply not enough. As much as she tries, she feels like she doesn’t give enough attention, time, or demonstration of her love to any of them.

It’s not only Shaindi that feels this way. The kids seem to feel it, too.

“Mommy. How come we can’t do homework without being interrupted?”

“Mom, why can’t we have supper at a normal time like all my friends?”

“Why can’t you take care of me without holding baby?”

These are common questions she hears from her kids. Shaindi clarifies that she is not concerned about “having it together” or being a supermom. She wishes she could be worrying about that. She has more basic concerns. She is concerned about her kids’ development and future. “Who knows how they will turn out when they grow up?” she asks herself. “I hope they remember my love and they manage to mature OK,” Shaindi thinks. She wants to be the best mother that she can be for her kids…and she is failing.

Or is she? Dr. Donald W. Winnicott (1896 – 1971) was a pediatrician in London who noticed that a baby’s ability to grow and adapt well to the world was correlated with the mother’s love and care for her baby, just as Shaindi believes. Yet, as Winnicott observed this among his patients, he coined the term “good-enough mother.” He observed that if a mother was responsive to her baby’s needs most of the time, and generally held, fed, and cared for the baby, the baby developed properly and matured. The mother did not have to always be responsive, or perfect, or caring. Sometimes she could have been selfish, preoccupied, and/ or ambivalent. As long as she usually showed concern for the baby, the baby was equipped to transition through life’s developmental stages. As Winnicott stated in his seminal paper the mother needs to be “alive and real and good enough (not too persecutory).”

Furthermore, Winnicott explained that a mother’s complete attention to the baby’s needs dissipates. He suggested that, “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.” That means that a mother does withdraw, and the baby’s ability to tolerate that is a fundamental way that babies grow cognitively. Ironically, the fact that the mother withdraws her constant and absolute care (maybe even a few days out of the baby nursery, as life happens!) is central to the baby developing properly and wholly.

Many have suggested that the power and insight of Winnicott’s approach and phraseology is that mothering is a microcosm of the child’s present and future. The mother’s need and desire to do other things that distract her from her baby is the best preparation for life. As he matures the infant will encounter some situations and relationships where others fulfill his needs, and others where people either don’t or deny that those needs they exist.

The good-enough mother is realistic, both as a mother and as a cultivator of future expectations. “One of Winnicott’s main contributions to psychoanalytic thought was his idea of the “good-enough mother,” the mother who sometimes responded promptly to our needs and sometimes didn’t. The beauty of this concept was that it was so widely applicable—most people had that kind of mother—and also that it bestowed some honor on her. (Those mothers typically had other children to care for, plus dinner to cook.)…[An analyst] regards Winnicott’s good-enough mother as not just good enough but the best, because she tells us the truth: on occasion we’ll get satisfaction and on occasion we won’t. We need understanding sometimes, not every time” (Acocella, 2013).

Shaindi appears to be a “good enough mother.” She spends time with her children and demonstrates her love through her actions and interactions. She is not perfect, but it seems that a mother doesn’t have to be. Furthermore, her imperfection might be beneficial. It helps her kids get ready for life’s ups and downs. Some like saying that “good is the enemy of great.” With parenting, great is sometimes the enemy of good-enough.

 

References

Acocella, J. (2013) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.The International journal of psycho-analysis34, 89.

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