The 'Good Enough' Mother

Letting go of perfectionism.

By Elizabeth Conaway

I have a confession. I am not the perfect mother and I never will be. The bad news is that I am not even striving for perfection in mothering. This may shock some people who have been caught in the wake of my self-proclaimed perfectionism. It is true that in most things I have a more difficult time letting go of those glossy ideals I hold in my head, but in this case I make a continual and constant effort to just be "good enough." I believe that this is one area where my training as a therapist has been beneficial to me.




In the world of psychoanalysis there is a wonderful theory about the "good enough mother." This is a theory, developed by Donald Winnicott, that I hold close to my heart. Among other things, Winnicott was a pediatrician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In his time, psychoanalysts were primarily Freudians, Klienians or part of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He found himself in the last group with the likes of another favorite of mine, John Bowlby.

Winnicott's theory describes "the ordinary devoted mother... an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby"*. The beauty of this theory lies in the simplicity and attainability. He is basically saying that all an ordinary baby needs to develop into a healthy separate being, who is capable of mature object-relations, is an ordinary mother who can respond to her baby's needs.

This I can do. I can listen to my instincts and be good enough to help Ellen navigate the complicated world of self formation. I am imperfect and Ellen will be imperfect and I hope to embrace this about myself and her so that she develops a sense of grace and forgiveness towards herself and others.

I have applied this theory to other areas of my life when needed. In graduate school I wrote the good enough thesis. I paired down my sites from ground breaking research that would be published in top journals to what do I need to do to develop a research project and write a thesis that I feel good about and will meet my programmatic needs.

I hope my friends who are new moms can embrace this theory as well. The world makes being a woman hard enough. I have watched friends struggle with trying to live up to so many different ideals as we traverse different stages of our lives. Most of these we have successfully navigated and I feel so blessed to have a network of strong females.

As many of us begin the new role of parenting I see old anxieties coming back up. I see everyone working so hard to get it right and to be such great mothers. I wish I could tell them that they already have what it takes to be a great mother and that they are already doing what it takes to be good enough.

*Winnicott, Donald W. (1956).  Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 300-305). London: Tavistock Publications, 1958.

Read more: motherhood, imperfection

Elizabeth is a clinical social worker at a top ranked inpatient psychiatric hospital where she specializes in family therapy. She blogs regularly about her parenting adventures at conawaybee.blogspot.com.

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"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." -- Salvador Dali