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The Good-Enough Mother


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > The Good-Enough Mother

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Winnicott sees the key role of the 'good enough' mother as adaptation to the baby, thus giving it a sense of control, 'omnipotence' and the comfort of being connected with the mother. This 'holding environment' allows the infant to transition at its own rate to a more autonomous position.

"The good-enough mother...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" (Winnicott, 1953)

The 'not good enough' mother leads to 'false self disorders' in the child.

"In the cases on which my work is based there has been what I call a true self hidden, protected by a false self. This false self is no doubt an aspect of the true self. It hides and protects it, and it reacts to the adaptation failures and develops a pattern corresponding to the pattern of environmental failure. In this way the true self is not involved in the reacting, and so preserves a continuity of being." (Winnicott, 1955-6)

He sees the micro-interactions between the mother and child as central to the development of the internal world. After the early stage of connection with the mother and illusions of omnipotence comes the stage of 'relative dependence', where they realize their dependence and learn about loss. By moving away from the child in well-timed small doses, the mother helps develop a healthy sense of independence. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

Three key aspects of the environment identified by Winnicott are holding, handling and object-presenting. The mother may thus hold the child, handle it and present objects to it, whether it is herself, her breast or a separate object. The good enough mother will do this to the general satisfaction of the child.

The trick of the good-enough mother is to give the child a sense of loosening rather than the shock of being 'dropped'. This teaches them to predict and hence allows them to retain a sense of control. Rather than sudden transition, this letting go comes in small and digestible steps, in which a Transition Object may play a significant part.

"The baby quickly learns to make a forecast: 'Just now it is safe to forget the mother's mood and to be spontaneous, but any minute the mother's face will become fixed or her mood will dominate, and my own personal needs must then be withdrawn otherwise my central self may suffer insult.'

Immediately beyond this in the direction of pathology is predictability, which is precarious, and which strains the baby to the limits of his or her capacity to allow for events." (Winnicott, 1967)

The final phase of development, to independence, is 'never absolute' as the child is never completely isolated. Throughout our lives we are dependent on others, seeking company and belonging. We soon feel lonely if we are isolated for any length of time.

The mother's role is thus first to create illusion that allows early comfort and then to create disillusion that gradually introduces the child into the social world.


Winnicott was a pediatrician who was concerned with the development of children. He took a softer approach than such as Freud and Lacan, perhaps moderated by his teacher, Melanie Klein. This included views about the role of parents. This helped popularize his teachings, especially after guilt engendered by more Freudian approaches.

Winnicott and Klein both recognized that the child needs to realize that the mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity.

Laplanche described primal seduction as the offering of a message by a parent to a child. Communication from an other entices the child away from its state of one-ness with the mother.

The mother can be viewed as a 'container' for the infant's bad objects, as the child projects these into the mother. A critical ability for her is in accepting and surviving this onslaught with equanimity.

Winnicott, by the way, is at pains to say that the 'mother' role can be any person who acts in the role of 'carer' who bonds with the child.

See also

Winnicott, Winnicott's development stages, True self, false self

Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97

Winnicott, D.W. (1955-6) Clinical varieties of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37, 386

Winnicott, D. W. (1967). Mirror-role of the mother and family in child development. In P. Lomas (Ed.), The Predicament of the Family: A Psycho-Analytical Symposium (pp. 26-33). London: Hogarth


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