The Good Enough Mother

I’ve been stewing about this post for months.  MONTHS, people.  I wanted it to be perfect:  Clear.  Concise.  Informative.  Witty.  Earnest.  Knowing.  Comforting.  Wise.


My need for perfection is so completely counterproductive to this discussion and a direct slap in the face of my intent, but it took me until just this second to realize that.  What can I say?  I’m slow like that sometimes.  Settle in, folks, and let’s chat, mother to mother, mother to father, parent to parent, failure to failure.

Once upon a time there was a man named Donald Winnicott.  He was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst in mid-20th century Britian.  For psychology wonks like me, he is a rock star.  I learned about him in graduate school and he changed my life for the better.  He’s not cool enough to have cured cancer, but his theories were significant enough to include in my wedding vows.  And that tells you something about me — I included psychoanalytic theory in my marriage vows.  God bless Mary Tyler Dad.

This man taught me everything I know about mothering.

Winnicott developed a theory in 1953 called the ‘Good Enough Mother.’  Now before I upset any Dads in the house, know that this theory, in my belief, applies to you as well.  But in 1953, there weren’t a hell of a lot of stay-at-home dads running around.  And those that did exist were probably shunned a bit.  So please understand Winnicott’s language and theories through their historical context.

In a nut-shell and in Winnicott’s own words:

” . . . a mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: 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. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.”

The failure Winnicott refers to is not specific to bad things that mothers do that damage their children, but instead, the perception of the child as the child grows and develops that Mom is no longer able to “fix” everything or make it all better.  No parent can ever meet every single need of a child from the child’s point of view.  If so, the toddler temper tantrum would not exist.  Think about those states of mind kids get into with the dramatic mood swings and crazy demands.  No way in freaking hell that those whims should be catered to by a parent, hence the concept of a parent’s “failure.”

When I first read this theory, I was about as far away from parenting as one could get.  I was single, living in a dimly lit studio apartment in Chicago, working half-time and going to graduate school full time.  The whole concept of parenting was not on my radar.  I was in my mid-20s and way more interested in dating, clubbing, learning, and as I fondly like to say, “developing a personality.”  Because I was such a squirrel growing up — no interest in sex, drugs, or rock and roll — I embraced the late bloomer thing fully at this stage.  So, yeah, parenting was not on my agenda.

But those words — good enough — spoke to me in a way that made an impression.  I carried them with me, mentally, and applied them as needed.  The graduate school mantra of “turn something in,” regarding papers, etc. was nothing more than “good enough” applied to course work.  The Christmas gifts hastily purchased and wrapped just moments before they were opened were “good enough.”  Throwing all my laundry into one load was “good enough,” as clean skivvies were more valued than spending $ on small loads of properly sorted piles.

After Mary Tyler Dad proposed to me, I applied the concept of “good enough” to our wedding planning — nothing fancy, nothing spectacular, no Bridezilla here.  Truth be told, Mary Tyler Dad was way more freaked out on our wedding day than I was.  The food was okay, the dress was acceptable, the wine was passing.  Somehow, though, the total effect was sublime.

‘Good enough’ had served me well in the planning of the wedding, so I decided to integrate it into my marriage by vowing to be the “good enough wife and mother.”  I take my vows seriously.  Irish sentimentalist that I am, I laminated copies for Mary Tyler Dad and I right after the honeymoon that we both carry in our wallets.  I wanted those words to be more than fancy promises, so my vows were about Cheerios, work-life balance, and good enough wifing and mothering.

The concept frees me with its liberation from expectations.  I never have to be perfect, I only have to be good enough.  If you read further into Winnicott’s theory, you learn that striving for perfection is a sure path to screwing your kids up in epic proportions.

Something else to recognize is that my version of good enough is going to be vastly different than your version of good enough.  What is acceptable to me just might be considered neglect by others.  And what you consider standard practice is something I might never condone for Mary Tyler Son. That sounds extreme, but my infamous Facebook car seat debacle was proof that parenting standards are hard core personal.

My point is this:  Embrace the concept of “Good Enough.”  Breathe it in, breathe it out.  Let it wrap around you and soothe your tired, worried, guilty soul.  You will fail your child.  You will.  It will happen. Some of us do it daily. Some more spectacularly than others.  What Winnicott tells us though, assures us from his mid-century psychoanalytic throne, is that it is okay. Everything is going to be okay.

If you like this, like me on Facebook.  Good times.

20 Replies to “The Good Enough Mother”

  1. Wow – thanks so much for this post. I have often felt the same way regarding school, work, wifing and parenting. Pursuing perfection is exhausting and damaging in my experience. My boys and my husband are all happier (as am I) when I don’t feel I am constantly missing some perfect moment. I’ll be sharing this with my friends.


    1. Thanks, BridgetPapa. I am very fond of knowing my limitations. I try to celebrate my friends who excel in things that I fumble with and trust that the things I excel in may be less tangible, but no less important.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. MTM.


  2. love it. being good enough for a colicky baby even when winnicot is in your corner is difficult. we are always trying and will only fail if we fail each other in not supporting each other. love you and as always am inspired by the way you make me stew in my thoughts. xo


    1. Sometimes I try to imagine a colicky baby, and then I stop, as it is too overwhelming and terrorizing. I don’t know how I would fare with that.

      I love and support you, Mama, esp. today as you head out into the world to do good mom things. Have a great time. MTM.


  3. Love this. Separating ourselves from our children is always a good idea. We read Kahlil Gibran at our wedding. One of the stanzas was:
    “And stand together yet not too near together:
    For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
    And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

    I think this relates to mothering as well. But you managed to say it more beautifully than Gibran.


    1. ” . . . more beautifully than Gibran,” you say? My work here is done. As always, thanks for keeping me company, Annie. MTM.


  4. Thank you. I am gone from my house 12 hours a day, luckily for me my mom watches my kids, but when I get home there is dinner to be cleaned up from, a house to be cleaned, laundry, homework, baths, stories, everything crammed into 3 precious hours with my kids and husband, I had a break down the other day telling my husband that I wasnt good enough, that I work too much, my house is a mess and I feel like my mom raises my kids…he held me and reminded me that our kids do love me very much, but your words really helped. I do fail alot, sometimes I feel like its daily, but I am doing the best I can and maybe that is good enough.


  5. I was first introduced to the concept of “good enough” parenting in the wonderful book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children”, by Wendy Mogel. I’m not Jewish, but I found the book incredibly interesting and it just *made sense* to me. I didn’t realize the concept of good enough parenting had deeper roots. Thanks for reinforcing this logical notion!


  6. Wonderful, as always, MTM. It also happens to be exactly what I need to hear these days. Thank you for that. I vaguely remember Winnicott from my undergrad days, but that theory hadn’t stuck with me. I’ll be interested to read more about him now. I’ve already had the understanding that certain personality traits develop out of unmet needs, but I hadn’t thought about it in terms of a child’s perceived parental failure. It also jives with Parenting with Love and Logic in a way.


  7. Thanks for this. I just finished my own blog post about my inability to be a Tiger Mom. I’m learning to accept being Mom Enough!


  8. I have to say that I’m one of those mom’s who is constantly worried that I’m going to screw up my kids. I’m a perfectionist and completely OCD about my house being clean. This blog has actually given me hope that I can quit being the Tyrant Queen of my house and relax more by just being “good enough”! I’m sure my husband will smile more as I relax more. Thank you for this, it has inspired me to let go and just be good enough.


  9. Love it! The similar phrase I carry in my brain is “good is the opposite of great”. In the words of Lorne Michaels, “we don’t go on because it’s perfect, we go on because it’s 11:30.” (Thank you, Rachel Dratch.)


  10. I unfortunately am one of those people who has “perfectionism paralysis.” Amazingly, though, when it comes to mothering, I have followed the advice of my best friend: “Bring your baby into your life, don’t try to adapt to his.” As a result, I have spent little to no time questioning my competence as a mother (I do plenty of that in my career) – and I really think learning how to become a smooth-functioning member of our family has served our son well!


    1. Oh, I love that, Julie. Classic.

      Parenting a child through cancer has reinforced my instincts about parenting. I always found Dr. Sears and attachment theory especially loathing of working women. It never spoke to me, as I always knew that I intended to work after kids.

      Truth be told, the only parenting theory, aside from being the “good enough mother,” I follow consistently is to love my children. It’s worked well!

      Thanks for reading and commenting. MTM.


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