What exactly makes a parent NOT "good enough"?
February 8, 2019 3:07 PM   Subscribe

"A good-enough mother like porn, we know her when we see her." -- Winnicott, probably?

British pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott, in his seminal work, "Play and Reality", famously posits that mothers [primary caregivers] need not and indeed should not be "perfect" in meeting their babies' needs, but rather, strive to be "Good Enough."

> "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)

Later in the same book, and in other works, Winnicott elaborates that in the absence of good enough mothering, a child becomes pathologically reliant on fantasy and a "false self" to bridge the gap between what it needs and what its caregiver makes available to it.

But the more I think on this idea, the less these words seem to have any meaning. I tried starting at the other end. What makes a parent NOT good enough? It seems like Winnicott's writings leave open the possibility that as long as the baby somehow develops the capacity to deal with the [parent's] failure to meet its needs perfectly, as long as the baby learns to fill in the gaps on its own in a non-pathological way, the parent is "good enough" no matter what the parent's actions were.

It's possible I am coming from an overly personal place in trying to interpret these ideas, but I really do wish this was more fleshed out, and there was firmer ground to stand on to say THIS is what good-enough parenting is, and THAT is what it's not. For a hugely popular and extremely influential concept, it seems to me [layperson] to be iffy and disconcertingly non-concrete.
posted by MiraK to Human Relations (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I am not familiar with this research in general, but a heck of a lot of the parenting "research" from the 50s-ish era has been soundly discarded. The words have no meaning likely because they're non-scientific sexist bullcrap. See the "refrigerator mother" theory where they just blamed mothers for their kids having autism because ??
posted by brainmouse at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

We talked about the concept of “good enough” parenting extensively when I was a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for children in complex child custody cases. In modern times, “good-enough” parenting is parenting that would not be called ideal or textbook, but is obviously non-abusive and non-neglectful and produces a child that is usually happy, healthy, and bonded to the parent(s). It is a much less rigidly defined category than good parenting or abusive/neglectful parenting. I would also say there’s a big difference between the way someone using a child welfare/abuse lens would define “good enough” parenting vs. the way someone using a perfect parenting lens would define it. I’m used to “good enough” being defined as the bare minimum acceptable (e. g. R-rated movies for elementary-school children, but not porn), whereas someone starting from a perfect-parenting place might see “good enough” parenting as fast food twice a month instead of never.
posted by epj at 3:34 PM on February 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

Here's a nice column on Bettelheim's book A Good Enough Parent. The book is from 1987 and the column is from 2015, so it's a more modern, pragmatic and subjective take.
posted by caek at 3:38 PM on February 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

I took Winniott's research, which helped me, to mean the good enough mother is the one that shields, comforts, bathes, holds, the infant. Regardless of angry thoughts, loneliness, uncertainty--she does those things, simply holding the baby and letting the emotions be there, while being there for the baby and what the baby needs which is not a cognitive inventory of how Mom thinks of motherhood but the steadiness of breathing, the warmth of being held, the continuity of gentle sounds. Letting mom breathe through her own loneliness, or whatever, for later on, in favor of holding the baby. But not that she shouldn't have negative feelings.

What makes a parent not good, per Winnicott? How I understood it? Cruelty. Acting out. Loud noises. Refusing to change diapers or feed. Failure to provide basic covers, warmth. Consistent failure to simply hold, when baby howls.

That's how I took it. I found Winnicott very comforting, as a merely 'good enough' mom.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:38 PM on February 8, 2019 [23 favorites]

Your question reminded me of these comments from treehorn+bunny a few years back, which were based on this study. The basic logic seems similar: in moderation, gradually introducing less perfect circumstances (defined in the newer research as risk) may teach children to handle a wider variety of issues independently. However, I think I would discount most evo psych stuff in that article and just consider the experimental / empirical references it describes. Also, I think its thesis about where specific fears come from remains pretty unsettled too--e.g. as a randomly googled example, this 2018 study focuses more on vicarious learning. And flat out blaming parents for anxieties / phobias would smack of the issue brainmouse mentions. But those numerous caveats aside, this might at least allow you to redefine too perfect, good enough, and not good enough as--respectively--risk-free but overly cautious, just enough risk to grant some healthy familiarity, and so much risk that serious negative consequences are pretty predictable.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:58 PM on February 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

the anti-ideal of good-enough mothering is supposed to take the burdensome expectation of perfection off of women's necks & stop us from blaming them for everything, but I always thought it was the most unforgivable way to belittle them with faint praise, in the vein of the infamous "you're likeable enough, Hillary." you know -- good enough, not to be confused with actually very good. but you'll do. you're adequate. you're acceptable. make unimaginable physical and psychic sacrifices for your kids for decades, and your big reward is you get a gentleman's C. sure, you're good enough, you're a warm body, all cats are grey in the dark, you pass. barely. And being judged as imperfect, human, is endurable, but being judged not good enough, as a mother, isn't.

so all in all, I have no respect for the concept, I think it produces on the one hand an intolerable smugness among those who think that if all you have to be is good enough, you can ignore children's various miseries as a babyish demand for perfection -- parents can identify each other as "good enough" in a mutually reinforcing admiration society, as if anybody not the child of a given family can really judge that. and on the other hand, it produces a constant sick anxiety among those mothers who have the kind of personal and social history that makes a person terrified of not measuring up & of failing.

it is a useful idea insofar as it is true that a few (or many) honest mistakes don't usually do the lasting harm that a sustained campaign of abuse does. just meaning well isn't enough, but it makes a huge difference. Not caring is definitely not good enough.

what else? a sustained campaign of abuse, against the child or against another adult, makes a parent not good enough. Being inconsistent or chaotic in a way and to a degree that prevents a child from ever developing a sense of security and trust. Letting their injuries or illnesses go untreated through negligence,is not good enough. Prioritizing their emotions at the total expense of their intellect, or the other way around.

beyond that it gets subjective enough that the only person who can say you weren't good enough is your own child, when they're grown up. they aren't objective either, but part of being a good-enough parent is caring more about your child's experience than what the neighbors think of you. so, an adult child is a bad judge but everyone else is a worse one.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:18 PM on February 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

I have also found that definition frustratingly vague. In my unscientific sample size of 1, what I have come to is that the good enough parent can admit to their flaws in a relatively un-defensive way. Did I lose it at my kid for smearing toothpaste all over the bathroom counter? Oh yes. And then I went and talked to him about it afterward and apologized for losing control and that while I was angry, I still need to stay in control of my body and my actions etc etc. And when my now 3yo points out an inconsistency in my behavior (you said we would... but then you...) I own it.

So, you’re perfect when it’s a baby (physically attentive and generally emotionally present, can read what they need and are feeling, respond to their emotional reality) and slowly become less available and less in tune with toddlers moods and needs. You start expecting them to do their own emotional and physical labor, so to speak.

In more general terms, I think good enough means the parent is generally emotionally adjusted to life, even if in that specific moment you’re not 100% resourceful. You don’t have huge maladaptive emotional hang ups like explosive anger, emotional manipulation, emotionally checked out etc etc even if you have a bad habit of not being on time, avoiding difficult conversations, bad with ambiguous decisions or whatever medium emotional bad habits that normal adults have at least 1-2 of.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

When we talked about this concept in grad school for counseling, the concept was basically that parents don't have to be perfect for children to grow up as healthy, happy adults. It was a way to push back against the previous idea in psychology that everything wrong or pathological in adults was the fault of their mothers. Basically, mothers/parents can be normal human beings with normal human blind spots, deficiencies, and lapses and still have good relationships with their children. There was also a big focus on repairing ruptures -- a "good-enough" parent may slip and yell at their children, but they'd also apologize later.
posted by lazuli at 4:33 PM on February 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

It's important to understand where Winnicott was coming from here. He was writing as a psychoanalyst, using Freud's concepts of the pleasure principle and the reality principle, as modified by Melanie Klein and by Winnicott himself. The basic idea is that the infant is born into a state of complete dependence (or 'subjective omnipotence' as Winnicott called it) where their needs are totally gratified. Then, as the mother's full-time attention is gradually withdrawn, the infant slowly comes to be aware of an external world outside their control. The good-enough mother supplies the food, love and care that allows the infant to make the transition from subjective omnipotence to external reality, i.e. from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. (I'm simplifying hugely here: for more, see under object relations theory.)

The reason why the concept of 'good enough' parenting seems so frustratingly vague is that, very often, the psychoanalytic foundations are taken away and the concept is left to stand on its own. In other words, it's been turned from a theory of infant development into a how-to guide for new mothers, which Winnicott never intended it to be. However, if you want to get a sense of what Winnicott thought good-enough parenting actually looked like, read his short broadcast talk from 1945, 'Getting to Know Your Baby'. It's simple, practical, and completely free of jargon; the very opposite of 'iffy and disconcertingly non-concrete'. That said, Winnicott really isn't in the business of laying down rules on how to be a good-enough parent. The only rule is that there are no rules: getting to know your baby means getting to know your baby as a person, so that your baby can gradually get to know you as a person. That's all. It's telling, if unsurprising, that so much more has been projected onto the concept.
posted by verstegan at 6:13 PM on February 8, 2019 [20 favorites]

Winnicott's theories (and life) feature prominently in "Are You My Mother," the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of "Fun Home," "Dykes To Watch Out For," and the Bechdel-Wallace Test). I didn't absorb enough of Winnicott to be able to say anything useful about his ideas, but she also comes at him from the very personal angle of deciphering her relationship with her mother.
posted by mersen at 8:21 PM on February 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yes! to situating the concept of good enough parenting in the context of psychoanalytical theory by way of Klein and Freud and Winnicott himself. Sorry, everyone, I should have been clearer from the start that I wasn't speaking of the media/pop psychology meaning of the term, but rather the psychoanalytical one.

I have to say that even after reading that excellent broadcast transcript linked upthread, *I still have no idea whether a parent's own actions would necessarily qualify them as not good enough.* It seems that as long as an infant progresses through these various developmental stages SOMEHOW, the parent is labeled good enough regardless of their actions. That's what's giving me these here hysterics.

I mean. Am I misreading? Am I missing something? Am I hyperfocusing on the literal meaning of the term and trying to squeeze a prescription for good parenting from what was intended to be merely a description of developmental processes? (If so, hullo, that's a terrible name for your concept, Winnicott!)

Thank you all for chiming in, this is engaging and insightful. Grateful for this community.
posted by MiraK at 8:42 PM on February 8, 2019

It's important to keep in mind another of Winnicott's aphorisms: "There is no such thing as a baby." Focusing on "a parent's own actions" looking for a prescription for good parenting ignores the fact that a mother and baby interact as a complex system. Later research on parent-infant interactions (e.g., Stern, Beebe) that looks at microanalysis of reciprocal responses centers on the reciprocal exchanges, the dynamic process, that unfolds between the pair.

It's impossible to say what "good enough" attunement is in the abstract, because, from the first, that's going to depend on the temperament of the infant, the anxieties of the parent, how those factors interact, and so on and so forth. What's "good enough" for a placid, calm baby who can tolerate a substantial degree of contact is not necessarily going to be "good enough" for a colicky baby, who might experience "the same" input from a parent as intrusive and intolerable. I put "the same" in scare quotes because the meaning of, say, a sustained three second gaze is not stable between infants and between situations. What is "objectively" the same behavior (under some description) takes on an entirely different cast if you change the situation, the child's level of satiety, their temperament, and so on and so forth.

If I'm recalling correctly, there's a phrase Martha Nussbaum used in describing an aspect of Winnicott's thought: "the highly particular transactions that constitute love between two imperfect people." The same, I think, has to be said about the idea of good enough parenting. It's highly particular. It's imperfect. It can't be described with any precision in the absence of a specific dyad.
posted by mister-o at 7:21 AM on February 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

D. W. Winnicott was also hugely influenced by the WWII evacuee program, where many urban children were separated from their parents and sent to live in the countryside for their own safety. (Some mothers of very young children went with their children.) He was a consultant and treated children who could not be placed with ordinary foster homes because of their mental issues.

If it seems like "parents don't really have to do a lot, or do anything special, just exist with their children", that might be because Winnicott and his colleagues were actually around a large number of children in this unusual situation--being completely separated from their parents.
posted by Hypatia at 7:44 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

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