by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on November 22, 2010

During the second World War, the English peadiatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott spoke regularly to thousands of young mothers on his radio show about solo parenting and mothering, as most of the United Kingdom’s men were otherwise engaged.  Winnicott brought his experience as a peadiatrician into his analytic thinking, and is responsible for many innovative ideas in psychoanalysis. This is the same guy who brought us the notion of the true and false self, transitional objects, psychic containers, and heralded object relations theory. He is my psychoanalytic hero. One of his most important ideas, to my mind, was the concept of the good enough mother, which he spoke about during his radio shows, and elaborated on in his writing. It goes something like this:

Since we are born in a state of total dependence, our parents, and more likely our mother, is responsible for our care and survival. During pregnancy, the mother becomes attuned to the feelings in her body and to the rhythms of her fetus. Once the baby is born, this attunement becomes more and more refined and particular to the mother-infant dyad. Winnicott called this primary maternal preoccupation, a term which captures the sensitivity and interconnectedness of new mothers to their infants’. While many of the things that Winnicott described may have signaled an ideal situation, he emphasized that mothers did not need to strive for perfection, or do everything by the book. Instead, he suggested that what was needed  for the baby to thrive and feel safe was being  a “good enough” mother.

If we take Winnicott at his word, good enough meant just that…good enough. Not perfect, not angel like, not all knowing, not brilliant,  just good enough. Enough is the operative adverb here- good enough to help launch another into life and subjectivity. Good enough to be real, present, tuned in, attentive and caring. Good enough to say no and establish boundaries, to be non-intrusive yet available. Ok, I realize this is starting to sound like a how to guide, and yet, what does it really mean to be good enough? Winnicott described a mother who was able to be real, who knew when she was angry and did not retaliate against her infant, who could take care of her baby’s basic needs, who could protect him/her from danger, and who could begin to establish, through her relationship with her baby, a basic roadmap for life and the outside world.  Through her sense of herself, and her relationship to her baby, a good enough mother prepares her infant for adult life.

How different than the early “how to” guides to parenting! Perhaps it is significant that the idea of “good enough” mothering comes to us from a British analyst- culturally, good enough is not only acceptable, but code for as good as possible. Here, on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, good enough may not be so politically correct, it may sound like not enough. Yet, I think that is what Winnicott was trying to capture, our best being good enough.

This idea of being good enough applies to human beings in general. Think about it. What does it mean to be good enough? For some of the answers, I turn now to a book that is wise in its concise ideas: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. In this tiny jewel, Don Ruiz manages to capture the essence of the idea. I re-interpret the  “agreements” for this blog, but encourage you to click on the link above on your own.

The first of the agreements asks us to speak impeccably, defined as speaking without sin. As simple as this sounds, it is quite difficult to manage. It asks us to pay attention to what we feel and think before putting it into words, and then to find the courage to speak only what is true for us. In other words, speak only the truth and nothing else. Everything we do in our lives is predicated on this first idea. We speak and communicate with words, and it is how we develop a narrative of our lives. Our thoughts are based on our own narration. Our relationships are forged through our ability to communicate. The second agreement asks us to not take anything personally. It asks us to consider that much of what we believe about other people and their intentions is colored by our desires and needs, our projections if you will. It also, to my mind, says, that we are often so personally invested in something or someone that we lose our sense of perspective and forget that other people have their own issues and difficulties to deal with, that they are not of our doing, they are theirs alone. In the language of psychotherapy this is about recognizing the others’ subjectivity and giving up our narcissistic position. We are not omnipotent, we can only be responsible for ourselves. The third agreement is about not making assumptions about anything. This reminds me of my statistics professor in college, who went on and on about assumption being responsible for most if not all errors in judgement. Not making assumptions requires that we ask questions when we do not understand or know something. It requires that we be willing to be humble and courageous, both to ask the questions and then integrate the answers into our thinking. It requires that we speak and listen. The fourth and final agreement is about always doing your best, which takes me back to Winnicott and being good enough. The very idea of it requires us to be conscious, to question and attend to what we are thinking, doing, dreaming, creating. To do what we can as well as we can, and to be willing to be active and present in the narration and experience of our lives. Perhaps I have managed to develop a “how to” list despite my efforts to avoid it. I hope it gets you thinking like it did me.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Conger November 29, 2010 at 10:14 AM

This really touched me on several different levels. It first reminded me of a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous about “progress, not perfection”. My striving to be perfect has often been an obstacle to my seeing that good enough is okay. What is perfect really?…and would we as flawed human beings take the time to notice and appreciate it anyway?
Speaking what is true for you and not assuming you are the be all end all of knowledge, keeps it more real and more likely to be heard, appreciated or understood. Besides, we know what the word assume really means. If you assume, it makes an ass out of u and me.
I think trying to do your best, doing the next right thing and basically appreciating each day for what it is, is good enough.


trisha November 23, 2010 at 9:16 AM

Velleda, thank you for taking time to help me remember what i already know but it sometimes get lost in my clang bird way of thinking. It can be exhausting going around in mental circles. If i had read this when i was a young mother i would have relaxed and enjoyed my time with my son rather than constantly second guessing myself worrying whether i was a “good enough” mother. After our third son was born i had learned i was not perfect, i did make mistakes but i did the best i could. All three sons have grown up to be healthy, happy adults and i have let the clang bird out of the cage. I know i will be an awesome grandmother! Aging is more than just letting go of youth it is also letting go little by little of the narcissistic ego that traps us in self doubt.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: