“The good-enough mother is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.” – D. W. Winnicott, paediatrician and parent-infant therapist
‘Good enough’ parenting encompasses being sensitive, warm and empathic towards your baby, being physically and emotionally available for her and meeting her needs responsively. It also involves providing a nurturing environment where your baby feels safe, contained and held – literally and emotionally. To be good enough in these ways requires an ability to be adaptive to the spontaneous experiences of your baby.
The good enough position stands in contrast to the ‘perfect’ parent and recognises that it is not possible to be empathic, available and immediately responsive at all times.
The perfect parent may find it difficult to tolerate their baby’s feelings of discomfort, frustration or anger. They try to prevent their baby from experiencing these difficult emotions. In doing so, they provide little room for their baby to express these negative feelings and instead respond pre-emptively to their baby’s needs so that there is little chance of them becoming frustrated.
In contrast, the good enough parent realises that their baby needs to be responded to quickly and empathically in the early months to help protect them against becoming overwhelmed by their feelings. This provides the infant with experiences of being calmed and soothed and helps them learn to self-soothe over time. A baby who has been responded to sensitively in the early months and has some capacity to self-soothe, is in a better position to learn to tolerate waiting. Infants need to learn to experience frustration little by little over time. The good enough parent encourages the expression of a range of feelings from their infant. They can tolerate their baby’s feelings without losing themselves in those feelings. They can’t manage this all the time, but a good enough amount of time.
The concept of good enough parenting also recognises that there is no one ‘right’ way to parent; rather, parenting can take many forms and still be good enough by providing sensitive and responsive care. It is important to recognise that the appropriate sensitivity and responsivity is from the infant’s point of view not the parent’s. So, the degree of sensitivity and responsivity in daily care depends on the unique needs, temperament and development of your baby. The good enough position holds that trusting your innate nurturing abilities will guide you to approximate getting it right most of the time. Infants do not need perfect parents, they need parents who attempt to meet their needs sensitively and responsively most of the time.
D.W. Winnicott, a paediatrician and child psychotherapist who coined the term ‘good enough mother’, believed that responding to an infant responsively and sensitively over time allowed the infant to be appropriately dependent and to transition to an increasingly more autonomous position, tolerating frustration and waiting, in their own time. Great ingredients for fostering social and emotional development!
Good enough parenting involves sensitive, responsive care that gradually allows the infant to experience frustration when she is able to tolerate it.
Finding the delicate balance between good enough parenting and meeting the needs of all family members is a challenge for us all. It’s a balance we understand well at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology. We can help as you find your way during this important life phase.
About the Author
Dr Bronwyn Leigh is a clinical psychologist, perinatal and infant clinician and early parenting consultant. She is the Director of the Centre for Perinatal Psychology. Bronwyn specialises in the psychological aspects of becoming a parent, the emotional development of infants, and parent-infant relationships.
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