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  • the ordinary devoted mother and the good enough mother

    Several weeks ago, I wrote about D.W. Winnicott and his idea that "there is no such thing as a baby." Winnicott began his working life as a pediatrician in England in the 1920s, went on to train as a psychoanalyst, and made a great number of important contributions to our understanding of parent-child relationships.

    Some of his contributions though, like "the ordinary devoted mother" who offers the holding environment that babies need to develop, can seem oppressive at first glance: sexist, demeaning, unobtainable, and more. And to be honest, I'm not yet sure what his own intention was--I'm not a Winnicott scholar. But I do think that the phrase can be used to support us as parents in the present moment.

    "The ordinary devoted mother" is in fact closely linked to Winnicott's lovely idea of "the good enough mother," the mother who in her individuality and in her imperfection does enough of what her baby needs to support its development in all arenas, but not so much that the baby has no room to develop its own capacities at each developmental stage. He is suggesting that in fact our children need ordinary rather than extraordinary parenting--that in the face of extraordinary parenting, there is not enough room for individuation and autonomy-in-relationship.

    Ordinary devoted mothers forget things, drop things, lose things; they feel tired, they feel irritated, they feel sad; they wish they could sleep through the night (when their children are babies, and again when their children are teenagers), they wish they could take a bath (when their children are babies and it's hard to find the time, and again when their children are teenagers and gaining access to the bathroom for that long has become a different kind of challenge), they wish they could walk at their own pace, and more. 

    Ordinary devoted mothers have their own imperfections, their own feelings, their own desires--and still they are present with and to their babies. And that is enough. That is what good-enough mothering looks like: an adult who is at once present to themselves and their own inner world, and to their child and their child's developing personhood.