Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother

Cross-posted from: Mothers Apart Project
Originally published: 02.08.17

The concept of the ‘good-enough’ mother, introduced by Winnicott (1965), is still in common use today in family law, and in health and social services. However, it is often misused to blame women for falling below expected standards of parenting rather using it in its intended context. It is often not understood that the concept of the good-enough mother was embedded in another concept: that of ‘the nursing triad’. Winnicott acknowledged that support for mothers is necessary to mothering. The author did not have an expectation that mothers could be ‘good-enough’ without the support of either the child’s father, or another supportive adult. On the contrary, Winnicott acknowledged that mothering would be very difficult without support: this was a concept that he applied to all mothers.  

Mothering without support becomes even more problematic when mothers have to manage alone in a context of domestic violence and abuse. Women who are mothering through DVA need help and support more than most. Furthermore, when the mother-child relationship is actively being interfered with and sabotaged by an abusive man using coercive control tactics mothers need specialised support from experts who understand this type of abuse.  To expect women to overcome difficulties on their own is unrealistic, and to accuse women of not being ‘good-enough’ mothers because they are in a DVA relationship is to ignore the difficulties in escaping abusers and how they need help to do this. To blame women for abuse perpetrated towards them (and their children) is simply to shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim and needs challenging. Furthermore, mother-blaming of this type supports perpetrator strategies to undermine mothering roles, abuse woman as mothers, and target mother-child relationships. Professionals can be unwittingly co-opted into such perpetrator strategies when they allow themselves to be manipulated by abusive men who are exploiting mother-blaming systems to their own advantage, e.g. by accusing mothers of being ‘unfit mothers’, ‘bad mothers’ – not ‘good-enough’ mothers.

This deficit model of the mother who is not ‘good-enough’ fails to acknowledge the many ways that women care for and protect their children in DVA situations. A strengths-based model of mothering recognises women as experts in their children’s lives. A mother-centred approach enables professionals to listen to women and believe them so that they know what they need to support and protect their children from their partner’s abuse. Mothers experiencing DVA need to be supported and protected, not blamed, threatened or punished. Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother needed support. Women trying to escape DVA need more support and this is often in the form of protection. As many researchers have said, mother protection is often the best form of child protection….

  • “The best way to prevent child abuse is through ‘female empowerment’” Stark and Flitcraft (1998: 97)
  • “The best form of child protection is frequently mother protection” Kelly (1997)
  • Supporting the non-abusing parent is likely to improve the safety and well-being of children and should always be fully explored (Women’s Aid 2015)
    “The most effective way of creating safety for the child is usually to increase the safety of their mother” (Laing and Humphreys 2013)

 

The Mothers Apart Projectthis is a research blog about a PhD study. The overarching aim of this community-based action research project is to raise awareness of the lack of help and support for mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children in a context of violence and abuse. A multi-agency workshop for professionals is being developed to begin to address this problem as a consciousness-raising mission. I talk to both service providers and service users in the community as a researcher and with survivors of domestic abuse as a counsellor and psychotherapist. I am a feminist, a survivor and mother apart and I write about all of the above. Twitter @monk_laura

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