Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother

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)

About Dr Laura Monk

My doctoral research investigated how to improve professionals' responses to mothers who become separated from their children. I developed a training workshop for the professionals who mothers come into contact with - largely at the intersection of health and social care, the family courts and domestic abuse services. I am also a counsellor and psychotherapist and I run self-care retreats for practitioners in Spain and the UK
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4 Responses to Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother

  1. lebrun42 says:

    Dear Laura,

    This really is a nightmare that I feel I can’t believe that I walked into. There are so many stereotypes I came from a family of physically abusive men and married into a family of coercively abusive people. I thought I was changing the family history and dynamics but instead I found that abuse is the secret that happens behind closed doors. Behind closed doors i didn’t realise that so may insecure men play king and their children and partners are seen as surfs or the emotional punch bags that the man can take all his frustrations out on and then present himself and them as the Brady Bunch.

    I’ve married a complete nut case the warning signs were all there, a bit of a loner, big ego, never really letting you know who he and his family really were. I never knew that a man could marry you because he’d been rejected by so many other women and then set out to slowly isolate you and your child from all support systems and then gaslight you and your child so that everyone would think that both you and the child were mental.

    I honestly didn’t know that some people treat their families like their worst enemies, their need to compete with and control those they live with is persistent and unrelenting to the point that with some of these people until your dead they will never be happy because like all predators they lured you into a relationship so that they could have one place where they could show the full awfulness of who they are. Having given you that knowledge of them behind closed dooors they are always afraid that you’ll expose them and that they will be ostracised and not so much by other men who they believe are like them deep down they don’t want other people’s wives, sisters, children, grandchildren, sisters etc to know who they are because every abuser always wants to know that when they’ve eventually destroyed your life they can go on to their next victim undetected.

    Women,children and even men and boys are not taught about predatory men. For some reason because of the media and motion pictures and televised sports no matter how much we hate to see men get hurt there is another message that’s communicated which is that men who are able to inflict psin are somehow heroic. Watching the recent Invinctus games you see this dilemma for men. And for men who fear standing up to other men harming women and children is a way to be top dog in private but without any witnesses to the fact that you are a bully and a coward.

    Women are brought up with the myth that men want to save them when a lot of men don’t like being responsible for a woman and a family. Men have been taught to be competitive and some compete with the vulnerable people they live with.

    My mother in law is also a highly covertly abusive person and so too was my father in law. Three were the soft spoken Frank Spencer, Delboy Trotter looking family who were not sweet and fallable but angry, jealous, violent, abusive and highly premeditated abusers. People who made you feel sorry for them but took over your life slowly taking away all your good relationships so that when they showed their true colours you saw the horror of the family that never sought help for its mental health problems.

    Now both my son and I have become caught in my husbands vendetta and mission to destroy us and our lives but slowly with as much damage, sadistic abuse and as much harm that he can do in full view of all the different services he’s used to silence our voice.

    I was in a refuge when my son was given back to my husband by a judge simply because I’d left the home we co own, my husband wants the house so he sought custody to obtain that. The judge ignored the fact that we’d been in refuge and focused on my mental health history. I was separated from my boy for a year and a half and after recently agreeing that my son could live with me we have not had a single days peace as my husband demands contact either in person, phone or text for much of the day.

    I realise now he gave me my son back for a bit to see how much I wanted him and then when he saw he wanted the child back just to show he could again and with every validation he gets from professionals the more the unseen abuse gets worse.



  2. Willing Education says:

    I wish the education of professionals would percolate everywhere.

    To share my story: I divorced my coercive, controlling, manipulative ex about 6 years ago and had 50/50 shared residence for my children with him. Went through years of ongoing abuse, in and out of court, having to justify every action, while he went around breaking court orders willy nilly and being awarded more time, as we should ‘let the past go’ etc.etc. Then my 9 year old daughter decided she did not want to see him. We all went through hell via the court system, but luckily I got an exemplary judge who realized what was going on to a certain extent and allowed my daughter to live with me. The judge predicted that my son would align with his father and we would be back in court. I did not believe this as I had such a wonderful, close relationship with my son. Unfortunately, a few months back, he decided to live with his father (I believe out of fear rather than true alienation) and I was forced to take it to court. I went asking for justice, but what I got was a court order saying that I have to have no contact with my son, either by email, text or face to face as my son did not wish it. They have taken away the one protective influence and given my son over to an abusive man, who has complained in his statement about every living human being and system he can think of and seems to have terrorized half the professionals. I so despair! It is taking all my strength to hold on and fight and be a strong mother for my daughter and carry on with normal life while my heart is breaking, when I think of my poor son, all alone, being asked to meet a thousand strangers and make decisions as though he were an adult, just because he has recently turned 14!


    • Hello

      Your story is very familiar to me – and obviously to the judge too – how has it come to this where judges can predict but not prevent? There are predictable similarities in the way these scenes play out over time in the family courts.

      I really understand the pain and distress of not being able to protect your son who is still a child even though he is being treated as if he were an adult.

      In my experience, the levels of contempt and anger directed towards mothers is often the children’s disenfranchised grief diverted into hostility, which is the only available (i.e. approved of by an abuser) outlet for them to express overwhelming emotions.

      I wish you much strength and hope on your journey.



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