April 14, 2016

Being a “Good Enough” kind of Mother.

kids funny children colorful

Cinderella had a wicked step mother and a fairy godmother. My children will tell you that I can be both.

Thankfully I am far more fairy godmother, but when I’m screaming at them impatiently, being irritable and moody, unavailable or mean, I am like the wicked step mother.

With the stressors of modern life, in a world that is becoming increasingly more complex and confusing, I do at times fail to be an ideal parent. I’m sure you too, have had this experience. And like me, when this happens, you too, feel mortified. As a psychologist who has spent hours studying the effects of negative interactions, I know how damaging it is to scream and lose control. I know how negative experiences or comments stick to our brains like a leech.

Thankfully though, the moments when I become the wicked stepmother have been buffered by loving, caring and meaningful interactions. I like to believe that as long as we are 80 percent good, that is “good enough.” As Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst who practiced in the 1950’s said, “mothers don’t need to be perfect, just ‘good enough.’”

What does good enough mean?

The good enough mother is sensitive to her child’s needs most of the time. She picks up what her child is trying to tell her and responds quickly to satisfy those needs most of the time. For instance, when her baby cries she will know if her baby is hungry, sleepy, uncomfortable, or just wanting attention—and will act with the appropriate response: feeding, putting to bed, changing a diaper, or picking up and holding. She may not get it right all the time but she does so most of the time. This sensitive and quick response builds trust; her child feels that he is well protected and safe in the world. Such trust is the basis of all love.

Sometimes bad is good. 

At times of course, the good enough mother, though she deeply loves her child, misreads his needs or fails to respond with immediate and unconditional urgency. She is, after all, human and at times struggles with impatience, anger and resentment, especially with older children. By the time they get to their teens—forget it! She is often frustrated with their behavior and attitudes and she does not always deal with the issues as gracefully as possible.

Is this failure to be sensitive bad? Not at all. In fact, a parent’s mini failures are actually considered crucial for a baby’s healthy development as they create opportunities for the infant to learn to self-sooth and develop coping skills for life. As they grow up, they realise that we are imperfect and don’t know everything. In fact they usually think the converse is true.

Psychologist John Gottman says we need five positive to one negative for a healthy, solid and good relationship. We get this not with the one big birthday party or outing with our children, but by accumulating lots and lots and lots of simple and pleasurable experiences. Your relationship with your children is like a money box: if you keep it in full (with positive interactions), the occasional withdrawal (negative interaction) won’t dent the box.

Repairing the damage:

What can we do to repair the damage after we’ve been “imperfect?”

>>> Saying “I’m sorry.”

>>> Spending quality and quantity time with them.

>>> Telling them and showing them that we love them.

>>> Making certain that our positive interactions outweigh the negative to counteract the negative bias in our brains.

What we can do to stay “good enough?”

>>> Work on becoming mindful, well rested and nourished so that we can be calmer and more resilient.

>> Work on self-compassion and reminding ourselves that to err is to be human.

In summary, even the best parent is imperfect. We need to remind ourselves, that to raise a caring and resilient child doesn’t take perfection—it only takes only being good enough. Failing some of the time, but responding sensitively most of the time builds basic trust and a sense of security in our children. And that is good enough.


Author: Lynne Woolfson

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Tony Alter/Flickr

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Debbie Sneider Aug 8, 2016 1:21am

Love this article! Glad to be a "good enough" mother. Keep writing and sharing.

Lynne Woolfson- Apr 16, 2016 7:42am

Thank you

Lynne Woolfson- Apr 16, 2016 7:41am


Lynne Woolfson- Apr 16, 2016 7:41am

Appreciate the feedback

Lynne Woolfson- Apr 16, 2016 7:41am

Thank you

Lynne Woolfson- Apr 16, 2016 7:40am

Thank you

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Lynne Woolfson

Lynne Woolfson was born and raised in South Africa. She now lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband, three children and a fluffy black dog.

Lynne is a clinical psychologist. She is a registered psychologist in Victoria and accredited as a clinical psychologist with Medicare Australia. She is also registered with ASH (Australian Society of Hypnosis).

Lynne has been in private practice for over 20 years. She has been fortunate to have worked with hundreds of patients from all walks of life and of all ages. To be allowed into her patient’s personal world is both an honour and a privilege. To watch people transform their lives into something more beautiful, trusting and hopeful makes her work very rewarding.

Lynne is the author of two books. Take a C.A.B to Happy Land: Help your Child to Relax and Discard their Negative thoughts, and The Life of An Empath: Towards Hope. (See Amazon for more details)

Feel free to sign up on her website at  to receive free monthly newsletters and a fabulous 10 minute relaxation meditation. You can also connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.