By Charles Sharpe
First of all Winnicott’s notion of the good-enough mother was one which he in a sense introduced to take the pressure off mothers. There was then, and to an extent there still is, an expectation that a mother will be everything and do everything for her baby (Sharpe 2012). Winnicott thought this placed unnecessary and unhelpful stress upon mothers to the extent that many mothers developed feelings of anxiety, guilt and hopelessness. As a counter to this Winnicott suggested that most women who have emotional and practical support from a partner, from extended family or from other concerned adults have sufficient physical, emotional and social attributes to look after their babies in a “good-enough” way. He included the hyphen between the words to show firstly that he was defining a natural state evident in the first days and weeks after a baby’s birth when it seems the mother cannot help but be as absorbed with her baby as the baby is absorbed with her (Winnicott, 1952; Winnicott, 1988) and secondly that in the weeks and months following the baby’s birth, the mother gradually becomes aware again that she is a human with her own needs and that in turn the baby should be helped to begin to be aware that he is a different being to her. This often happens at a time when the baby still feels omnipotent and believes he has his mother’s breast at his command. In order to help the baby to grow towards healthy sociability the mother disillusions the growing infant of his omnipotence in such a way that the baby knows that he has not been abandoned and is still loved. During this process there are tensions. The good enough mother will occasionally make mistakes and the baby will be anxious but the important thing is that he survives and becomes resilient to the slings and arrows of what can sometimes seem to him to be outrageous fortune. This happens because the mother and other adults provide her child with nurture that is good enough. I have dropped the hyphen because I am no longer referring to that state of unity the mother and baby share in the first few weeks after the baby’s birth (Winnicott, 1965).
A child who experiences a breakdown in this process will feel abandoned and may seek to return to an omnipotent state and demand that it is given what it has lost. Winnicott argued that this was often the state of children who were placed in foster or residential care. Angry anti-social behaviour or withdrawn silence are symptoms of either a child demanding or giving up on the good things that have been lost (Winnicott, 1984).
Foster carers and residential carers are thus asked to provide good enough caring for these screaming or silent children who can be anything from a few months old to 15 years old. Good enough caring will eventually contain the anger of a child or draw a child out from his silent isolated world. This is achieved through shared good experience between children and adults which can breach the gaps created by loss, abandonment and chaos. This is not to say it is an easy road, resistances to relationships by child and adult alike have to be worked through with the help of others.
Good enough caring is not a comparative.
Good enough caring is not a comparative. The form it takes will be different for each child but if it is good enough it cannot be bettered however much we are deafened by imperatives from external agents who demand the best must become better. These imperatives to be better than what is good enough seem to drive us towards an aim which might actually cause more harm and certainly not good. They are simply asking the adult to introject and act out the anxieties the children are experiencing. Children should be helped to experience and survive human shortcomings in order to deal with life’s vicissitudes. The good enough carer is there to contain a child while he endures and overcomes these difficulties.
What we may all agree upon is that we do need adults capable of providing an environment which facilitates good enough caring.
How goodenoughcaring came to be
From the late 1990s to the late 2000s, Eagle House, a forward looking child care organisation based in the London suburbs provided a graduate diploma training course, Therapeutic Care and Child Development for all its residential and outreach staff. The course which had been developed by Andrew Hardwick and his colleagues at the Caldecott College – a part of the Caldecott Foundation – was at first validated by Greenwich University and latterly by the University of Exeter. Students were given paid time off work for half a day each week to attend the course which lasted for one academic year. I had the good fortune to be allowed to lead and teach this course for the Eagle House students. The therapeutic theoretic base of the course was psychodynamic and it was underpinned by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, Donald Winnicott and Barbara Dockar Drysdale. Approaches to practice were informed by the writings of Melvyn Rose, Adrian Ward, Linnet McMahon, Christopher Beedell and Fritz Redl to name but a few.
Over the years that the course ran the ideas of Winnicott seemed always to strike a chord with the students. Though not uncritical of his ideas, students felt Winnicott demonstrated an understanding of the task they faced and knew what would be needed in a residential child care environment that helped children begin to feel better about themselves. Over the years succeeding cohorts of students used the phrase “good enough caring “ as if they were coining it for the first time and so it became currency. I don’t know if the phrase “good enough caring” was ever used before this time in other settings – certainly Winnicott never used it – but this was the first time I’d heard it.
The students would often speak not only of the literature directly related to residential child care as being helpful to their thinking and understanding of therapeutic child care, but they would speak also of films, television programmes, novels, poetry and plays which had helped them gain further insight of human relationships and this was reflected in the varied nature of their writing for the course. In the final years of the course we spoke of collecting this writing and publishing it. Nothing came of this until after the Eagle House course was run for the final time in 2006. The financial pressures to lower fees which local authorities placed on progressive organisations like Eagle House led to severe cuts in budgets, including the training one. There are many critics of private provision of residential child care and I have been one of them but I believe Gulzar and Richard Eagle, the proprietors of Eagle House deserve great credit for providing this level of training for as long as they did. I am aware that most graduates of the course say it gave them insights of the kind of relationships with adults that all children need. Certainly the goodenoughcaring Journal would not have been established had it not been for the Eagle House course.
The phrase “good enough caring” became a part of our jargon in about 2000. It introduced the notion that adults caring for children who cannot live with their natural families, such as foster carers and residential carers may initially need to provide a child with an intensity of concern which should have been provided by a good-enough parent when the child was an infant. To do this the caring adults together in a mutual relationship with children will create an environment which allows children to grow from a dependent stage toward a mature, sociable stage where they have become more resilient human beings, more able to cope with and resolve their own and others’ problems.
“Good enough caring” was also used in the sense that most people with an insight of what babies and children need as they grow up, (particularly the need of a trusting relationship with an adult), could become helpful good enough carers and while academic knowledge of psychology, sociology and the physical aspects of human development provide important information, the most significant factor which defines a good enough carer is a capacity, expressed determinedly but warmly, to develop healthy relationships with children and colleagues. We concluded that good enough carers could be very different kinds of people who together with their colleagues and the children could still create a place where children could be contained, held and loved.
In 2006 when the course was finally closed, a group of former students and I met and agreed to start an e journal which would be published online twice a year, in June and December. It was to contain articles, learned papers, interviews, short stories, memoirs, practice journals, poems and play scripts. Visitors to the site would be invited to submit their writing which we agreed could be in any mode but had to be in one or another way to be about the upbringing of all children and young people, a group which included children and young people in care.
Since then until now with the publishing of this final scheduled issue, a goodenoughcaring Journal has been published online twice every year. Members of our original editorial group were Jane Kenny, Siobain Degregorio, Ariola Vishnja, Evelyn Daniel and me. In later years we have been joined by Cynthia Cross, Mark Smith, John Stein and Jeremy Millar. All have been unstinting in their support for the goodenoughcaring Journal.
Although we have published pieces by famous authors and by experienced academic authors, we have encouraged and published the writing of social care practitioners, young people and people from other walks of life. Many were writing for publication for the first time. Every single piece of writing we have received and published has provoked interest and more thought. All the many hundreds of thousands of our readers who return again and again to the goodenoughcaring Journal vouch for that. it is good to be a part of this community.
I would like to thank all those who have written for us. They have been very generous of their time, effort and talent.
In 2008 we published a book, Love is Enough: Sincerity and professionalism in the care and education of children and young people which contained all the articles previously published online in the Journal with the addition of an extended introduction. We launched the book at a conference we held at Heythrop College in London. This event helped to make many more people aware of the Journal and the website.
The website and the goodenoughcaring Journal will remain as an archive for all to read. We will continue to accept and publish articles submitted to us but there will not be another scheduled issue. So for those of you who read them there will only be one more promotional email from the editorial group informing you of what is in this issue.
In 2007 the British Library selected our website to be archived in the new electronic archive it was establishing. The librarians did this because they thought the goodenoughcaring website was of special social and historic interest. That status will remain. It’s rather like being listed as a special building and I know that in terms of modern website architecture ours has a very clunky, idiosyncratic and ancient structure. We have resisted many cries for us to modernise but in any case such change is beyond my technical qualities, and, I have been told on the quiet, that some people actually like the way it is.
Finally, why the goodenoughcaring Journal ?
Many have struggled with the typeset goodenoughcaring Journal. Why not the Good Enough Caring Journal? Well that’s down to me. At the time we started I was new to Internet technology and like many naïfs I became excited by this brave new world of the ether. I noticed that all email addresses and website addresses seemed to be joined into one word so I thought that it would be smartly contemporary if good enough caring was likewise drawn into one word and also I thought how groovy it would be if “goodenoughcaring” was in italics and “Journal” was in upright print. It has caused people a great deal of confusion ever since. Please accept my apologies.
Thanks to all of you for reading and supporting the goodenoughcaring Journal. I hope you find some things of interest to you in the new issue and in the rest of the archive.
Sharpe, C, Daniel, E., Degregorio, S., Kenny, J., and Vishnja, A. (2008) Love is Enough: Sincerity and professionalism in the care and education of children and young people Totnes. Abbeyhill Press
Sharpe, C. (2012) “Attachment theory, the good-enough mother, womanhood and the social care of children and young people : brief, disparate and critical reflections” in Writings accessed from the index at https://goodenoughcaring.com/writings/
Winnicott, D.W.(1952) Letter to Roger Money-Kyrle, 27th November in The Spontaneous Gesture : Selected Letters of D.W. Winnicott London Karnac Books (1987,pp 38-43)
Winnicott, D.W. (1984) Home Is Where We Start From: Essays of a Psycho-Analyst Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Winnicott, D.W. (1988) Babies and their Mothers London: Free Association Books
Winnicott, D.W. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment London: Karnac Books (2005)
This article was written by Charles Sharpe on behalf of, and with thanks to, the goodenoughcaring Journal’s editorial group: Ariola Vishnja, Cynthia Cross, Evelyn Daniel, Jane Kenny, Jeremy Millar, John Stein, Mark Smith, Siobain Degregorio.