Attachment theory, the good-enough mother, womanhood and the social care of children and young people : brief, disparate and critical reflections

Date Posted: January 2012
© Charles Sharpe 2012


During the 1950s and 1960s working independently but contemporaneously John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott developed different theories about the psychological and physical growth and wellbeing of children. Bowlby’s theory of attachment and Winnicott’s notion of the good-enough mother and the facilitating environment remain influential in the study of child development.


Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s work along with that of the many others who have continued to develop a theory of attachment has been fruitful in raising our awareness of the significance of the attachment relationship between a baby and its principal parenting figure, who is usually the baby’s mother. The newly-born baby seeks out a caregiver and the caregiver’s response to the baby’s quest influences the development of the baby. For instance the securely attached infant feels that his caregiving figure is accessible and responsive to him when needed, while the anxiously attached infant cannot assume that his caregiver will be responsive and so he adopts strategies to circumvent the perceived unresponsiveness. Such a strategy may result in a baby denying the emotional tie with a caregiver, or it may be manifested by the baby’s need to amplify their signs of distress in order to ensure he will be heard (See Ainsworth and Bowlby,1965).


Winnicott’s facilitating environment and the good-enough mother

Winnicott’s idea of a facilitating environment created for a child by a “good-enough mother” who is supported by the adults around her, rests easily alongside Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Bowlby wrote,

“intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but through his adolescence and his years of maturity and on into old age.” (Bowlby, 1980, p.442)

For Winnicott this hub is provided by unconscious processes within “an ordinary mother who is fond of her baby” (Winnicott,1952) : a “good-enough mother”, who learns best how to look after her baby not from health professionals and self-help books but from having been a baby herself .”She acts naturally, naturally ” (Winnicott, 1988). Winnicott suggests that during pregnancy a mother develops “a state of heightened sensivity” which continues to be maintained for some weeks after the baby’s birth. When this heightened state passes, the mother has what Winnicott calls a “flight into sanity” and she begins to be aware of the world which exists outside of her state of “primary maternal preoccupation” with her infant (Winnicott,1975). Nonetheless the good-enough mother continues to provide an environment which facilitates healthy maturational processes in her baby. She achieves this by being the person who wards off the unpredictable and who actively provides care in the holding, handling and in the general management of the child. The good-enough mother provides physical care and meets her baby’s need for emotional warmth and love. She also protects her baby against those parts of her from which murderous feelings are brought forth when, for example, her baby screams, yells and cries continuously. By containing her own hateful feelings about her baby, and using them to intuit the baby’s terror and hate, the good-enough mother facilitates her baby’s feelings and expressions of omnipotence by adapting to his needs until such time as he gradually begins to feel safe enough to relinquish these feelings. At this stage the process of integration can start and the baby begins to develop a sense of “me” and “not me” (Winnicott, 1975). To achieve this shift from the baby’s total dependence to relative dependence the good-enough mother has, by a gradual process, to fail to adapt to her baby’s needs in order that the baby can begin to learn to tolerate the frustrations of the world outside of himself and his mother (Winnicott,1965).

Winnicott always argued that mothers knew better about the needs of her baby than experts. He suggested that there were,

“very subtle things that the mother knows intuitively and without any intellectual appreciation of what is happening, and which she can only arrive at by being left alone and given full responsibility…” (Winnicott1988, p64).


Criticisms of Winnicott’s good-enough mother

With his notion of the “good-enough mother” who intuitively knows best about her baby, Winnicott intended to take the pressure off women who became mothers but critics have argued that Winnicott in his idealisation of the good-enough mother has placed an expectation upon the “real” mother that she must shoulder most of the responsibility for the care her baby. Furthermore she is held responsible for how well the baby flourishes.


On being a woman and a mother

In recent times a number of female writers have borne witness to this responsibility. For instance the novelist and mother, Rachel Cusk, at the same time as encapsulating many of Winnicott’s ideas about motherhood, observes,

“Becoming a mother reveals a woman’s capacity for numerous things : virtue, self-sacrifice, anger, foolishness, love. Some of these qualities will never before have been tested – she may not even have known that she possessed them. Some of them will take their shape exactly from what she was offered by her own mother, though she may not remember being offered them. And some – anger is one – will find forms of their own, of which she feels herself the only progenitor” (Cusk,2011, p36).

For Cusk, “The baby comes and everyone panics, looking for the woman who’s going to take care of it,” and this she argues is the principal source of a woman’s anger when she has a baby,

“because she has lost the power of autonomy and free will in her own life. From the first moment of her pregnancy, a woman finds herself subject to forces over which she has no control, not least those of the body itself. This subjection applies equally to the unknown and the known : she is her body’s subject, her doctor’s subject, her baby’s subject, and in this biological work she has undertaken she becomes society’s and history’s subject too. But where she feels the subjection most is in the territories,whatever they are that in her pre-maternal life she made her own. The threat to what made her herself to what made her an individual : this is what the mother finds hardest to live down. Having been told all her life to value her individuality and pursue its aims, she encounters an outright contradiction, a betrayal – even among the very gatekeepers of her identity, her husband or colleagues or friends – in the requirement that she surrender it”(Cusk,2011.p36).

Even in times when there are more plastic views about how the task of caring for a baby is assigned, when both father and mother at different times may have leave of absence from work to be the baby’s primary parenting figure it remains impossible, as Cusk suggests for a woman to escape the biological implications of maternity.

Cusk acknowledges that her feelings may be influenced by her experience of being mothered and recent commentators on attachment theory have indicated that the quality of the parenting figures’ attachment to their children is influenced by their own childhood experience of attachment figures (See for instance, Fonagy 2001).

Winnicott too acknowledged that a mother may not be good enough. Such a mother might repeatedly fail to meet the needs of her baby and so the baby grows to be a child who complies to his mother’s needs and so, in order to survive this, develops a false rather than a true self.


Attachment theory, the facilitating environment and the care of children not living in with their own families

Yet Cusk’s idea of the panic when a new baby arrives may have an unlikely resonance for those such as residential child care workers and foster carers, who are charged with looking after children and young people who have been deprived of consistent attachment figures,and who have not received “good-enough parenting”. These children can create a panic in children’s services departments and sometimes in the wider community. When this occurs we look around for the symbolic  “mothering figure” – man,woman or group – who will take responsibility for them. The trouble is the professional carer’s task is that of creating a facilitating maternal environment at a time when a child’s development has already been impaired by parental deprivation and inconsistent parenting. The professional carer who is asked to be a consistent attachment figure and a “good-enough mother” first encounters the child when the true self is already well hidden and when powerful false self defences are pre-eminent. In this case the nurture, the good-enough caring, the consistent attachment provided can never be primary but has to be a real compensation for loss and abandonment before any healing can be done. It is in this sense that the carer is addressing what seems like the panic caused by the arrival of a new baby (albeit one inhabiting for example a 5 years old or a 14 years old body) of whom really we know nothing, whom we did not experience in the womb and for whom we have as yet no authentic feelings apart from trepidation and perhaps fear. For how can the carer know if she will be good enough to deal with the child’s indifference to her responses or to the child’s omnipotence in the face of the care she offers ?



Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby,J.(1965) Child Care and the Growth of Love London : Penguin Books

Bowlby, J. (1980) Loss, Sadness and Depression , Vol 3 of Attachment and Loss London : Hogarth p.185

Fonagy,P.(2001)Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis New York : Other Press

Cusk,R.(2011) “From liberty and equality to the maternal grind” in The New Review, The Observer, April 3rd, 2011. This is a review of Shattered : Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality by Rebecca Asher published by Harvill Secker in 2011. The text of this book review can be accessed at rebecca-asher-motherhood-equality

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.(1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment London : Karnac Books(2005)

Winnicott, D.W.(1958) Collected Papers : Through Paediatrics to Psycho-analysis London : Tavistock Publications (1975)

Winnicott, D.W.(1988) Babies and their Mothers London : Free Association Books