Going it Alone: The Good-Enough Single Mother

By Barbara Almond, M.D.

Going it Alone: The Good-Enough Single MotherCan a single mother be a good enough mother?  And what do we mean by a “good enough mother?”  This term was coined by Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst who had first been a pediatrician and was particularly interested in the mother-infant relationship.  He describes the “ordinary devoted mother” as one who is able to establish a loving relationship with her baby through identification with its needs, a state he refers to as “primary maternal preoccupation.” Winnicott felt that through this identification with her infant, the mother knows what the infant feels like and is able to provide almost exactly what the infants needs.  Interestingly, he feels that while the mother does not always read the signals correctly, she does so often enough for the infant’s growth and development to proceed.  No mother can be perfect, but most mothers can be good enough.

Winnicott also makes it clear that there are times when the mother hates her baby and that this is normal and understandable.  The needs of the mother and the needs of the infant, later the child, do not always coincide.  In the middle of the night, when the exhausted mother needs her sleep, the baby needs to feed and makes this need audible in no uncertain terms.  Even deeply loving mothers want to put their fingers in their ears and go back to sleep!

In what way does the need of the mother to be good enough differ in single mothers from their married or paired counter-parts?  First of all, the particular circumstances of the mother’s “singleness” must be a factor.  Women may be single by choice or may become so by way of divorce, desertion or death of their spouse.  They may be single from the beginning and throughout the child’s lifetime or, single for part of it, if the marriage dissolves in one way or another or if a step-father enters the picture.  A mother who elects to have a child alone can devote herself more single-mindedly to her child than one who has the needs of her spouse to also consider.  Spouses, be they male or female may be a help or a hindrance.  A spouse may take the baby in the middle of the night and bottle feed it, or he may be furious at being awakened and having his wife’s attention turned to her baby, and not just at night-time.   Clearly, circumstances differ from family to family.  If a jealous husband has an affair, or leaves the marriage, the mother may, against her more loving instincts, resent the baby and then suffer guilt and anxiety about her mothering.

Many single mothers find others to share their parenting—family, friends, baby-sitters.  Perhaps this phenomenon is more marked in single mother families than in two parent families.  I don’t know to what extent this is true, but I imagine it is one way that all mothers, single or partnered, manage their ambivalence in the face of their children’s needs.

Maternal ambivalence, the mixture of positive and negative feelings that all mother feel towards their children, is a ubiquitous phenomenon.  In fact, ambivalence is inevitable in all relationships where loss and disappointment may occur.  But in these days, when mothering has become so demanding, and expectations of good mothering so unforgiving, ambivalence intensifies and the guilt, shame and anxiety that follow it, intensify also.  It seems to me that these unforgiving expectations are a two edged sword for single mothers.  On the one hand there is no partner vying for attention and on the other hand there is no partner to help.  But either way, I feel that contemporary mothers, married or single, are trying much too hard to be perfect and need to be able to settle for good enough!

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