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How to Be Good Enough Mother

Uploaded 2/4/2022, approx. 11 minute read

I received several thought-provoking questions from a client of mine who had become a client despite having watched several of my YouTube videos talk about indomitable courage. Anyhow, she raised a few fascinating questions related to several of my videos.

I would like to respond to these questions as briefly as I can, which means this video is going to be shorter than the normal three hours.

Yes, yes Shoshanim, I know you don't like long videos, you don't like long anything lately, and we will not go into sordid details.

Okay, my name is Sam Vaknin, I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and a professor of psychology.

And these are the questions, and really they are very interesting ones.

She asks, what does it mean to be a mother? When we say that it is clear that a child needs a mother, is there a marked difference between a biological mother and a non-biological mother?

I'm thinking about children born to surrogates, not just those adopted. Is there a difference between a biological mother and a mother figure, a grandmother, an aunt? Can a man, she asks, ever really play the role of a mother?

Example, to children of gay male couples. Could a man be a good enough mother?

These are excellent questions in today's world.

When Donald Winnicott came up with the phrase, good enough mother, which embodied a whole conceptual universe of thinking about motherhood, at that time there was no sex fluidity, there were no transgenders, there was no gender fluidity. Everyone knew his place, and your place in society was strictly determined by your genitalia.

There was this hidden assumption that your genitalia are somehow correlated with your brain, and therefore with your proper place in society. There was the belief that optimization of social functioning critically depends on very rigid gender roles.

So when he said good enough mother, he was thinking about someone with a vagina who is a woman gender-wise and who fulfills her domestic roles, because these are the only roles open to her.

Things have changed a bit since then. Hillary Clinton. And so we now tend to think in a much less rigid way, much more flexible and transient. We are more open to fluidity in almost every one of the words I had just mentioned.

Let us start with the fact that mothering is a social function. It has nothing to do with what kind of genitalia you possess. It has nothing to do with your assigned gender role. It has nothing to do with anything except the role assigned to you by society. It is a job and it has job descriptions with qualifications and anyone with any type of genitalia or in transition between genitalia or influx between genders anyone can fulfill the role of a mother.

And this raises of course immediately in the minds of those of you who are intelligent. Minority admittedly, this raises the question, what is the role of a mother? Mother's main role is to frustrate the child. Her main role in the upbringing of her child, of her offspring, is to push the child away.

I am going to repeat this because it is counterintuitive and many of you will honor again Winnicott with his nonsense. Listen well.

Mother's main role, the main function of mothering, is to frustrate the child, not to cater to the child's needs and to push the child away from her. This process is called separation individuation.

A good mother, definitely a good enough mother, allows the child to separate from her, encourages the child to separate from her and by separating from her, the child becomes his or her individual, divisible from her. The individual forms when boundaries form.

So a good mother encourages the child to create boundaries, fosters and engenders boundaries in her child, never challenges the emerging boundaries of the child, this nascent adolescence and never ever breaches the boundaries, never violates the boundaries.

Now there are many ways to violate the boundaries and all these ways put together are known as child abuse. Yes, this is child abuse. Child abuse is when the child is not allowed to separate from the mother, become an individual and set boundaries, separating the child from the world and from the mother, most importantly.

To industrialize the child, to idolize the child, to pamper the child, to smother, to spoil the child, these are forms of abuse because they don't allow the child to separate from the parent, to instrumentalize the child, to parentify the child, these are forms of abuse because the parent and the child merge and fuse and become a single psychological organism, something that is replicated later by co-dependence and to some extent people with borderline personality disorder.

The child is not allowed to separate. To sexually abuse the child is of course to breach the child's bodily boundaries, same with physical abuse, same with psychological and verbal abuse, they penetrate, they invade, they vitiate the child's boundaries, psychological boundaries, everything is about boundaries.

A good mother sets her child apart behind his boundaries or her boundaries, the child's boundaries, so that the child can get in touch with reality.

By pushing the child away, the mother forces the child to get in touch with reality.

Initially the child develops grandiosity, he says, I don't need mummy, I can take on the world, that's healthy, that's a healthy form of narcissism, as Jung had observed.

But to do that the child needs to feel safe, he needs to feel that mummy has his back, mummy supports him and eggs him on, mummy wants him to go away on this enormous adventure called life, touch upon reality, create a proper reality testing, get rid of magical thinking.

The child until then believes that if he wants something, mummy will deliver. And because he and mummy are one and the same, he develops magical thinking. He just has to think about something or cry and things happen.

This is magical thinking. By putting the child through the trauma of separation, because it's a very traumatic event, potentially the most traumatic in life.

By forcing this trauma upon the child, the mother actually encourages the child to get rid of magical thinking and to develop a reasoned, logical, rational way of looking at the world and connecting actions to consequences.

So to summarize this paragraph, a mother's main role is to traumatize the child, to frustrate the child, to push the child away, to encourage the child to become separate from her, to render the child an individual, to foster in the child a proper reality testing and to get rid of the child's magical thinking.

And at the same time, at the same time, there's a fine balancing act, because the mother needs to continue to be throughout this process, a safe, a secure base. A safe base means she needs to be present, she needs to be empathic, attuned to the child needs and child's fears and anxieties, caring enough to do something about these things, holding and containing, loving unconditionally and yet demanding from the child, certain accomplishments, milestones in the child's development.

And not many, not many mothers know how to do this. Not many mothers know how to balance these utterly conflicting demands.

On the one hand, to be a safe base and on the other hand, to push a child away. On the one hand, to love and care for the child. On the other hand, to frustrate the child. On the one hand, to be empathic and loving. And on the other hand, to traumatize the child.

Not many, not many mothers know how to how to accomplish this equilibrium. The child is poised on the cusp of what is called object relations, relations with other people. He needs to say goodbye to mommy. He needs to internalize her, introject her and carry her with him for the rest of her life as a mere voice.

And the mother needs to let go. She cannot allow herself to be absent or selfish or depressed, to infantilize herself, to parentify the child, to use the child as an instrument to realize her unfulfilled dreams and fantasies and wishes. She can't do any of this if she is a good enough mother.

And regrettably, few mothers by these definitions, by these criteria, few mothers are good enough mothers. The mother should prepare the child on four different planes, four different levels.

First of all, she should teach the child about physical reality. Don't touch the oven. It's hot. The stove is going to burn you. Don't do that. Don't drink this. It's going to have a bad effect on your tummy. Don't overeat. I don't know, bananas, physical reality.

The mother needs to introduce the child to physical reality and physical reality includes the playground, the sandbox and other children.

At first as objects. Her job is to train the child to survive, corporeally, bodily survive in his environment. Most environments today are urban, urban environments.

So she needs to teach him everything how to cross the street. So physical reality.

Second level of training, second level of induction into the human race, into mankind, which is the role of a mother is social reality. The mother is a socialization agent. She is an agent of society. The father has a similar role, but we have discovered recently, definitely in the last 15 years, what psychoanalysis had discovered long ago that the father's role is much, much less important than the mother's role, even in social when socialization is concerned.

The mother is the agent and representative of society. And she inculcates in the child the ability to read social cues and the social skills to respond to them. She integrates the child in peer groups on the one hand and with other adults on the other hand.

Socialization teaches the child what are the under with the overriding values of society, the universal values, what behaviors are acceptable and which are not. What is empathy and how it manifests in interactions with others, how to interpret body language, facial expressions and micro expressions, advances.

So socialization, the third level where a mother has a major function is as a conduit to the Germanic culture, to the dominant culture.

This process is called acculturation. She immerses the child in the prevailing culture by telling him stories, fairy tales, fables, exposing him to mass media and social media in gradual way, incremental way and controlled way. And so she exposes the child to the culture, to the dominant culture, thereby rendering him a part of this culture, not necessarily the conforming part. He could be a contrarian, he could fight the culture, but he needs to get to know the culture, to make a stand, to take a stand later on in his life.

And so she channels the culture and brings it to her child.

Finally, the mother is the one responsible for primitive skills acquisition, basic skills acquisition. Fathers usually assume this role later in the child's life after age five or six, after the formative years, but until age five or six, the mother is the one who teaches the child all the necessary basic skills, starting of course with walking. Walking later on, much later on, reading and writing in between talking, walking and talking, two critical skills.

She teaches him myriad other skills, anything from toilet training, to dressing, to brushing teeth, to cooking with mommy, to eating, how to eat. So she teaches him hundreds of skills.

This is an underrated function of motherhood. Is there any of these things that cannot be done by a mother figure? No. Any mother figure would do. Is there any of these things that necessitates a biological connection between the mother and the child? No. None of them. Any surrogate mother, any adopting mother, any mother figure like a grandmother or an aunt, they can all carry out these roles to perfection. They need to be good enough mothers.

And as I said at the beginning of this presentation, it's a job. They need to apply for the job. They need to have the necessary qualifications and then they can be good enough mothers.

The biological connection is spurious, is not really an integral part of mothering.

Indeed, in many parts of the world, children are brought up by uncles or by a whole tribe or a whole village or by an extended family or by their cousins and so on and so forth.

Many types of people and institutions and communities carry out the functions of mothering in the kibbutzim in Israel.

Children, now that's not the case, but it used to be the case. The children were taken away from their mothers and raised by professional caregivers, professional caretakers. And the mothers saw the children only intermittently once a week on the weekend.

And yet children who grew up in the kibbutzim are by far the most mentally healthy, productive and constructive adults in Israeli society. They constitute a vast majority of all Israeli elites. And yet they have not been raised by their biological mothers, but by mother substitutes.


Okay, we move on.

And the next question, thought-provoking question from my client, what does it mean to be a woman? Is there a fundamental biological script that we are overriding or merely social expectations that we are shunning?

But before I answer this, I would like to dwell on the question, can a man ever really play the role of a mother?

For example, in a gay couple, could a man be a good enough mother?

I guess that by now you know the answer. Of course a man can do all this. Anyone, theoretically a computer can do all this. That properly constructed Android with artificial intelligence absolutely can fulfill all these functions. Successfully, anyone, regardless of genitalia, regardless of body composition, silicon or carbon, regardless of anything can fulfill this role.

The only ones who are likely to fail in being good enough mothers are people, men or women, who have mental health problems, who carry a baggage of insecure and insecure attachment style, borderline personality disorder, other problems, narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, other mental health issues, bipolar, for example, disorder.

So people with mental health issues, probably an insecure attachment style, probably will have extreme difficulty in being good enough mothers, but men definitely can be good enough mothers.

And in the future, 50 years from now, properly constructed robots with human-like skin, you know, indistinguishable from humans and with the right AI, artificial intelligence program, they can be good enough mothers. Good enough mothering is a function, a job, and going, a mother goes to work with her child. It's a workplace. That's what men fail to appreciate. The household is a workplace, perhaps the most onerous and demanding of all workplaces.

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