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The too-good mother

The too-good mother is not necessarily a mother who aspires to be perfect or considers that she is. She is not the classical "smothering" mother who believes herself to be devotedly meeting her infant's needs while in fact pursuing her own needs with insensitive disregard of his. Nor is she the "martyred" mother who resentfully sacrifices herself to her baby's care and who may find that her baby does in fact become the tyrant she had supposed him to be. The too-good mother finds infant care extremely gratifying. She is so closely identified with her infant that, in sensitively meeting his needs, she feels that she is meeting her own. She remains in a persisting state of primary maternal preoccupation (Winnicott, 1965, p. 52) which leaves little or no room for conscious resentment. In contrast, the ordinary devoted mother can hate her infant (1958, p. 201). Her love contains elements of conscious resentment, experienced as "a drat the kid element". As he gets older, she can allow him "some negative care" and "an alive neglect" (1964). And she is not afraid at times to allow him sufficient frustration to hate her. Too-good mothers are among those mothers whom Raphael-Leff (1991) described as "facilitators", to distinguish them from "regulators", who expect their baby to fit in with them. Facilitators idealise their babies and achieve infantile bliss through vicarious identification with them; they aim to spare their babies all frustration and to be their babies' sole source of goodness. Too-good mothers are those facilitators who have sufficient empathy, sensitivity and skill to be able to achieve this as nearly as possible. Perfection does not exist.

Does there exist a too-good father? Winnicott does not mention this possibility. Perhaps fathers can always avoid an over-close identification with their infants because they never share the same body. Studies show in general that they offer their infants much more dyssynchrony than mothers do (Biringen et al., 1997). This enables them to provide their infants with the necessary difference and dissonance which too-good mothers fail to provide. The detrimental effects of too-good mothering must inevitably be greatest when fathers are absent or fail to perform their usual role, as was the case in the following family.

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