WINNICOTT: A PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE

“Winnicott: A Present for the Future’ is the title of an online conference in September to celebrate 50 years since the death of this ground-breaking paediatrician and child psychologist, who died in 1971, aged 74. Tickets will be available to book online from April 25th (email: contact@winnicott-trust.org.uk).

So why are we celebrating this great man, fifty years after his death?  He was the first British paediatrician to explore both the child’s mental and physical state of being; he saw no difference between the two.  For him, a healthy body led to a healthy mind: mens sanum in corpore sano.  To understand what was going on in the child’s psyche, he invented the ‘squiggle game’, in which a child drew a squiggle, Winnicott would then turn it into a shape and together they would create a recognisable picture, while the child relaxed and laughed and gradually the truth would emerge as to its state of mind.

Winnicott’s most famous legacy is his invention of the phrase, ‘a good enough mother’, which has sometimes been interpreted as an apology for inadequate parenting.  Not a bit of it, says Winnicott.  All mothers need to fail sometimes, to create a resilient child who can withstand ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, to quote Shakespeare.

First, let us consider what we might mean by a ‘perfect’ mother?  A mother who never loses her temper, remains calm and always smiling, is endlessly available, makes crocodiles out of egg-boxes with her child and runs the Christmas Fair at the local primary school, the Chair of the PTA?  Winnicott argues that such a paragon might be in danger of rearing a demanding and fragile individual who expects his/her needs to be met at every turn, and who might collapse at the first sign of adversity My mother-in-law, a Winnicott subscriber herself, used to tell me: ‘have ‘em and love ’em and leave ‘em be’ and it worked for her son (my husband), so it was good advice.

Of course, the crucial word there is ‘love’ and Winnicott is not advising that we should neglect or abuse our children, of course not, but we should not castigate ourselves if our children sometimes hear the sharp edge of our tongue, or if they must wait for something they desperately want. When a baby is hungry and wants the breast (or bottle) of course we rush to answer their cries as soon as possible, and the baby learns that its needs will be satisfied.  But as the child grows, he /she must learn that it is not the centre of the universe and that parents also have needs: there is a delicate interface between the parental needs and those of the child.  If the mother always sacrifices her own desires to the wishes of the child, she may produce a monster at worst, or a fragile ego at best.   Children need to learn to tolerate boredom, or frustration or sadness as they grow up.

So, the concept of the ‘good enough mother’ is not an idealised figure but a robust, hardworking, sometimes frazzled woman who is probably trying to combine motherhood with work demands, not to mention the laundry, housework and catering – and during the pandemic, home-schooling her children as well: a big ‘ask’.  Winnicott would be proud of the woman who holds it all together, even if she does lose her rag from time to time.  He was a man ahead of his time, somebody who never wagged a finger or said ‘should’, but advocated that mothers follow their own instincts and not be browbeaten by the ‘experts’.  Amen to that!