Pioneering Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott on the Mother as a Pillar of Society
By Maria Popova
Few thinkers have been more influential in shaping our understanding of how the self and the psyche develop, nor of the optimal early environment for that development, than the great English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (April 7, 1896–January 28, 1971) — pioneer of the notion of good-enough parenting, as opposed to prescriptive and punitive perfection, as the foundation of a healthy upbringing. Every modern practitioner of psychotherapy and every substantive book on parenting draws, directly on indirectly, on Winnicott’s work.
Winnicott championed the elemental importance of childhood play and of the early cultivation of a capacity for self-reliant solitude in our ability to experience aliveness. He described his life’s work as animated, above all, by “the urge to find and to appreciate the ordinary good mother” and believed that “the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby.”
In a piece titled “The Mother’s Contribution to Society,” originally written as the postscript to his 1957 collection of broadcast talks and included in the altogether fascinating Winnicott on the Child (public library), he writes:
It seems to me that there is something missing in human society. Children grow up and become in their turn fathers and mothers, but, on the whole, they do not grow up to know and acknowledge just what their mothers did for them at the start.
I do not mean that children should thank their parents for conceiving them. Surely they may hope that the original coming together was a matter of mutual pleasure and satisfaction. Parents certainly cannot expect thanks for the fact of a child’s existence. Babies do not ask to be born.
I do not mean that children are under any obligation to their fathers and mothers at all on account of their cooperation in home-building and family affairs, even though gratitude may eventually develop. Ordinary good parents do build a home and stick together, thus providing the basic ration of child care and thus maintaining a setting in which each child can gradually find the self and the world, and a working relationship between the two. But parents do not want gratitude for this; they get their rewards, and rather than be thanked they prefer to see their children growing up and themselves becoming parents and home-builders. This can be put the other way round. Boys and girls can legitimately blame parents when, after bringing about their existence, they do not furnish them with that start in life which is their due.
Considering the often overlooked value of the home to the larger welfare of society, Winnicott adds:
We know something of the reasons why this long and exacting task, the parents’ job of seeing their children through, is a job worth doing; and, in fact, we believe that it provides the only real basis for society, and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country’s social system. But the home is the parents’, not the child’s, responsibility.
Winnicott calls for a recognition of “the immense contribution to the individual and to society” that “the ordinary good mother” makes simply by virtue of her devotion to the child, particularly in the early stages of infancy. He urges:
Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense? If this contribution is accepted, it follows that every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.
Our failure to recognize that indebted dependence, Winnicott argues, is responsible for some of the most fundamental fractures of society — from the obvious manifestations, ranging from interpersonal malignancies like misogyny to societal maladies like sexism, to the subtler and more systemic symptoms affecting everything from social norms to political regimes. He writes:
If our society delays making full acknowledgement of this dependence, which is a historical fact in the initial stage of development of every individual, there must remain a block both to progress and to regression, a block that is based on fear. If there is no true recognition of the mother’s part, then there must remain a vague fear of dependence. This fear will sometimes take the form of a fear of WOMAN, or fear of a woman, and at other times will take less easily recognized forms, always including the fear of domination.
Unfortunately, the fear of domination does not lead groups of people to avoid being dominated; on the contrary, it draws them towards a specific or chosen domination. Indeed, were the psychology of the dictator studied, one would expect to find that, amongst other things, he in his own personal struggle is trying to control the woman whose domination he unconsciously fears, trying to control her by encompassing her, acting for her, and in turn demanding total subjection and “love.”
Wary of our habitual resistance to having our most deeply conditioned beliefs challenged, Winnicott echoes Galileo’s admonition about the folly of believing our preconceptions and offers a lamentation that applies just as piercingly to all contexts in which we are called to confront a convenient but wrongheaded convention:
It often happens that just before an understanding of some matter, there is a stage of denial, or blindness, or deliberate not seeing, just as the sea withdraws from the sands before throwing forward the thundering wave.
In the remainder of the indispensable Winnicott on the Child, he goes on to explore such facets of developmental psychology and mother-child relations as safety, learning, communication, transitional objects, and self-fulfillment. Complement it with Amanda Palmer’s magnificent BBC open letter on the choice to become a mother and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s beautiful letter of affection and appreciation to her mother.
For a cultural counterpoint, see Meghan Daum’s collection of celebrated writers’ meditations on the choice not to have children.
Published May 8, 2016