Skip to main content

Just Being There

It's a scenario familiar to parents the world over, and it goes something like this: "Ah, I see my child / children are playing happily, perhaps I will _______" (insert meaningful activity).  Yep, it doesn't matter whether you decide to read a book, write a book, or just paint your goddam toenails, you can be certain that as soon as you turn yourself away from your children, they will suddenly and without warning decide to stop whatever game they were only moments ago utterly absorbed in, and demand your full attention.  Small children are not manipulative; they do not deliberately set out to thwart our daily attempts at progress; their wants and their needs are so closely aligned as to be virtually indistinguishable. So this can only mean one thing. As hard as it is to deal with the constant frustration of putting most of our own desires aside, and 'not getting anything done', it seems that our babies and toddlers actually need something crucial from us - our attentive presence.

Psychotherapist Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) ought to be known to mums everywhere if only because he coined a phrase that we should all get printed on our t-shirts in mirror writing: Good Enough Mother.  His innovative theories all focused on the influence of a parent on the development of the psyche - more specifically, the 'mother'.  He described how her attentive presence, which he named the 'primary maternal preoccupation', played a crucial role; how, "...the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary devoted mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby."  And he famously said, "There is no such thing as a baby - only a baby and someone." It seems, according to Winnicott, that we just have to be, not good, but good enough, and that, perhaps most crucially, we just have to be there, intensively at first, then tailing off gradually as our children get bigger: "The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure."

Winnicott also originated the idea of 'holding'; put simply the unique way of 'being there' performed by a mother.  His thinking about this is still well known among psychotherapists even today, who, some sixty years later, talk often about the concept of 'holding the therapeutic space'.  I'm not going make your tired parent brain ache - or mine - by trying to explain this in too much depth, but I will try and tell you what it meant to me,  in my own work as a therapist prior to becoming a 'full time good enough mother'.  For me, holding the therapeutic space involved:
  • creating an environment in which a person could feel physically and emotionally safe
  • staying with a person, physically and emotionally, and accepting them
  • conducting myself in a way that was calm, supportive, non-judgemental, and predictable
  • being fully present for the person; listening deeply, witnessing openly, reflecting back honestly
  • being strong, steady and unfazed no matter how distressed, emotional or 'out of control' a person in therapy was
So, short of chopping cheese into cubes and rationing CBeebies, not that different to the task of mothering then.  Of course, Winnicott knew this - all of his ideas about therapy were simply versions of the mother / child relationship.  His suggestions concerned therapists mimicking these ways of being and behaving in their attempts to heal people, for whom this sort of 'good enough' early parenting had been lacking.  For our own purposes, as parents of babies and small children, we are hopefully in the business of prevention rather than cure.  But what we can take from Winnicott is a reminder of just how crucial the role of mothering is, especially in the early years, and how, whilst we may feel that there is 'other stuff we should be getting on with', that just by 'being with' our children, we are actually doing something of fundamental importance.

Babies and todders demand our attentive presence because they need it.  When we allow ourselves to really be there for them, and to make this our main activity, we are doing something truly miraculous.  We might call it 'primary maternal preoccupation', 'holding the space' or, put more simply - 'just being there'. Whatever we name it, through this loving presence in which we are their compass and their anchor, our child is building a brain and a personality that is set up for an optimum chance at good mental health and enjoyable relationships with others for the rest of their life.  This is a great gift not just to them, but to our society and the world.  Children don't care if the carpet needs hoovering, or if they are wearing yesterday's t-shirt; nor do they care what car we drive or if we live in a big fancy house.  They just want to be with us. There is nothing more important that we can do with our time.


  1. God I love Winnicot. What an interesting post. I love reading your stuff about child development. I've only ever read around in a non-professional way.

  2. This makes so much sense to me, I laughed out loud when I read your description in the first paragraph! So true.

  3. thank you ruth! i'm glad i made you laugh! x


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Visual Birth Plan from the Positive Birth Book

If you've already seen the beautiful positions for labour artwork by the amazing Kate Evans that feature in the Positive Birth Book, you'll be pleased to know that our collaboration goes much further! I've been in love with Kate's art and imaginative flair ever since I read her amazing book Bump , so I nearly passed out with excitement when publishers Pinter and Martin agreed to commission her not just to do these amazing illustrations, but to collaborate with me on a much bigger part of the book - the Visual Birth Plan, or VBP. I've loved the idea of a Visual Birth Plan ever since I saw birth plans made from little icons floating around on social media a couple of years ago. These little icons are pretty simple and basic, wouldn't it be better if the icons were more suited to every birth choice, and more beautiful, I thought?! I know there are arguments to be made about birth plans 'per se', and I'm not going to go into those here - suffic

Baby eczema took over our life: have we found the answer?

"How come you have stopped blogging?", someone asked me recently. Short answer: I had a baby. Slightly longer answer: I had my third baby, my life is chaos, I got a job as a columnist and it's all I can do to get that done every week, I'm a perfectionist and it takes me ages to write anything, oh, and my baby got eczema and it's pretty much taken over our life. Eczema? Isn't that just like, a rash? A bit of dry skin, the odd bit of redness behind the knees. That's what I thought, and almost laughed when the community nurse suggested I apply for disability allowance shortly after the eczema started. Four months on, it has nearly broken me. I can't describe to you how awful it is just to see your baby not looking right. This might sound awfully superficial, but I'm sure it's much deeper than that. There must be something hard-wired into the deeper, older parts of a mother's brain, to feel ill-at-ease if her baby looks sick. The skin of

While I Nurse You To Sleep...

While I nurse you to sleep...  I.. . rest .   For the first time today, I am still.  I am not lifting, carrying, holding, bending, reaching, stretching, scrubbing, wiping, hauling, or lugging. Here in this dark room I lie beside you and allow my body and mind to come to stillness after the chaos of our day. You suck, and tug, you fiddle, and fuss...and slowly come to stillness too, until we both are still, and both are resting...I wait, momentarily, and then, I slowly slide away and leave you sleeping. While I nurse you to sleep... I...take stock. I turn over in my mind, the contents of the fridge, the washing on the floor, the money in the bank. I count up the years I've had so far and the years I might have left. I work out how old I will be when you are the age I am now - thirty seven - seventy two. I hope I make it. I count the eggs you already have in your body and those I have in mine and I wonder at the people they may become. I think about the person I was before I met