Saturday, 10 September 2011

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