- BBC World News
Between the 1940s and 1960s, a British doctor helped thousands of women raise their babies using a little-known tool at the time: psychology.
The psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott gave more than 60 radio talks on the BBC and became famous for developing the concept of what he called “the mother good enough“.
Until then, the widespread belief was that women should aim to be perfect mothers, following to the letter a series of rules to raise their babies correctly.
Doctors like the influential child welfare expert Frederic Truby King argued that babies they are like wild animals that must be tamed.
The mothers were told that the children should be fed at set times, that they could not be held for more than 10 minutes, and that they should not be cuddled or bonded with them.
Pero Winnicott proposed something very different.
In her private medical practice, she noticed that the poorest women, who did not have access to books with Truby King’s advice, followed their instincts when it came to raising their children, and they did so without problems.
For this reason, when he was invited to present a series of radio talks between 1943 and 1966, he encouraged mothers to trust your maternal instincts and to ignore the imposed rules.
“If the relationship between mother and baby has begun and develops naturally, there is no need to implement a feeding technique or other methods,” he said.
“Together they both know exactly what is correct, better than any outsider could ever know.”
“Under these circumstances,” he said, “a baby will drink the right amount of milk, at the right rate, and will know when to stop.”
Winnicott explained that “the whole physical process works simply because the emotional relationship develops naturally“.
Retired psychoanalyst Jennifer Johns, who trained with Winnicott during the last years of the pediatrician’s life – who died in 1971 – told the show Witness History, from the BBC, that one of its virtues was that it introduced psychological concepts in a very natural and easy to understand way.
At that time, there was little understanding of psychoanalysis. Many even looked at him with skepticism.
But Johns says Winnicott’s simple way of speaking and the fact that he did not use technical terms made few realize that the pediatrician used psychological techniques.
“His ideas always had that psychoanalytic background, but you didn’t have to know that they were psychoanalytic. In fact, I think he probably thought that they would have a greater diffusion if it was not known, because the word psychoanalysis was a bit repellent,” he says.
Winnicott had been interested in Freud’s ideas during his youth, and he developed a special interest in understanding how the unconscious shapes our thoughts and actions.
Johns says that during his career he came to observe some 60,000 mothers interacting with their babies and that allowed him “to see how some psychoanalytic theories came to life front in his eyes. “
“I think the most important thing is that you feel, without a doubt, that your baby is someone who is worth knowing as a person,” said the expert.
“No one who comes to give you advice will never know this as well as you know“.
This idea that no one knows more about a baby than its mother was completely against the beliefs of the time in the Western world.
Are not perfect
Another revolutionary idea of Winnicott, which directly contradicted the values of his time – and even those of today – was what he called “the good enough mother.”
Johns explains the concept: “You hear so often young mothers say that they wish they were perfect moms, that they wanted to do a better job than their own mothers did and never disappoint this little being.”
“And his point was to say, ‘Hey, you just have to be good enough‘”.
Winnicott not only believed that it was not necessary to be a perfect mom. Claimed that it wasn’t the best for babies.
His theory was that failing was a necessary part of raising a child, since, in this way, the child learns about the reality of an imperfect world.
“If you are perfect your child does not experience imperfection,” says Johns. “And it doesn’t have to make its own adaptations to your blemishes, which could strengthen its development.”
An example that Winnicott gave is when a woman has another child and does not have the time that the boy or girl would like to dedicate to him or her.
“Anything that absorbs the mother’s time can generate jealousy, like another baby. I really believe that children who have felt jealous and have managed to accept it they benefit from that experience“, said.
Although Winnicott did not achieve the international recognition that other parenting experts did, he did make a very famous contribution. He was the one who introduced the concept of the transitional object.
He believed that a baby is so dependent on its caregiver that it cannot be considered separate from its mother. He posited that, in fact, the baby does not feel separate.
It was this that led him to talk about the importance of the attachment object, a concept he developed with his main collaborator, his second wife, the psychoanalyst, social worker and teacher Clare Winnicott.
“That first object that your baby loves, a blanket or a stuffed animal, for the infant this it’s almost part of his being. And if they remove it or wash it, the result is disaster, “explained the expert.
Johns notes that until then this apparent obsession of the baby was thought to be a bad thing.
“People worried that the child was becoming pathologically dependent on an object,” he explains. “He was the one who said, ‘This is normal, this is what children do.’
“He explained it as some kind of bridge, so that external reality could be discovered by the infant, “he says.
Beyond his valuable contributions, Johns emphasizes that Winnicott did not seek to become a revolutionary in child rearing.
He also didn’t want to tell women what to do.
“Simply I wanted to have an influence similar to that of a mother, being a person who is in favor of relationships and that people believe in themselves, “he says.
“Young mothers desperately seek instructions (on how to raise their children), but you have to find out yourself, listening to you and your baby,” she sums up.
Or as Winnicott himself described it:
“There is a place for all kinds of mothers in the world, and some will be good at one thing and others at another – or should I say, some will be bad at some things and others at other things-“.
“I want to encourage you to uphold and defend this special wisdom, cannot be taughta“.
May listen to the BBC’s Witness History program here
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