Featured Article: Winnicott: The 'good-enough mother' radio broadcasts
By Robert Adès
Image credit: Radio by ArtmoGraphicDesigner. CC0 public domain via Unsplash.
Our appetite for books on baby care seems unquenchable. The combination of the natural curiosity and uncertainty of the expectant mother, the unknowable mind of the infant, and the expectations of society, creates a void filled with all kinds of manuals and confessionals offering advice, theory, reassurance, anecdotes, schedules… and inevitably, inconsistency, disagreement and further anxiety.
One figure who has remained relevant through the passing generations, very much due to his resistance to giving practical advice which inevitably becomes faddish over time, is the English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). While many of his ideas persist 70 years on in the form of frozen, if familiar, sound bites: the ‘good-enough mother’; the ‘ordinary devoted mother’; that ‘there is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and a mother’; and the ‘transitional object’ (the security blanket) to name a few, his message remains timeless.
The core of Winnicott’s work on parenting was given through nearly 60 radio broadcast talks on the BBC, many on Women’s Hour, across the two decades from the middle of the Second World War. The subject – expressions of psychoanalytic concepts for mothers – was potentially risky to the corporation, culturally progressive, and to Winnicott and his producers at a time of seismic social change, vitally important. While he was a natural communicator who had earned his spurs in the crowded children’s wards of London hospitals, Winnicott needed to be moulded into a broadcaster capable of expressing complex and sensitive issues without scandalising his audience of unsuspecting ordinary mothers: a task which required a series of astute, sensitive and firm producers. Reinforcing the emerging role of women after the war as cultural consumers and cultural commissioners, all Winnicott’s producers and collaborators at the BBC were women.
What Irks the Ordinary Mother? [CW 6:1:7] From “The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby” BBC Broadcast series.
Winnicott’s speaking style, lacking the demotic rhythm of his contemporary, the ‘radio doctor’ Charles Hill, was straightforwardly relatable and reassuring, as he told mothers “You will be able to see that really I am saying quite ordinary obvious things”, or, to take a topical example: “by devoted, I simply mean devoted”. Winnicott’s broadcast voice has a relaxed, almost murmuring, quality and his relatively high pitch was frequently mistaken for the voice of a woman. His thoughtful manner, his extensive use of pre-recorded documentary conversation between mothers, and his vocal hermaphroditism, allowed him to completely relinquish the role of an educated male expert talking to the uneducated female public. He was instead beside the listener, speaking on behalf of the infant, putting into words what the mother already knew.
Winnicott’s career emerged during a period of wartime where it was only too easy for state propaganda, regarding physical care, to supersede all else. Truby King was campaigning for food hygiene while proposing rigid scheduled feeding on the basis that regular infantile hunger built strength of character. Many UK maternity wards employed practices of shocking insensitivity to the mother-baby relationship, in which the physically-orientated ‘expertise’ of the nurses countermanded the new mother’s basic instincts.
Winnicott, on the contrary, argued that the mother herself is the specialist in her own baby, and that professionals must not take away the mother’s confidence in her instincts and natural knowledge. He professed himself “allergic to propaganda”, telling mothers “you will be relieved that I am not going to tell you what to do,” “but,” he continued, “I can talk about what it all means.” He was later accused of de-intellectualising mothers, by his insistence that intelligence – as compared to love - was both unnecessary and insufficient for mothering, but I think rather he would sympathise with the current trend of expressing this attitude as: mothers have had enough of experts.
He was not afraid of what he called “the seamy side of home life”, and wanted mothers to hear that he knew about the role of non-loving feelings in infant care. He imagined the mother who allows herself to say “Damn you, you little bugger” to her baby, and in another broadcast gave airtime to reasons a mother might hate – as well as love - her child.
Winnicott’s own work was soon overshadowed by Benjamin Spock, who acknowledged his debt to Winnicott by crediting him as the underlying theoretical model of his childcare guidance manual; that is, while giving the very kind of advice Winnicott had expressly avoided and even dismissed as unhelpful.
Spock said of Winnicott that his contribution “all adds up to reliability and love”, but this only tells the first half of the story. Winnicott’s most enduring mothering idea is of the ‘good-enough mother’, a phrase intended to liberate parents from the millstone of aspirational perfection. Once the infant knows the mother can reliably provide during the baby’s early state of complete dependence, it is through the bust-ups and bungles of being good-enough rather than perfect that the infant finds out about his own developing needs. The child discovers he is not within the suffocating realm of parental omniscience, nor are the parents within the tyranny of the baby’s omnipotent control. He finds that rage and phantasies of destruction do not magically destroy the world, except in his creative imagination. Beyond this lies a widening horizon of emotional development: anger, disappointment, reparation, and eventually, independence, and gratitude.
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Image credit: D. W. Winnicott for The Collected Works of D. W. Winnicott. Reproduced with permission.