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Do good mothers make good democracy?

How do we make ourselves psychologically fit for the democracy that we live in? Donald Winnicott argued that it all began with the relationship between a mother and her child – but that acknowledging the bad side of our feelings is essential.

Charlie WilliamsSarah MarksDaniel Pickaverage reading time 7 minutes

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A baby is offered the opportunity to vote.
Illustration by Michael Parkin for Wellcome Collection. © Michael Parkin.

Parents are liable to pursue perfection, in themselves as much as in their offspring. But in a 1953 BBC radio lecture, Donald Winnicott, a distinguished paediatrician, psychoanalyst and broadcaster, popularised the idea of ‘the good enough mother’. Winnicott tried to reassure women that they did not have to be perfect parents. He wrote about how ordinary mothers would feel not only love, but also moments of hate towards their babies. He wanted to do justice to the complex chemistry of emotion between mother and baby, and to recognise the vital importance of their relationship: a relationship that was good, not only for mother and baby, but for a democratic society.

A young woman sitting with a baby and toddler. They are sitting outside on a rug in front of a bush. The woman is wearing an embroidered blouse and has her legs crossed under her. She holds the baby on her lap and her eyes are partially closed. The baby and the toddler both hold toys.

Does democracy start with a loving family?

He also spoke in vivid and accessible terms about fathering. But it was the relationship between the ‘ordinary, good enough… devoted mother’ and the emerging child that he placed centre stage. He stressed the importance of the environment required for each new person to come fully alive, and to come to terms, as best they can, with feelings including frustration, disillusionment and rage.

For Winnicott, and for other like-minded clinicians of his generation, a crucial consideration for infant mental health was the provision of sufficient safety, security and a ‘facilitating environment’. Key concerns for postwar psychoanalysis were the nature of early ‘attachment’ and the importance of psychological ‘containment’. Given our mixed emotions, including powerful aggression, it was important that the primary carer, and later society, could withstand the vicissitudes of infantile emotions and passions. Winnicott explored what happened when an infant’s communications are met with humour, playfulness and understanding; or with punitive retaliation, cold indifference, or excessive separations and interruptions.

Portrait photograph of Donald Winnicott, his left foot outstretched towards the camera.
Donald Winnicott, Unknown.

Donald Winnicott

Maturity and freedom

Winnicott spent part of World War II working in rural Oxfordshire with children under five years of age who had been separated from their parents by Britain’s wartime policy of evacuating children from cities vulnerable to attack. Many were housed with local families, but some were difficult to place and were deprived of crucial emotional nurture. Winnicott worried that the effects of this psychic disruption would harm this generation, making them prone to ‘delinquency’ and ultimately incapable of participating as full members of a society.

Children stand on a station platform, with labels attached to their coats.

Evacuees from London’s East End arrive at Keynsham Station.

So how might a healthy mind, fit for democracy, be nurtured and protected? This was the subject of intense clinical as well as political scrutiny at the end of World War II, as Britain set about rebuilding a nation with a newly established welfare state. Psychologists, doctors and social workers found new roles as experts, advising the postwar Home Office and contributing to international projects on mental health. In the wake of the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, many mental health specialists turned their attention to raising a generation of citizens who would not be seduced by the temptations of either fascism or communism. Choosing democratic freedom, they argued, required considerable integration and maturity: an outcome that required careful nurturing.

Winnicott had been inspired by the burgeoning field of child analysis pioneered by, among others, Melanie Klein, whose radical ideas about infant mental life and the unconscious had caused vociferous debates within the British psychoanalytic community. Winnicott, along with other psychologists and social workers such as John Bowlby and Clare Britton, shared with Klein a belief in the vital importance of the earliest months, and years, of life. They explored how individuals developed healthy relations and attachments to others, starting with the loving attachments formed between babies and parents, along with siblings, in the everyday surroundings of an ‘ordinary decent home’.

Feelings of reciprocal love, trust and security in the early years, these clinicians argued, would provide the best foundation from which children, adolescents and adults would begin to manage the difficult emotions that beset us through life. Tolerance for others was bound up with the sense of being tolerated, even in our ‘bad’ states. The healthy mind would tolerate doubt, contradictions and conflict, rather than assume that a single idea, person, or agency of mind itself must always ‘dictate’.

Human beings, Winnicott argued, were inevitably afflicted by feelings of cruelty and jealousy, as well as guilt and a wish to repair. In order to move towards an age of political maturity, societies needed to encourage better engagement with psychological life. As Sally Alexander reminds us in ‘Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism’, Winnicott called for people to acknowledge the ‘badness inside’.

It would always be easier to submit to the control of authoritarian figures, and to yield to the temptation of violence and greed. Democracy, by contrast, was a harder path to follow: freedom required enormous mental effort. Living according to a moral compass, taking into account the good of the many, and deliberating how to vote, required individuals to actively overcome their opposing dispositions. Democracy was a considerable psychic and political achievement, never fully settled. But for Winnicott, children, universally, had democratic potential. Familial and, particularly, motherly love, with all of its frustrations, was a crucial contributor to fostering this potential.

A man looks into a doll's house with small child.

John Bowlby, working here with a young patient, also  traced the connections between secure parental attachments in childhood and mental health in later life.

Healthy minds, healthy citizens

These ideas soon came to be influential on the world stage at the start of the Cold War. In 1948, the arguments of Winnicott, Bowlby and their psychoanalytic colleagues gained a prominent international platform at the International Congress on Mental Health in London. Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, the first Director General of the World Health Organization, was also convinced that political and psychological stability were two sides of the same coin. Resocialisation and reconstruction, he argued, were urgent tasks after the devastation of the war – and central to this was the prevention of psychological problems of both children and adults. The solution to the difficulties of mental life, according to Chisholm, was also the fundamental solution to ‘group, national and international problems’.

For these clinicians, rebuilding the postwar world was only possible by looking afresh at inner experience and wellbeing, and by focusing on the baby, the child and the adolescent. They argued that if the state could support infant development, value mothers and challenge authoritarian attitudes in the home, it would not only help individuals to flourish, but also cultivate healthy, social-minded citizens. Authoritarianism was a psychosocial danger, not just a political problem; the two were profoundly enmeshed.

Do we still consider the mother–child bond to be the crucible in which good citizenship and emotional health are forged? The focus has shifted from the mother to parents in general, and to wider social and economic conditions, but the postwar ideas of Winnicott and Bowlby remain highly influential in psychology, social work and parenting manuals. The long-term consequences of early neglect (in families and also by the state) is once again back in the news. In 2018, the Association of Child Psychotherapists in Britain launched a campaign called Treat Them Right. They argued that the state should provide better and more sustained treatments for children struggling with complex mental health difficulties, but also that these problems could often be pre-empted by early intervention and professional support. “The long term cost of not doing so, for them as individuals and for society as a whole, is enormous and we cannot afford that to happen”.

Children demonstrate with signs reading 'Kids need their parents'.

Children protest against the Trump administration’s decision to separate the children of migrants from their parents at the US border in 2018.

These debates are by no means confined to Britain and the National Health Service. In June 2018, politicians, campaigners and psychologists worldwide decried the decision of the Trump administration to separate the children of migrants from their parents as they were placed in detention after trying to enter the United States. United Nations experts issued a statement reminding all concerned that the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child included the right to be raised by, or have a relationship, with their parents. Family unity, they argued, should be preserved at all costs, and that separation from parents ran the risk of causing ‘long-term trauma, including irreparable harm.’ The UN’s words echo Winnicott’s warnings about the serious and lasting emotional effects of the separation of parent and child. Many still consider it to be a core responsibility of governments to ensure their policies do not break these earliest bonds, for the sake of the child as well as the wider community.

Find out more about the Hidden Persuaders project, examining ‘brainwashing’ in the Cold War, at Birkbeck, University of London. The War of Nerves, an exhibition about the psychological landscape of the Cold War, runs at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles until  January 2019.

About the contributors

Charlie Williams

Charlie Williams is a postdoctoral researcher working with the Hidden Persuaders project at Birkbeck, University of London. His research explores Cold War culture through the lens of the human sciences with an emphasis on the psychological, emotional and economic relationships between humans and emerging 'psy' technologies. 

Sarah Marks

Sarah Marks is a historian of twentieth century science and medicine, and Central and Eastern Europe. She is a postdoctoral researcher with the Hidden Persuaders project at Birkbeck, University of London, and is co-editor of the book 'Psychiatry in Communist Europe' (with Mat Savelli, Palgrave, 2015).

Daniel Pick

Daniel Pick is professor of history at Birkbeck, a psychoanalyst at the British Psychoanalytical Society, and the senior investigator on the Wellcome-funded Hidden Persuaders project. His publications include 'Psychoanalysis: A Very Short Introduction' (OUP 2015) and 'The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts' (OUP 2012)