Day 174: good-enough mothering

The children are perched up in the top bunk hitting each other rhythmically on the head with empty plastic mineral water bottles. As you do.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they chant euphorically in time to the beat, as if this is a ritual gathering of Perrier guzzling cave-man-babies.

I am in the next room lying on my bed reading Playing and Reality by Donald Winnicott.

“Mom! Come hear our song!” they summon me.

“In a minute.”

I try, not particularly successfully, to tune out the chanting and continue reading.

“Mo-om! Come on!”

I sigh and dutifully shuffle next door.

The elder starts up the beat.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they begin in unison.

“Is this it?” I ask.

The elder continues with the “goo-goo, ga-ga,” while the younger chants, “Suck on a frozen nipple, with a dead bird on the side.”

They both break into hysterical laughter and then re-commence chanting “goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga …”

“Cool,” I say. “Carry on.”

I go back to my room, pull the door almost closed, flop on the bed, and get back to Winnicott, whose works I’ve been devouring with a strange urgency in recent weeks. Although I’m nominally reading Winnicott “for work”—for a seminar on attachment theory and literature—his writing’s pull on me feels oddly primal. I also feel vaguely uneasy that my desire to read about raising children takes me away from the day-to-day business of … raising my children.

The concept in Winnicott’s work that especially compels me is that of the transitional object—that beloved object such as a stuffed animal or blanket that Winnicott says shepherds the infant’s initiation into the world of others. The object is “transitional” because the infant experiences it, Winnicott argues, as at once external and self-created.

Winnicott writes of the transitional object that “it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: ‘Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?’ The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated” (From “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, in Playing and Reality, 12, italics in original).

What Winnicott means is that there is a tacit agreement between parent and infant not to ask the infant whether the object belongs to the world of imagination or the external world—in other words, not to ask the infant whether she found the object or whether she created it. For Winnicott, what the infant experiences is a marvelous convergence between their hallucination of the object and their experience of it as belonging to the external world.

As I flop back on the bed, I attempt to I pick up where I left off and to tune out the relentless chanting and drumming emanating from the next room.

“Responsible persons must be available when children play,” I read.

 Uh-oh, I think. Must they?

Winnicott continues: “but this does not mean that the responsible person need enter into the children’s playing. When the organizer must be involved in a managerial position then the implication is that the child or children are unable to play in the creative sense … (“Playing: A Theoretical Statement,” in Playing and Reality, 1971, p.50).

Did I find this moment of marvelous convergence or I did I create it?

As a warm glow washes over me to the strains of “goo-goo, ga-ga,” and the rhythm of plastic-bottle-meeting-head, I decide, with Winnicott, not to ask the question.

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