Winnicott believed that an infant develops a sense of ego or self in direct relationship to objects (hence “object relations”), and the first object it experiences is the mother. The infant experiences a need, like hunger, and the mother meets that need. In the early days of the infant’s life, she does not recognize a difference between herself and the mother (or father or nanny); all she knows is that when she has a need, she cries and then the need is met. There is no sense of a differentiated self; she is her own world.
However, this doesn’t continue forever. Winnicott describes the concept of the “good-enough mother,” which, upon my discovery, felt like a bright light or new hope in my overwhelming anxiety of the thought of being a parent. The good-enough mother (or father) occasionally fails the child. She is not perfect, she is good enough. But this isn’t to say that it’s okay to not be perfect, as if to insist that being “good enough” is good enough; rather, it is to say that being a perfect parent is wrong. The perfect parent responds immediately to an infant’s expressed needs, which prevents the infant from ever developing a sense of differentiated self. In contrast, the good-enough mother doesn’t always respond immediately to the infant’s needs. He writes, "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..." So the good-enough parent begins to increase the amount of time between the infant’s expression of need (crying) and meeting that need (feeding, or changing, or whatever). Needless to say, this isn’t fun to the infant, but what the child learns is that she is dependent upon the parent for her needs to be met, which means that she is different from the parent. She also learns that she can survive these scary moments of need. The infant cries because, as Winnicott held, she is afraid of “annihilation”. However, little by little, the child experiences more of this anxiety of annihilation and discovers two things: first, that the parent eventually comes and provides for her need; and secondly, that the anxiety didn’t annihilate her. "The first ego organization comes from the experience of threats of annihilation which do not lead to annihilation and from which, repeatedly, there is recovery." In contrast, the perfect parent never allows the child to experience these threats and anxiety, and thus the child never learns to deal with anxiety and develop a sense of herself as independent and capable of surviving in the world.
Winnicott described the ability for the child to tolerate this slowly increasing anxiety within a “holding environment.” The infant must have a space that is safe, comfortable, inviting and engaging without being overwhelming or over-stimulating. This gives the infant a space to experience anxiety in gradually larger amounts as the adaptive failures of the good enough mother allow the infant to develop awareness of dependence and otherness. Winnicott calls this environmental mothering “holding.” The infant is held by being able to experience some sense of anxiety in small, manageable doses while still having its needs met. The holding environment keeps the infant safe from too many “impingements,” anxieties so intense that they disrupt the developmental work of the infant. Impingements must be managed by the good-enough mother, allowing the infant to incorporate anxiety as it is ready to assimilate these failures into a healthy sense of self. Anxiety is not removed altogether; if it were, the infant would never develop. It is necessary for the infant to experience some anxiety in order to discover its dependence on the mother and, later, to develop its own sense of agency. If the infant never experiences any anxiety, it will not develop past its sense of omnipotence. If the infant experiences too much anxiety, he will defend himself by creating fantasies of omnipotence. Either way, the infant is prevented from experiencing reality. If the holding environment functions effectively, “the infant establishes a continuity of existence and then begins to develop the sophistication which makes it possible for impingements [anxiety] to be gathered [incorporated].”
Within a healthy holding environment, the child then learns to play. Play, for Winnicott, is serious stuff. Winnicott observed that the infant partakes in the task of development – held within a safe, supportive, and open environment – through play. “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” When the infant starts playing, she experiences other objects as “not-me” when finding that the object survives the infant’s repudiation (like throwing it on the ground). The illusion of omnipotence disappears, and the infant experiments with her own control and agency upon objects without needing the immediate presence of a parent. The ultimate outcome of this play is that the child learns how to interact with others by distinguishing her own desires from others. This teaches the child to allow the introduction of another’s play activities into her own. “Thus the way is paved for a playing together in a relationship,” and within this relationship, the child is free to creatively explore and discover herself. The child’s explorations are the basis for her discovery of her authentic self. Winnicott states that if the holding environment fails, impinging anxieties will divert the child’s energy away from growth. This is stifling, disconnecting, and can distort the child’s sense of self. But when the child feels safely held, she then feels free to explore and play on her own and discover her true self. “The individual can come together and exist as a unit, not as a defense against anxiety but as an expression of ‘I AM,’ I am alive, I am myself. From this position everything is creative.”
This is some heady stuff, I know. And you may be reading this (or, by now, not reading this) and thinking, “What the hell does this have to do with the day-to-day chores of being a parent?” Well, I’m going to get to that in my next post. But, if you’ve been a parent for any amount of time, this stuff might be ringing true to you. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, “Ah, I know exactly how this plays out in my day-to-day parenting activity.” As I’ve said earlier, Winnicott’s theory excited me enough that I overcame my fears and announced to my spouse that I was ready for her to stop her birth control. So in my next post I’ll explore a little further how Winnicott’s theories helped me get over my own “NOT OK” feelings and dive headfirst into the mysterious joys of being a dad.
 The mother, mostly. This is a significant critique of Winnicott’s work, and it’s also indicative of the social culture in which he did his research: the mother was seen as the primary caregiver of the infant, and therefore Winnicott wrote not about “parents” but almost exclusively about the mother. Even in our liberated contemporary culture, however, there is still some biological basis for this, since the infant’s first experience with being fed comes at the mother’s breast. Obviously, as a father myself, I understand my own role as a parent to be different from my daughter’s mother’s role, but also overlapping it a good bit more than it might have fifty years ago.
 The best place I’ve found to get that is in a large chapter on Winnicott’s work in Sheldon Cashdan’s book Object-Relations Therapy: Using the Relationship (Scranton, PA: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1988).
 I won’t be talking about the concepts of the transitional object or the true self and false self, but that doesn’t meant that these are insignificant pieces of his work, only that they are not the pieces of his theory that have informed my work as a supervisor and my concept of parenthood.
 Winnicott, D.W. “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena: A Study of the First Not-Me Possession.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 34, 1953.
 This is more primal than any concept of death. It means, literally, “not being,” and Winnicott believed it is the most basic fear of humanity that predates any developmental concept of death or dying. (See “Primary Maternal Preoccupation” collected in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis, London: Tavistock, 1958.)
 “Primary Maternal Preoccupation.”
 The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press, 1965, pp. 73-82.
 Ibid., pp. 37-47. The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment.
 Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis, 1958. The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment, p. 47.
 The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment, p. 47. It seems in my reading that Winnicott uses the terms "anxiety" and "impingement" interchangeably, but my understanding of impingement is that it is anxiety so intense as to prevent the infant's healthy development, as in contrast to tolerable anxiety that helps an infant develop a sense of self.
 Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications, 1971, p. 54.
 Ibid., p.48.
 The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment, pp. 140-151.
 Playing and Reality, p. 56.