Winnicott, my all-time favorite child psychologist and developmental theorist, posed that an infant has no capacity to distinguish herself from the mother (or father). She experiences what Winnicott called “subjective omnipotence,” of the experience that every need of hers is met in the outside world. She feels hungry, she cries, mother feeds her: this leads to the illusion that she, the infant, controls the world. Of course, over time, this illusion proves false. The mother gradually “fails” her child by not responding immediately to a need. Infant feels hungry, she cries… and then after an interval of anxiety and fear, the mother feeds her. It’s essential for the infant’s development that the mother slowly increases the length of these intervals between expression of need and meeting the need. Winnicott called this “good-enough” parenting, because the “perfect” parent – a parent who always immediately meets the infant’s needs – would never allow the infant to develop a sense of separate ego identity. As the infant faces into the scary interval of not having her needs met, she learns three things: 1) she is separate from the world; 2) she is dependent on others for help; and 3) she will not be annihilated by not having her needs met right away.
As this process of differentiating herself from the mother continues, it becomes essential that the child has a safe outlet for expressing this newly discovered sense of “not-me” in the world. The “transition” Winnicott refers to is a transition from subjective omnipotence (the sense that everything is “me”) to a recognition of separateness and beginning stages of relative independence (recognizing what is “me” and what is “not me”). To help with this transition, a toddler latches on to a certain object that represents what she has lost in giving up subjective omnipotence. The transitional object represents the connection with the mother and is also something that the toddler has control over. When the parent cannot be near, the transitional object serves as a stand-in. And since it “belongs” to the toddler, it also represents the toddler’s ability to fulfill her own needs, like self-soothing or feeding. In essence, the security that the infant found in the constant contact with the parent becomes held within this outside object.
Okay, that’s a lot to throw out in a few paragraphs. But this is one feature of Winnicott’s theory that seems the most evident to me, particularly now that I’m seeing it with my own eyes. Our little girl has attached herself to a pink blanket with a teddy bear head attached to one corner. It’s manufactured by Carter’s and appropriately is called “Pink Bear Security Blanket.” (If you’re buying one for your own child or a child you love, go ahead and buy two.) She’s had it since she was born, given to us by some well-wishing friend or family, and up until a few weeks ago it sat in a basket in her nursery with several other blankets and stuffed animals. I’m not quite sure how it was originally introduced into her loving embrace, but it will not soon be relinquished.
At first, we noticed she only wanted to sleep with it. She would reach for it as we rocked her and cuddle it as she fell asleep. Before long, it became a necessity for her to have it and fall asleep. Last weekend, she had a particularly nasty ear infection that was accompanied by fifty-four hours of fever, sometimes over 104. When she was feeling well enough to walk around, she insisted on carrying her pink bear blanket around the house with her. She even took it outside during a brief stroll through the yard. When I put her down Saturday afternoon for a nap, she stood in the crib until I brought her the blanket, at which point she grabbed it, laid herself down, and happily and quickly went to sleep.
The next day she insisted on taking it with her to church. We noticed at lunch time that it was beginning to develop some interesting odors. We had spilled food and medicine on it, she had dragged it on the ground, and she had stuffed almost every inch of it into her mouth at some point. Definitely time to wash it. Her mother concocted the plan that I would wash it during our Sunday laundry while our little girl took her afternoon nap; it would be ready for her at bedtime.
You can guess where this is going, I bet.
While I was downstairs sorting and readying the laundry, the pink bear resting comfortably in the bright colors pile, mother and child are upstairs preparing for naptime. Her mother gave her a soft pink blanket to cuddle, which was perfectly fine for a moment. Until, that is, she began feeling for the blanket’s head. When she discovered this blanket had no head and therefore was not her beloved bear blanket, she threw it in the floor and began to wail. I, downstairs in the laundry room, heard this racket and immediately knew that naptime was a no-go without pink bear blanket. I decided I’d wash it later, dug it out, and carried it upstairs. Our little girl was standing at the side of the crib and wailing when I entered; the moment she saw her blanket, she stretched out her arms, took it from me, and laid down and went fast to sleep.
Our little girl is fifteen months old. She can walk on her own and she can feed herself finger foods. She can point and indicate items she wants. She is developing some semblance of independence. And this makes her anxious, particularly when she’s lying down to sleep on her own or when she’s feeling sick. Her pink bear blanket symbolizes the security of having her parents hold her, of being safe and warm and cared for.
Of course, all of us need these transitional phenomena in our lives. Even as adults, there are tangible objects we rely upon to communicate to us the presence of larger concepts and ideas. Wedding rings remind us of our bond to a spouse even when he or she is not present. Treasured gifts may remind us of the love of the giver, particularly if that person has died. On an even larger scale, we have symbols of historical or religious significance, such as a crucifix or monument. Transitional phenomena are all around us, and they start with that security blanket or teddy bear we need to sleep as a child.
I don’t say that to belittle the transitional phenomena in our adult lives, but to honor the human need for tangible touchstones that represent intangible realities. Of course my love for my little girl exists all the time, even when I’m not with her. And if she can feel and trust that love by carrying around a little blanket with bear head sewn into it, then I will protect that bear blanket as fiercely as she does. And we bought another one, just in case.