Winnicott’s approach to the mother-baby relationship began with his work as a paediatrician and later as a psychoanalyst. His training led him to state some important things such as: “There is no such thing as a baby, if I am in front of a baby, I will surely also be in front of someone who will take care of him.”1 From this moment on, all the work of this author was based on the nature of the mother-baby relationship; he focused on the emotional development centred around this first relationship. He stopped seeing the person as an isolated being and started seeing an individual in relation to his mother. Although it was not his intention to show that the patient-analyst relationship is a replica of the early mother-baby relationship, he acknowledged that the model of the mother is good enough and should be brought into the analytical situation. The function of the analyst is to return to the patient what he or she brings, to reflect to the patient what he or she can see in him or her.
The transitional phenomenon emerges when this author accounts for the way in which the baby separates from its mother to acquire a sense of self; this ability to use the transitional space represents the ability to live creatively1 and to feel real; the ability to be alone, in short, to form one’s self.
For Winnicott, the meaning of this gaze occupies the space of the intermediate, since for the baby, the real mother and her possibility of being a consistent and reliable object is very important, but this gaze that goes beyond the factual is the one that allows the individual to see the world in a creative way, internalizing first the experience of being looked at by the mother.
This experience occurs naturally during the first few weeks of the mother-baby relationship, when the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face. This author thinks that the baby depends on the mother’s facial responses while looking at her face and that allows him to develop a sense of true self. “To feel real is more than just existing, it is to find a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a person within whom one can withdraw for relaxation”1 (pp 154).
In the same vein, Winnicott distinguished between the “needs of it”, that is, the impulsive desires and the “needs of self”. Of the latter, he stated that it wasn’t appropriate to say that they are gratified or frustrated, since it has nothing to do with the search for pleasure as a download, but simply find an answer in the object, or do not find it. These needs include the desire to be seen, recognized or understood, or to share one’s subjective experience with another human being. When these needs do not find an answer, the emotional reaction of the subject is not the one of frustration, but of emptiness and hopelessness. When they do find it, what emerges is not an experience of pleasure but of harmony and wholeness.
Recognizing the essential importance of these needs of an object relationship does not mean in any way ignoring the validity of the impulsive sexual and aggressive desires. These undoubtedly exist, but under normal conditions they only manifest themselves in the context of highly personal relationships. The norm is sexual desire as part of object love, and aggressive desire as part of object hate, both inseparable from the people to whom they are addressed.
Winnicott1 tells us that the child looks at the mother’s face and that what he sees in her is himself.
The mother’s face holds an important place in the emotional development of the child. It is sustained, manipulated and is presented as an object without passing through the experience of omnipotence, i.e. in the first stage, the baby is dealing with a subjective object that is created by him. This author says that the first thing that the baby does is to look at the mother’s face, which acts as a mirror and allows him to look back at himself, he sees himself through his mother’s eyes.
What does the baby see when he looks at the mother’s face? I suggest that he usually sees himself. In other words, the mother looks at him and what she seems to see is related to what she sees in him. This is all too easily taken for granted. I ask that we do not take for granted what mothers who care for their babies do well naturally. I can express what I mean by going straight to the case of the baby whose mother reflects her own state of mind or worse still, the rigidity of her own defences. In that case, what does the baby see?
What the author says is that there are times when the mother cannot look back, because the baby looks and does not see him/herself. When this happens, his/her creative capacity is atrophied. This maternal failure can lead the infant to try to find some meaning in what he or she looks at until it provokes a threat of chaos, and the way of looking changes because it no longer aims to look at itself but becomes a defence. So when the mother doesn’t respond, the mirror is something to look at, not something to look into. Winnicott calls this process of seeing oneself in the mother’s face apperception.
The process of apperception in which the baby looks at the mother’s face and sees himself, allows him to enrich his world of meanings in such a way that:
When I look, you can see me, and therefore I exist.
Now I can afford to look and see.
Now I look creatively and what I see, I also perceive.
Winnicott considers that the environment not only provides food and a welcoming temperature, but also the real and metaphorical holding of the baby, the possibility of being handled by a fellow human being as a specific action and also that of having objects in his environment. That is why the good enough mother – Winnicott’s synthesis – implies a double function: real and metaphorical: the mother or the one who officiates as such, must be present with continuity, and must be dedicated, sensitive, vulnerable, but at the same time resistant, capable of caring for her baby and willing to be fed by her. You will be able to hate her without fear of doing so, because you will be able to trust that you will not react as a result of her hatred. She will behave in a predictable, reliable way, although she will not “initiate” an action but will be attentive to your baby’s actions, stimulating your child’s creative impulse (spontaneous gesture). The gaze, like the mirror, is real and metaphorical; it comes from the mother and the baby, and after all the others, significant to the person. First it is the mother and then the family who take over this important function for the child’s psychic development. Winnicott also talks about the baby’s gaze, looks and seeks to find himself, although he does not always manage to receive what he gives. This is how the creative capacity of the infant is atrophied.
Winnicott1 places the transitional experience between the early emergence of consciousness and the sense of realizing otherness outside of oneself. In the transitional area, the self and the other are not oneself, nor are they two, but something that together form a field of interaction. The centre of the transitional experience has to do with an innate accommodation between the infant’s creativity and the world. The transition is a space of trust where the baby creates the object but the object was there, waiting to be created and catechized.
M is a girl who came for treatment a few months after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl to whom she could not meet her needs. M was overwhelmed by her terrible nightmares that followed her day and night; in that state it was difficult for her to distinguish the dream from reality. One day she came to consult with her little girl, she had had a nightmare, she dreamed that she was finding a woman, tearing her and then throwing her pieces down the street. That day she had brought her daughter to the clinic because she felt she could not care for her in this state and with these fantasies. When the little girl cried, M did not understand her crying, she covered her ears and if she could run out of the house she would do it; if not, she would disconnect, leaving her inconsolable until she connected with her again. M experienced her pregnancy tormented: by gaining weight, seeing her body “deformed” and “no longer attractive to her husband”, these were all her major concerns to taking care of a baby for the first time. That woman in her dream, dismantled, was her and as a way to beat herself up she became a photographer while she was going under treatment, at first she became fond of taking pictures of herself, the camera did the mirror function, the patient looked for her image, she wanted the camera to give her back something of her being, something that her depressed mother could not do. She learned to fix the photographs to remove her defects.She was excited to appear perfect. She took hundreds of photographs in which she felt beautiful, she perceived herself, but she didn’t look, as Winnicott would say, looking for something that would give her back something of herself. When the mother has not been able to do her mirror function, the person will not be able to see herself as she is, she will be in search of a look that integrates her: M was a very attractive woman when she felt well but when she did not, she appeared dirty and careless. She was obsessed with her body, wanted to operate on everything, correct her stomach and breasts, “make them perfect”. She played with her photographs until she reached the perfect image she was looking for, the longed-for look of her mother.