Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Independence Journey

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 28, 2012

Tomorrow, in my “Play Class” we will talk about Winnicott’s paper (1963)  about emotional growth in “terms of the journey from dependence to independence”. In this essay he coins his famous phrase “primary maternal preoccupation,” the time in a mother’s life, third trimester pregnancy along with the first few months of infancy, where the mother can think of little else besides her baby. The significance of this concept is that a mother has the challenge to follow a parallel journey with her child; a journey which begins with a merger, and ends with separateness. This parenting process is hard because it is overwhelming to feel responsible for another human being, and then it is overwhelming again, to let go of that responsibility so that the child can develop his/her own ego. A mother/caretaker has to have the emotional sophistication to know when to be hovering and when to let go. This, the lay public might say, is a “mother’s instinct”. Winnicott teaches us that without a mature mother, a child is psychologically damaged because he/she does not have the opportunity for ego development, for coping skills. For example, if a mother is afraid of their child’s upset, then she might feed them continuously. If the child never gets hungry, then the child does not know how to cope with the need for self-care, possibly leading to an eating disorder. The process of development, of maturation, demands that the child experience frustration followed by gratification. Optimal frustration is the key to healthy growth, as the child learns that needs can be met with thought and patience. Without optimal frustration the child is vulnerable to feeling omnipotent, where every need is immediately met, and hence arrogance ensues. The proof of healthy development, Winnicott would say, is quality interpersonal relationships, where quality is defined by mutual satisfaction. In other words, the metric of good mental health, is socialization. The ability to cultivate relationships requires flexibility and compromise. This has to be learned  in the tender developmental years, and then again, throughout life. Winnicott’s theory still holds true, fifty years later. Let’s see if my students feel the same way.

4 Responses to “The Independence Journey”

  1. Jon said

    The fundamental journey from dependence to independence has many a fine line that must be managed. As you have stated, there is the journey which begins with a merger, and ends with separateness; the experience of frustration followed by gratification.

    I agree with you and Winnicott that the proof of healthy development is quality interpersonal relationships, and that the metric of good mental health is socialization. Did your students also agree?

    • Shirah said

      Thanks for asking. Yes! We had a great class. The notion that positive mental health is not emphasized enough in a psychiatric curriculum was discussed. Also, the idea that parenting requires tremendous flexibility in the ego was also batted around. Like my “Midphase Class” it is sad for me that this class will be ending soon.

  2. Shelly said

    What about the mother who is less sophisticated and is “less merged” with her child? Do second, third and fourth children’s egos suffer more than first children in the scheme of things? If an adult is narcissistic or arrogant, is that a result of bad parenting or consistently giving in to a child’s demands? If a young adult cannot decipher society’s cues (PDD or Asperger’s), is that the result of poor maternal direction in cultivating interpersonal relationships?

    • Shirah said

      The less sophisticated mother has the potential to cause the child great difficulty in development, as the child needs a mature parent in order to find his own sense of agency in the world. The issue of birth order is very interesting. We discussed that in my class today. It is hard to know how birth order impacts the parent and the child. The PDD child is genetically limited in their ability to adapt to a changing world. In the nature/nurture issue, the PDD child is suffering more from nature than nurture, generally speaking. Thanks.

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