Winnicott’s Maternal Aesthetic: Absorption and Beholding in Potential Space

  • Ellen Brinks


During World War II, D. W. Winnicott, a founding figure of British object relations thought, worked in numerous capacities with evacuated children, including as a psychiatrist.1 It was not that war signified an utterly new emotional experience for children. Referring to conscious and unconscious fantasies, with all their aggressiveness, Winnicott writes, “It is sometimes imagined that children would not think of war if it were not put into their heads … The child already knows about greed, hate, and cruelty, as about love and remorse, and the urge to make good, and about sadness.”2 For these children, evacuated to foster homes and boarding schools in the countryside, given heavy aerial bombings of cities across England, what differentiated wartime from peacetime was their anxiety about their parents’ safety back at home. From Winnicott’s perspective, there was also the heightened risk of psychic deadening, since children have a limited capacity to keep alive the idea of loved ones, without being near them. Further, many of the failures of evacuation and billeting—children’s perceptions of not being truly seen or heard—brought into stark relief how the already-existing contours of the child’s earliest environment overlaid those of wartime and contributed to the delicate interface with foster mothers, parents, and families during the evacuation.3 The child’s internalized “idiom” or “aesthetic” of maternal care (whether from the mother, father, or someone else) had a profound impact on how the evacuated child coped with the anxieties of separation and negotiated his or her relationships with wartime caretakers.4


Aesthetic Experience Potential Space External Reality Mother Figure Maternal Caregiver 
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    Donald Woods Winnicott represented evacuated childrens’ concerns in various capacities: as a consultant psychiatrist for the government evacuation scheme in Oxfordshire; as part of the Oxfordshire Evacuation hostel scheme; as member of an advisory group to the Cambridge evacuation survey; as assistant in the evacuation work in Nottingham; as evaluator of a nationwide survey of civilian mental health for the Ministry of Health, 1939–1943; and as participant in a discussion group on children led by Theodora Alcock, who worked with 1,140 evacuated children in London between 1939 and 1945. See Brett Kahr, D. W Winnicott: A Biographical Portrait (London: Karnac, 1996), 83–85. Surprisingly, there are not many published first-hand accounts of the evacuation. Two exceptions are: The Evacuees, ed. B. S. Johnson (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968) andGoogle Scholar
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© Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer 2005

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  • Ellen Brinks

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