Personal Recollections of Donald Winnicott
Vol 5 # 3
Barbara Barnett MPhil
Barbara Barnett was educated at the London School of Economics. She completed her studies in Social Work and worked in the Child Welfare Services in England after the Second World War. She received training from both Donald Winnicott and his wife Clare. Her compassion and concern for the welfare of children led her to volunteer with child survivors of the Holocaust in London. She is the author of “The Hide-And-Seek Children” which recounts the rescue of children from Czechoslovakia after the war.
Donald Woods Winnicott, the legendary Pediatrician and Psychoanalyst, was born in Plymouth in the South of England in 1896. He worked for most of his life at Paddington Green Children’s Hospital in London and in private practice. He was one of the major contributors to the field of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of the 20th century. His theories form a bridge between Psychoanalysis and Attachment Theory and his ideas are foundational for the practice of current psychodynamic and experiential psychotherapies. He is best known for his concepts of Good Enough Mothering, The Capacity to be Alone, Transitional Objects and The False Self.
He divorced his first wife Alice in 1949 and married Clare Britton. He died in 1971 from coronary artery disease.
I found Winnicott an utterly fascinating person. I had the privilege of belonging to a student group on an experimental course at the London School of Economics in 1947, the first to offer training for Boarding Out Officers – a title we refused to accept! So we changed it to Child Care Officers (though that sounded as though we were to be nannies!!).This was in preparation for the 1948 Children’s Act that introduced Children’s Departments to every local authority in Britain. .
Clare Britton was in charge of this course, Donald a visiting lecturer. She had worked with Winnicott with problematic evacuees in Oxfordshire during the war and they had built up a unique working relationship. By 1947 when our course began this close relationship was evident – albeit on a professional level – and greatly enriched our training. There were only 18 of us, ranging in age from early 20’s to two who were grandmothers; yet at some point Clare commented that we had become like a therapy group. Clare would prepare us for Donald’s arrival saying perhaps he had had a very tiring evening, or a difficult meeting…..and these sessions became very relaxed and intimate.
So difficult to describe him – his relationship with us was so informal. He would scribble on the blackboard while trying to describe to us a mother’s relationship with her baby. He’d draw the mother’s nipple and the baby’s lips – then apologise: that he was no artist!. He had a high voice and he had this apologetic way of presenting his theories – and then would explain them most coherently. There was something extraordinarily vital about his understanding of the mother/child relationship. He recognised how varied it could be and how important it was to be respected and nurtured in whatever form it might take – hence his theory of “ The Good-Enough Mother “. I must also assure you that Clare’s own approach and experience had a huge impact on Donald. They married soon after our course ended.
This is how I experienced him so I was amazed to learn many years later that a fellow student had no such reaction; Donald’s teaching left no impact on her. Not everyone tuned into his wavelength
There was an occasion when he was invited to lecture at the Friends’ Meeting House, a large public hall in central London. Clare told us he was extremely nervous about facing his colleagues. He knew they would not like the fact that he did not use their jargon and that they may not accept his unique approach. So our group sat in the centre of the front row to reassure him!
On another occasion we had the privilege of sitting in on a session Donald gave to a mother and infant at his clinic at Paddington Green Hospital. I recall how as he listened to the mother he offered the child a spatula; this was his favourite demonstration of how an infant would examine an object with his /her mouth and only let it go when satisfied…. On another occasion he invited me to observe at his Clinic at St Mary’s Hospital – and I watched as he played his Squiggle game with a young boy. ( This followed an interview when he considered me for a job at his clinic – but the funds were not forthcoming).
I should add that such was the close accord our group developed with him that for long after our course ended he invited us to meet him at Paddington Green on Saturday afternoons. ( To my lasting sorrow I never experienced that privilege as I was newly-married and had other demands to meet.). But we continued to have annual reunions for many years; one was at my home – when my children remember meeting him. Clare I met now and then in later years, several times at the Squiggle Club on Saturday afternoons. She never got over Donald’s death – and her own so valuable work was eventually thrown out by a new generation who had no understanding of the Winnicott legacy. Never shall I forget the day when Clare said to me “ All my work has been lost “.
However she was much involved in a short-lived venture: roughly 1968 till late 1970’s. It was a professional training course for people over 35. This attracted as many men as women, was based on small group interaction with a dynamic approach. I was a Senior Lecturer on the staff – a most rewarding experience. But it received a harsh blow when Children’s Departments were replaced by generic ones and no longer was there any specialisation in child welfare. And in recent years the scenario has degenerated further . The present state of social work is under heavy stress and is barely recognisable as a profession….. Britain is in dire straits today!