As Mother’s Day approaches and we prepare to take time out to honor the love and care that mothers give day in and day out, it must be admitted that an awful lot of it is taken for granted and goes unheralded much of the year. In fact, a mother’s love is considered our birthright, and most of us who are parents would say that it is given gladly without much wish for acknowledgment.

There are times, of course, when a mother’s attentions are positively spurned, as in the universal exchange: “How was your day?” Answer: “Fine.” “What happened in school today?” Answer: “Nothing.”)

The famous British child psychoanalyst D.W Winnicott was once consulted by a distraught mother whose school-age son was having emotional troubles. After listening for a while, he suggested that she spend more time at home with the boy after he got home from school. The mother replied, “Well I’ve tried that, but it’s a waste of time. All he wants to do is watch television.” Winnicott replied, “Well, then he’ll have a mother to waste.”

Winnicott was not necessarily an anti-feminist, but in this case he was referring his concept of the “holding environment,” which is a psychological representation of being held by the mother’s (and other caretakers’) love and concern. For those of us who are lucky to have strong, consistent care that is not interrupted by sudden separations, etc., this is internalized, and we carry within us a sense of being “held” most of the time. But in other ways, this is, and needs, to be more concrete: the people who are warm and familiar, perhaps in the background much of the time, but who keep everything running smoothly, who maintain the balance and homeostasis of the family, and whose absence is felt acutely.

In other words, a mother, perhaps unrecognized but never wasted.

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  • Liz Martin September 6, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Dr. Ford:
    I was wondering what you would say to a sister who is estranged from her only sibling, her sister. I would love to communicate with my sister because I have no other close relatives. However, my sister, seems to have a fixed concept of who I am in her mind. She is unwilling to talk or discuss any reconciliation with me. I believe that she is holding on to her anger towards me because of her past beliefs about me. I am not the person she thinks I am. I would love the chance to work out any communication with her. How would you suggest I begin?
    Thank You for your advise. I need it.