I have written before in this journal about the connections between Bowlby’s theories on attachment and loss, on the one hand, and the concept of “nestness”, on the other. Put simply, it is possible to limit thinking about attachment largely or solely to the relationship between a child and a significant other, whereas the idea of nestness sets the loss of bonding and attachment within the wider context of the whole of a child’s life, locality, culture, environment and relationships. Thus to move a child away from a significant other will always involve the loss of some, if not all, that is familiar, including place, school, sights, sounds, smells and all that goes into making the metaphorical nest we call “home”. I am persuaded that any understanding of the nature of the trauma of separation and loss that does not take the very stuff (“nestness”) of a child’s life will be inadequate. If such a limited understanding informs actions taken to remove a child from a singificant other, then the trauma of separation and loss will be intensified. My hunch is that D W Winnicott had something like this in mind when he emphasised the importance of transitional objects.
So now comes the crunch: putting this hypothesis to the test. And this is how it happened. On Saturday a person who had lived as Mill Grove throughout his childhood, returned after a gap of something like twenty years. He was accompanied by his long-term partner and their first child. Without breaking any confidence I think it could be said that his life and relationships in infancy and before he came to Mill Grove were seriously problematic, neglectful and chronically emotionally abusive. And his troubled and uncertain relationships with his own family contributed to his behaviour of avoidance, lying and stealing while with us. All I am seeking to do at this point, is to alert the reader to the fact that things were anything but settled, secure and easy either for him, or for us, during the long period that he lived with us.
Why did he come back? Well, he knew from years of experience, that this is what happens routinely at Mill Grove. There is always a welcome for those returning however lengthy the interruption of contact, and however problematical the relationships with us have been. The way he put it was that when his son was born, he knew he must share the news with us, and he simply had to come back. One of his profound and haunting fears (he called it a recurring nightmare) was that if he ever had a child of his own, history would repeat itself, and that child would follow a script inherited from himself and his family. So he was coming home for many interwoven reasons, but one of them was for us to see how determined he and his partner were to help their little boy (just taking his first steps on Saturday) know security, predictable boundaries and affirmation. He was also introducing partner and son to us as his family, with a view to re-engaging with us knowing that we would always be here for his son, and would support his family as we had been for him one generation earlier.
This is hopefully enough background for us to move on to explore nestness. As the time to come back home got nearer he had become more anxious, and it was only the encouragement of his partner that finally made it happen. He was quite open that there were times when he felt it would all be too much for him.
But he arrived, and we spent an afternoon together: the three of his family, two of whom we were meeting for the first time, and three of us. Ruth and myself, and the person who cared for him within Mill Grove from his earliest days. The visiting family came, like the Wise Men, bearing gifts, and he was tearful from the start, aware of the lies and stealing that had characterised so much of the time with us, and how such behaviour had hurt us, and come between him and us (that is the nature of lying). Throughout the time he occasionally asked for a tissue as tears were never far from his eyes. There was an exchange of photos (he estimated that they had about two thousand of their son at that point in time), and we had lots of him. Sadly he had taken many personal photos with him when he moved on from Mill Grove, but at some stage in the many moves that he had subsequently made he had lost them.
The photos were of course of him and people he knew, but they were also a link with the stuff of his life with us beyond the actual people. We soon found ourselves talking of holidays, of school, of clubs (including Boy’s Brigade and the Air Training Corps), of churches, of Epping Forest, of ten-pin bowling, of football (he was a goalkeeper and supported Arsenal), of sailing, swimming, kayaking (I still use his buoyancy aid) locally and in North Wales, of cricket played on the beach at Borth y Gest, of breakfasts and mealtimes and the topics of conversation that recurred, to name just a few of the connections and experiences that simply rolled out. His partner was frankly amazed at the richness of the experiences of his childhood, and the sheer amount and quality of our shared life. The conversation was effortless. And we all began to realise that despite the challenges in our personal relationships with him (we all knew that we loved each other, but the lying behaviour consistently got in the way) there had been a very, rich and homely nest in which he had grown up.
Here are a few examples. He had been with us on at least one of our trips to Switzerland to see our friends in Appenzell. He and his partner told us that they had tried unsuccessfully to find some etchings on the internet by our friend, a Japanese artist, and remembered the Swiss lady he had married and with whom we had stayed. He spoke of how much he had loved being in the mountains with this family, and talked with warmth and appreciation of days spent skiing, swimming, filming and playing in snow. I left the room and came back with a book, still gift-wrapped, by this very artist, and said that it had been waiting for him and his family. He and his partner were so overwhelmed when they held it, that they didn’t even risk opening it. He said that it was unbelievably precious. He knew that there were etchings of the very house in which we had stayed, of the villages around, of the local mountains and tree-covered wintry slopes. They held the book together, unforgettably as far as I was concerned. This meant the world to them. Days in Switzerland were a treasured part of his nest.
Those who know of the Mill Grove connection with North Wales will not be surprised that there were lots of shared memories about people, events, adventures and places there, including an attempted dive into the sea off Trefor pier, a hole dug in the sand on our beach, some of the neighbouring families, and expeditions into the hills, tents, caravans and the houses in which we stayed.
We also talked about a couple at the church where he went to Boys Brigade: they had taken a personal interest in him. He called them uncle and auntie. Uncle was an architect. He spoke of his fondness for them both, and was amazed when I reached up to find the autobiography of the uncle, and who for those who remember him, was an early Christian mentor of Bob Holman: yes, that Bob Holman! The text of this life-story was punctuated by many photos, and once again they were a record or reminder of his nest.
I could go on to talk of memories of ice-skating, of conversations at meal times, of specific incidents and adventures, but I want to focus on just one object in the hope that this will convey most fully and accurately the nature of nestness that I am seeking to convey. It was a silver tea-leaf infuser, in a colourful, miniature tin box, and had been given to him by my mother. When he left he had asked us to look after it for him, and now he was handling it for the first time in 20 years. He was evidently moved to see it again, and eventually asked us to continue looking after it. What was that about, I wonder? Was he wanting to leave part of himself in the nest, perhaps? A very precious part? And why, we mused, had my mother given this valuable personal possession to him, rather than to anyone else, as a birthday present?
Strange to say for some reason his little boy seemed to sense that the tea-infuser was significant, and he and I spent an hour or so playing with it on the carpet, putting it back in its tin, and taking it out again. It was wrapped in tissue paper, and so as we handled it and placed it back in the tin before shutting the lid, it had all the appearences and texture of an actual bird’s nest. As I sat on the floor playing in this way, the other five adults continued their free-flowing conversation, until it was beginning to be evident that we were approaching the little boy’s bedtime!
It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this little silver object could well form part of the little boy’s nest in the years to come, that Winnicott was right about transitional objects, and that when building or rebuilding the bonds of attachment, it is the stuff that a person knows to be part of their nest that is important, possibly vital. And that this is integral to relationships, not just a background to them.
On reflection I have been reminded of just how homely, richly-textured and varied is the nest that we call Mill Grove for some of the children who have lived with us. There have been significant others here for them, but there is something crucially important about the nature and stuff of our shared life.