When I was very young, I had a blankey. It gave me something in common not only with Linus but with the countless children who attach themselves to something warm and fuzzy that they hold very dear and depend upon like an extra appendage.

Mine was famous in my family, known as the “Ling blankey” apparently for the sound that I made when I held it to my face and sucked my thumb…"ling ling ling". My blankey had all the properties intrinsic to what is called the “transitional object”; though at this point a familiar catch phrase, the concept is not always understood.

What Dr. Donald Winnicott (an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst who coined the term) meant by “transitional” was that it filled the inevitable gap between mother and child, a gap which widens as the infant and toddler matures and separates from his or her caretaker. By filling that in- between space, the transitional object emotionally allows the child to let go without feeling so alone or afraid. That’s one reason blankeys or other such items are called “security blankets”.

Like many of its kind, my blankey came from my crib. It was soft and its smell was best ‘as is’ (i.e. better not change how it smells!). I would stubbornly refuse to relinquish it for washing. Once it was pink - but made a steady fade to grey. It disintegrated over time, so much so that I had to carry it around in a miniature beach basket. Needless to say, it was irreplaceable: no other blankey, not even an exact replica, would do. Like a fine wine, my ling blankey had aged to perfection. Its bouquet was sublime.

My parents, similar to others whose children have such a treasured item, lived with worry that it would be misplaced, even for a night, God forbid lost. Tales are told by parents of driving miles to retrieve the lost rag or frayed bear from the last location it was seen, racing against time in dread that this seeming piece of refuse will end up in a dumpster. Some parents warehouse substitutes hoping to dupe their child should such a disaster take place; but children know these doppelgangers are counterfeit, veritable imposters.

So why DO some children have blankeys and/or suck their thumbs (a built –in and ready-made transitional object) and others do not? In my case, while surely there were many factors, perhaps the somewhat unpredictable comings and goings of my own mother may have had something to do with it. You think?

My blankey gave me power and control because I was in charge of it. Unlike my mother who tended to leave ME behind, I, like the carrier of the proverbial American Express card, did not leave home without it. Temperament and perhaps even genetics also play a part in determining which of us will end up toting a transitional object. One of my children, now grown, who sucked her thumb and clutched a bear named Pinky well into her childhood, was born with blister on her lip which the Labor and Delivery nurse pronounced a “sucking blister” - a result of the fetal thumb sucking! Hard to blame mom for that one.

Transitional objects usually die a natural death. Their moment ends. It is their predetermined fate - emblematic of the evolutionary progression we call development. A child grows, ventures out in the world, and the blankey itself becomes superfluous. Without fanfare, it fades into the background, going the way of baby teeth or other developmental milestones, as new behaviors and capabilities trump and supersede earlier ones.

Yet what may have passed is not necessarily all gone. There are traces, for some of us more than others. For example, I love scarves. I am a collector (though sometimes I feel like a hoarder) of scarves. I have them in every possible size, weight, color, pattern, warp and weft. Nothing dresses up an outfit better, adds a little pizzazz and a soupçon of individuality than a beautiful scarf!

I like to think of myself as a fashionista, ahead of the curve, since I had a thing for scarves before they became de rigeur for every rock star and fashion icon we see in the style pages. But a trained psychologist, like me, might say there is a back story.

My behavior with these beloved bits of fabric called scarves suggests they are not just fashionable accessories, but also present day reincarnations of my Ling blankey. If I misplace a beloved scarf or even think I have (since it can be hard to keep track of my extensive collection), I have been known to wake in the middle of the night, searching for it in a state of mild panic. I know I had it… wait… did I leave it in the cab, movie theater, restaurant? By the way, I have never lost one.

Perhaps we are arriving at an understanding of what these original blankeys and their adult derivatives are all about. These (sometimes shabby and smelly) objects have great emotional importance because they embody the aptly named “transitional” space between mother and child. They provide the child (or grown up) with a personal haven of security and comfort. Their feel, smell, and look are powerful sensory inputs, under our control, that reassure us, allowing us to venture into new and unknown places. What’s more, unlike another person, a blankey doesn’t boss you around, leave for work, or ask you to do the dishes.

Transitional objects may be stand-ins for the early experiences of feeling, smelling, and looking at a beloved parent. But it is children’s job, their developmental task, to separate from mother and grow progressively independent so as to embrace the new and unexpected. If for some reason a person did not master those maturational tasks, there are still ways to remedy that. Good psychotherapy can provide a protected and private, one might say transitional, domain in which a person can build confidence and independence.

Dr. Winnicott also thought that the transitional zone is where creativity incubates. It is in this safe space, he wrote, where the capacity for new talents and independent thinking and action can emerge. To flourish as autonomous and courageous adults, we may not literally need a blankey (or the immediate presence of a mommy) to feel self-sufficient, and secure, but hey, a nice scarf never hurts!

About the Author

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D.

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research

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