As a culture, we’re talking a lot more about the mixed feelings of parenthood. Jennifer Senior’s recent All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is all about the “high frequency sine curve” of parenting, as we surf through ups and downs at incredible speed. Her book was inspired by social science research findings that reveal that parents are actually less happy than nonparents. She cites a 2004 study that found working women ranked child care sixteenth out of nineteen in terms of which activities gave them the most pleasure. Caring for their children ranked “behind preparing food, behind watching TV, behind napping, behind shopping, behind housework.”
It’s not just that parenting is hard. It’s that it comes with such intense emotions. In psychologist Harriet Lerner’s The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life, she writes:
“I hear about the intensity of feelings an infant can evoke, from blind rage, to numbness and boredom, to overwhelming love and tenderness. I hear from mothers who tell me they wanted to throw their crying baby out the window when the crying wouldn’t stop, and also, from these same mothers, that if anything really bad ever happened to their baby they couldn’t see going on living.”
Last summer, a mother wrote an anonymous post on the popular site Scary Mommy entitled, “I Don’t Like Being a Mother.” There were over 600 comments on that post, many of them a relieved “Me, too!” Mothers admitted to crying every day, to feeling depressed and ashamed.
Houston, we have a problem.
But the problem isn’t what we think it is. What these books and articles reveal is the profound ambivalence of motherhood, the potent mixture of joy and misery and love and anger that accompany the experience of being a mother.
Ambivalence is normal. It is not the problem.
It’s our cultural attitude toward ambivalence.
Ambivalence is often assumed to mean indifference, or not caring. It’s associated with neutrality, with resignation, with nothingness, with everything we assume mothers should NOT be. But in fact, it’s just the opposite. To be ambivalent means we are conflicted. We have passions that pull us in opposite directions. It is anything but passivity. The word itself conveys strength and value:
Ambivalence: ambi (both) + valence (strength, worth) = pulled in both directions by strong forces or values
The way I see it, ambivalence is two ways to be strong. People who are ambivalent are not dispassionate, but ambi-passionate, equally attracted to two seemingly opposing entities. It is, in fact, a rather complicated and skilled manner of relating to the world. F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
When we don’t normalize and honor ambivalence, motherhood can generate conflicted mental and emotional states. Our ability to function is impacted, and we may suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or worse.
The University of Amsterdam actually researches this in their Uncertainty Lab (I just love that name!). They’ve found that we are generally okay with ambivalence until we are forced to commit — that is, we might be content with loving some parts of motherhood, and not liking others, until we are confronted with the well-intentioned acquaintance who asks, “Aren’t you just loving every minute of it?!”
So we smile, gush “Yes, it’s wonderful!” and then feel guilty because it really isn’t. Our culture really only tolerates one answer from mothers: “I love it.” We end up hiding part of our experience. And as we all know, that usually just makes things worse.
As a culture, we need to honor the ambivalence of motherhood. We need to find a way to embrace these contradictory feelings about motherhood, instead of having them fight a war inside us.
Harriet Lerner reminds us that “the fantasy about how a mother is supposed to feel haunts almost every mother. Because the myth of the ‘good mother’ denies the power of real-life ambivalence – of love and hate – mothers feel ashamed of acknowledging their ‘unacceptable feelings’ and their limits.”
For me, the ambivalence of motherhood is often about the pull between my needs and my children’s needs, between time for myself and time to care for my children. I don’t just mean having time for a pedicure, or even a shower. I mean that for the longest time, I felt that me-time and kid-time were fundamentally separate. It seemed working on my identity couldn’t happen – I was just “mom.” I wanted to develop my mind, my career, and my interests, and I resented when my children and their needs got in the way. It seemed if I was “mom,” I wasn’t me.
Adrienne Rich, in Of Woman Born, writes about her early years of motherhood in the 1960s. She describes perceiving herself as
“a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs … fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. And I am weak sometimes from held-in rage…. And yet, at other times, I am melted with the sense of their helpless, charming and quite irresistible beauty – their ability to go on loving and trusting…. I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.”
Rich longed “to be free of responsibility,” and even envied the childless woman, “who has the luxury of her regrets but lives a life of privacy and freedom.”
We recognize the confluence of joy and sadness throughout our lives, but I think we see it differently when it comes to motherhood. As Rozsika Parker writes in her seminal work on maternal ambivalence, Mother LOVE, Mother HATE, we are ambivalent about ambivalence! Every culture has an ideal of motherhood; motherhood has its own history and ideology. Though we recognize that motherhood is hard, and we often laugh about it when it’s described honestly and hilariously by mommy bloggers, our very act of making it funny is perhaps our way of not taking it seriously.
We laugh with Louis C.K., but we don’t really want to read the letter from the woman who writes seriously about wishing she wasn’t a mom. We confess to “mommy failures,” but we protect ourselves in silly tweets that we hope The Huffington Post will curate for its weekly feature. For good measure, we add a self-deprecating hashtag — #motheroftheyear! – so people know it’s just a joke.
Mothers are still expected to be patient and self-sacrificing. As a culture, we have a hard time legitimating female anger, especially from mothers, and most especially, if that anger is directed toward their children. We fear the anger will overpower the love.
But it doesn’t have to. Psychoanalyst Barbara Almond writes in The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood that maternal ambivalence is absolutely normal. Rozsika Parker describes it perfectly and clinically: “I think proximity to infants does draw mothers into violent oscillations and extremes of feeling.” And Harriet Lerner asserts that ambivalence “characterizes all human relationships, not just that of mother and child. Being able to tolerate both kinds of feelings, at different times, without having one feeling destroy the other, is a sign of good mental health.”
So how can we honor this ambivalence? I think we can find a way to embrace our maternal ambivalence in the Buddhist concept of equanimity, which means mental and emotional stability.
Equanimity, like ambivalence, combines two important concepts:
equanimity: equa (even, equal) + animus (spirit, breath) = even spirit, composure
Can we combine ambivalence and equanimity? Can we be of two minds, merging the even-spiritedness of equanimity with the dual strength of ambivalence? When we cultivate equanimity, we cultivate our ability to be, as some define it, “there in the middleness.” Can we sit in the middle of our love and our anger, our joy and our frustration, and know that it’s all normal, that it’s all simply part of the human experience?
It’s not as funny. It may not become a viral tweet.
It’s about sharing the nuances, the shades of gray (of which there are far more than 50) when it comes to motherhood.
It’s about honesty.
I think that’s our best policy.
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