Maternal Ambivalence

Exploring Hidden and Uncomfortable Emotions Surrounding Motherhood

Ambivalence in Pregnancy and Childbirth

Not all women want babies.

Maternal ambivalence occurs during all phases of mothering. Today I want to focus on the beginning--ambivalence about having children in the first place. For many years, in my career as an analyst, I assumed that deep down all women wanted children. During the last 15-20 years I have seen a number of women who were deeply uncertain about whether or not to have children, women who consulted me late enough in their lives that successful pregnancy and childbirth would have been difficult, or impossible, to achieve. Although their psychological profiles differed greatly, there were striking issues in common. Most of them liked the children of their sibs and close friends, but feared they would not like their own. Others had husbands who didn't want children, but this never turned out to be the real reason.

What I think of as the "real reasons" women are ambivalent about having children relate to several fears dating from early life. Women who struggle with a lot of unresolved aggression in themselves, fear that their child will become an angry reflection of the "monster within" them, or within their closest relatives-parents, siblings, spouses. Others, who for a variety of reasons are ashamed of their female anatomy and gender may avoid pregnancy and childbirth, the sine qua non of womanhood. A third reason for avoiding having children goes back to the early childhood of many women who were overly attached to their fathers. In their unconscious fantasy life, stemming from childhood, the baby is an Oedipal baby, father's baby, an illegitimate child who will bring punishment in its wake.

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However, the major issue at play in the conflict over having children is the mother's relationship with her own mother early in life. Traumatic interruptions in the early mother-child bond, due to illness, physical or mental, separations, or family problems may leave their mark in a woman's later fear that she will not be able to mother adequately. These issues are not easy to get to in psychotherapy, but if a woman does not wait until it is too late, she may be able to resolve them and undertake motherhood, successfully.

Barbara Almond is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in Palo Alto, CA.

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