She Bets Her Life

A writer and former compulsive gambler reflects on women and addiction.

The Greatest American Taboo: "I love my kids but I hate being a mom."

She looked up from writing, "There's something wrong with me."

The woman's voice was fragile.  She looked up from her writing and said, "There's something wrong with me."  We were in a writing circle with eight other women.  The room was silent, even the whisper of pens on paper had stopped.  "Can you tell us what's wrong?" I said.

The woman put down her notebook.  "I think so," she said.  "You said something at the beginning of this circle that has stayed with me.  You said that you have never had any maternal instinct."  I nodded, "That's true."  

"But you gave birth to four children and raised three of them pretty much by yourself?" 

"That's also true."

"And they turned out to be good people"

"Absolutely."

The woman put her hands over her face.  Her voice was muffled.  "I love my kids," she said, "but I hate being a mom."  She looked up.  Three other women in the circle nodded. "Three other women feel the same way," I said.  "I think," the woman said quietly, "I'd like it if we wrote about this.  And maybe read what we've written."

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That was precisely what we did.  At the circle's end, I watched quietly as we packed up our notebooks and pens. For the first time in my adult life, I didn't feel the thread of shame I've carried for so long.  Each woman who had children had written of her delight, ambiguity and exhaustion in her work as a mother.  One of the woman who was not a mother wrote of her anger that she was defined as "not a mother" - by her family, her friends and the greater world. "What is the word," she wrote, "for a women who either cannot or choses not to be a mother?"

From that time on I spoke openly about my lack of maternal instincts - when I taught writing circles, gave talks, sat on panels examining women and creativity.  I was afraid each time.  I felt as though I held out my hand with something as elemental and fragile as an Autumn leaf.  No one ever attacked me for what I felt.  After every class or event, one or more mothers (and grand-mothers) came up to me and spoke of their own fears or anger or shame. We often talked about our sense that we had worked especially hard at mothering, had trained ourselves to respond when we didn't want to respond, nurtured when the very cells in our bodies seemed to not know how to cuddle or cradle.

I read from She Bets Her Life last Thursday, at Sundance Books in Reno, Nevada.  A young woman came up at the end of the reading and said, "I'm so glad you talked about why women gamble - especially when you said that most women don't go to casinos to socialize.  I go to get away from taking care of everybody.  I have three little kids and my husband's mom.  It's my escape."  I told her that nearly all the women I had met in casinos and gambling 12-step meetings had said the same thing.  "It's been spun by the media into a demonic stereotype - you know,Mom leaves kids in car outside casino while she gambles!"  "I would never do that," the woman said.  "But, I've too often left them with my husband and not gotten home till morning.  I know I have to stop. I hope I can find the courage to get some help."

I googled "young mothers overwhelmed by mothering" before I began to write this post.  I found dozens of sites. And I found yet again the evidence that the wiring in our brains can rule.  According to scientists at Richmond University in Virginia, women develop a set of “maternal neurons” that operate like “bad mother/good mother” switches in the brain. Using brain-scanning techniques, they have identified a cluster of brain cells, created during pregnancy and “switched on” after birth, that appear to correlate with good or bad parenting behaviours.

“We believe that a certain number of these ‘maternal neurons’ need to be ‘switched on’ for good mothering to take place,” explains Professor Craig Kinsley, whose research has so far been limited to rodents and small mammals. “Our research showed that the mothers with fewer than this number of ‘maternal neurons’ tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young.”

Similar techniques could soon be used to identify human mothers with the capacity to abuse their children. A team at Yale University is already using brain scans to study the areas of the brain that drive good and bad mothering: “We have identified certain areas of the brain where there is a correlation between the level of neuron activity and measures of ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ parenting,” says Professor James Swain...

... Sian Busby believes that such measures could create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “My own experience has taught me how damaging a sense of innate culpability can be. Because I thought I had inherited the capacity to be a cruel mother, I became consumed by fear that I might do something to my baby. The notion that it was somehow out of my control was terrifying and unhelpful. Moreover, it prevented me from seeking the support I needed.”

Professor Alison Fleming, director of the Centre for the Study of the Psychobiology of Maternal Behaviour at the University of Toronto. ...is also concerned that the new research into maternal neurons could be used to argue diminished responsibility for those who abuse their children: “It’s perfectly possible to be a good mother with ‘bad genes’ — or ‘bad brain cells’ for that matter — just as it is possible to be neglectful, abusive or inadequate with good ones.”

Professor Kinsley disagrees: “We are all a slave to our brain function. An abusive mother has something malfunctioning in the brain so, in that respect, her behaviour is beyond her control.” When it comes to studying the brain, questions of “bad” and “good” need to be replaced with notions of “broken” and “fixed”, says Kinsley. “But it’s not a question of whether we excuse a certain behaviour. The aim of our research is to identify brain malfunctions so we can work towards fixing them.”

But is it possible to fix or rewire a brain? “Of course it is,” says Kinsley. “Just because a certain pattern of behaviour has a neuro-anatomical determinant does not mean that it is not possible to alter it. The brain is incredibly ‘plastic’, constantly responding to the environment and capable of incredible change.” According to Kinsley, new mothers whose brain scans identified them as having inadequate numbers of maternal neurons could be targeted with counselling or nurse visiting programmes. “Such interventions would help to kickstart more maternal neurons, switching on circuits in the brain responsible for healthy, sensitive parenting behaviour.”    ---Times Online, U.K.

I remember women telling me that when they recognized that they didn't have the instinct for mothering, they knew they had to teach themselves how to care for their babies.  I heard them speak of the difficult and courageous work they did to learn to cradle, to cuddle, to sit on the floor with their toddlers and play choo choo.  Not all of us found a new motherly warmth beginning to flow through our bodies.  But we continued to practice what we knew was critical for the well-being of our children.  

I'm grateful that I raised my children in the Sixties and Seventies.  Women were challenging the old definitions of who we are.  It was a time when I could share how I felt with other women - in consciousness-raising groups, in friendships, in my therapy group.  I didn't feel quiet so alone with my secret.  Despite that, the shame of "having the maternal instinct of a male mink" haunted me till I looked at the faces of the women in my writing circle and saw that I was not alone.  None of the friends of my young womanhood felt the way I did.  They listened.  They did not judge. But there was no way for them to understand.

I offer this piece to any of you who have been baffled and pained by what you feel as you mother.  I offer it to my dear friend, Viviane, who fought through stunning post-partum depression.  I offer it to the spirit of my mother, who held my hand as she lay dying and said, "My one regret is that the god-damned depression robbed me of being able to be the mother I longed to be."  And I offer it with love to my adult children - they know why.  

Note:  Times Online article:   http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article7076033.ece

Note:  for more on women, gambling and creativity, this wonderful interview with writer and mother, Leslie Thatcher: http://www.truthout.org/sojourner-comes-home59672

Mary Sojourner, M.A., is the author of She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press/ April 2010) and Going Through Ghosts (U.Nevada Press, 2010).

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