Mommy Really Loves You A Lot
I witnessed a distressing scene yesterday, in the locker room of my local gym. In thinking it over later, I realized this episode was a very good example of what I call the "subtle ambivalence of the too-good mother." I use this term to describe women who cannot admit their ambivalence to themselves or others. The hallmark of this kind of discomfort is a need to broadcast what a good, un-ambivalent mother you are, that you follow the rules and never lose your temper. Those observing this mothering are uneasy and can't quite put their finger on what it is that is off-balance, but something surely is.
When I entered the locker room, eager to get into my bathing suit and jump in the pool, I ran into a mother holding a very young baby, a newborn boy just four weeks old. She had her daughter with her who informed me, when I asked, that she was "almost four years old." The mother was trying to nurse the baby, and the daughter was clearly very distressed. She hovered around, anxious and resentful. The mother, painfully aware of her daughter's discomfort, had clearly struck a bargain with her. She, the daughter, could suck on the baby's foot (in soft slippers) while he was nursing. The child's comfort with this substitute breast did not last long. She whined and pestered and displayed her insecurity and jealousy for all to see.
This is surely an ordinary enough occurrence. All children are jealous of younger siblings, although not all children are as insecure as this child appeared to be. My hunch is that she was probably high-strung from birth. What was off base was the mother's need to let others know that she could handle this situation, that she wasn't frustrated and exhausted by her daughter's demands. Yet, I could see from the reactions of other women in the locker room, including myself, that a certain amount of frustration was completely understandable. The mother's voice was loud, falsely cheerful, and pressured. None of use could help, by distracting the older child in some way, even though we would have been willing to do so, because we sensed the mother would resent it. It would mean we thought she couldn't handle it. We didn't think she could handle it, but we didn't think we could have handled it either-at least, not gracefully. The difference was that other women in the locker room didn't expect to be able to handle it. There was no room for commiseration with the mother, because to accept the sympathy of others would be to admit the situation was exhausting and difficult.
In my recently published book "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood", I have a chapter on the "Too Good Mother" that describes mothers who are out of touch with their ambivalent feelings and therefore unable to do anything about them. In this instance, the father was waiting for them in the main lobby. So, why did the mother have to nurse the infant that minute? Why didn't she take both children outside to the father, drop the little girl off, and nurse a few minutes later? Well, a perfect mother doesn't let a newborn cry, or a four year old be unhappy. But babies do cry and small children are jealous and every other woman in the locker room understood this, sympathetically. But this woman could not reveal her own frustration and ambivalence and that was more distressing to the onlookers than if she had, because we all knew what we would have felt. I am speculating further that some of this child's insecurity was a reaction to her unconscious sense that her mother was trying too hard to be patient and accepting. Why was mommy trying so hard to prove she wasn't angry? Her words were soothing, but her tone was full of suppressed anger. And the child knew it. I found myself wondering what any child is to do with the message that "mommy really loves you a lot" in the face of this hidden maternal rage.