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Barbara Almond, M.D.
Barbara Almond M.D.

Maternal Ambivalence

The dilemma of modern parenting.

This blog is about the dilemmas of modern parenting and the painful emotions that ensue from attempts to do it perfectly. As human culture has developed and changed over the milennia, so too has human parenting. But the passion to raise children "correctly" has reached an apex over the past 30 years or so that burdens contemporary parents to a disturbing degree. These demands engender ambivalence, that mixture of loving and hating feelings that characterizes all important relationships.

Ambivalence arises where there is a conflict between the needs of the parents and those of their children. For example, a loving mother, who has nursed her infant happily every few hours during the day, cannot really welcome being woken out of a much needed sleep every few hours all night long. Yet many women feel guilty and depressed at their own resentment, exhaustion and unfriendly thoughts. That resentment seems very understandable—after all, she does feed the baby even if she would rather not at that moment--but it isn't, to the mothers themselves. An acquaintance confessed to me that her mother's group once took up the subject of their resentment towards their children and then felt so guilty, they could never go back to it again.

Maternal ambivalence is "the crime that dare not speak its name" in the 21st century (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde who referred to homosexuality as the crime that dare not speak its name in the 19th century.) Everyone feels it, but has trouble talking about it, and those who do speak up raise feelings of alarm in those who are pushing these feelings out of consciousness.

It seems so puzzling--ambivalence is a normal human phenomenon. What you love, you can also lose. Those you love can leave you, reject you, and disappoint you. How can anyone always be loving? The need to suppress negative feelings is really more of a burden than parents realize. Let me recount a recent example. I just returned from a vacation cruise where among the many activities offered was a toddler's play group. One day I stopped to watch it for a while. The whole scene made me feel rather uneasy, even though I enjoy watching toddlers. Their parents, mainly mothers, hovered anxiously, intervening constantly, largely around the issue of sharing toys. "No, no Tommy, we share our toys. Let the other children have a chance." I'm sorry, but toddlers do not willingly share toys, unless thoroughly brain-washed, or coerced. The mothers seemed so tense, so determined to do it right. to not raise their voices, to pretend they were comfortable, when they so clearly were not. Was anyone enjoying themselves? The parents seemed vigilant, the children confused. There is nothing wrong with teaching children to share, but what is wrong is the parental tension and feelings of failure if the child does not cooperate and the ensuing anger, guilt and depression. I had the strong feeling that these parents were trying to convince the other parents that they were doing it right.

What kind of a mother resents her children? Every kind—but in different degrees. The problem is not the feeling which is usually temporary, but the fear of speaking about it—it dare not speak its name!—and the resulting feelings of self punishment.

I have recently published a book titled "The Monster Within—The Hidden Side of Motherhood" which deals with the subject of maternal ambivalence. The book is an attempt to understand,and normalize his phenomenon and to help women seek various forms of relief, both from their own conscience and from a too demanding society.

About the Author
Barbara Almond, M.D.

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

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