The Part of Motherhood We Hate to Talk About

Ambivalence has been ignored and suppressed, mostly to the detriment of mothers.

Posted Aug 25, 2020

Ambivalence is a difficult and very real part of parenthood.  

Dr. Sarah LaChance Adams has studied ambivalence closely.

Her research reveals that parents of every gender experience ambivalence across cultures and throughout history. Ambivalence intensifies and can become unbearable when there is no support for the work of mothering, no break from it, and in circumstances such as poverty and racism

Dr. LaChance Adams is a distinguished professor of philosophy and director of the Florida Blue Center for Ethics at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do, and co-editor of The Maternal TugComing to Life, and New Philosophies of Sex and Love

Meredith Resnick: Not only mothers who identify as female experience ambivalence. 

Dr. Sarah LaChance Adams: Gender has an impact. A man juggling several noisy children on public transportation may be pitied or congratulated, while a woman in the same situation is more likely to be treated with irritation or chagrin.

There are also embodied aspects to motherhood that can intensify the ambivalence that some mothers experience, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding. They make one’s body a very public object in ways that it had never been before. One becomes subject to judgments, touching, stares, advice, etc. Men do not have to deal with these aspects of parenting.

Mothers, in particular, are expected to express strictly positive emotions regarding their children and their parenting role. Repressed emotions intensify ambivalence. 

Parents of other genders definitely experience ambivalence, as well as self-identified mothers who are not cis-gender females. Not only parents experience ambivalence. Caregiving for vulnerable others is bound to give rise to ambivalence.

Meredith: Because?

Dr. LaChance Adams: Repressed emotions cannot be processed or understood; and emotions carry important information. They tell how us we are relating to our world. If we feel as though we aren’t allowed to have a certain emotion, then we are missing an opportunity to learn. If my child wants to cuddle me and I want to push them away, then this tells me that I need some space for myself. However, if I am not allowed to entertain this feeling or this thought, then a lot of energy will be channeled into keeping them hidden from myself. 

There is a purpose behind it. Women’s unpaid labor is incredibly valuable. There is a strong motive to make women feel that they are supposed to naturally enjoy all that free cooking, cleaning, and caregiving. I think that the feelings of shame are the punishment that has been put into place to keep us working at these tedious labors.

Ambivalence in motherhood has been ignored and suppressed to the detriment of mothers, children, and our ethical life. When it’s ignored, it cannot be dealt with or looked at.

Meredith: Let’s talk about online culture.  

Dr. LaChance Adams: I think parents are engaged in a kind of group therapy with each other. Their feelings need validation. It’s important to know you are not alone, that you are not simply bad as an individual. There are larger forces at work here, and in fact, what you are feeling makes sense. Making sense of our feelings is truly one of the greatest of human liberators. I don’t mean simply rationalizing our feelings so that we can feel better. I mean understanding what our feelings have to teach us and seeing how they are reasonable to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Meredith: You write about the “interrelated yet separable interests of the self and the other.” Please explain.

Dr. LaChance Adams: Human beings who are intimately close to one another come to shape one another as who they are. They are so closely related, it’s as though they are one. And yet, they are also 100% distinct from one another. 

It’s a difficult paradox to reconcile.

Take pregnancy. One person develops into two or more people. Philosophically speaking, at what point is there more than one person? Ethically speaking, we might claim that whatever is good for the fetus is also good for the pregnant person. But we wouldn’t want to tell that to someone who is sick daily due to her pregnancy, or to a family who has lost a woman in childbirth. Physically speaking, it’s fascinating to realize that children’s stem cells are found in the mother’s body. Just as the pregnant body is a paradox that we have to “negotiate,” we have to ask ourselves “where do I end?” “where do you begin?” There aren’t clear answers. It’s ambiguous and open to interpretation. 

When we are so close to one another, and feel so responsible for one another, our feelings run high. We want to always be there, never let each other down. We never want our loved ones to suffer. We especially don’t want it to occur through some failure of our own. But on the other hand, sometimes we just want our freedom. We feel suffocated. We want them to take care of themselves. We may even want to run away, get rid of them, push them away.

For some, this impulse can become tragically extreme. The intense vulnerability and dependency of those who require constant care can lead to some frightening feelings even from caregivers who love them deeply. I think that a lot of parents are feeling this during the pandemic. They are facing greater stress than ever. Many of us have had no escape or relief from our children. 

Circumstances make a massive difference in how well we are able to deal with negative emotions. We need to think about this when we see that children are not being cared for, or that caregivers are at the end of their tether. We need to take collective responsibility where we can. 

It doesn’t just take a village to raise a child; it takes a village to raise a mother, too.