By: Jessica B. Burstrem
My college students will tell you that ambivalence is one of my favorite words. However, I find that ambivalence about motherhood – though I am convinced that the actual feeling is common – is not frequently enough acknowledged. Some of my students have been horrified at the very proposition that a mother could feel anything but constant, unabating joy at everything from mucking the suspicious goo from the corners of the floor to mucking the poo from the corners of their rear-ends; some have been offended at the very supposition that their mothers might not have relished everything that they had to give up for their children – or even that their mothers might feel that they gave up anything at all. But while many students are quick to point the finger at any supposedly Bad Mother that so often appears in literature, popular culture, and what passes for news these days (if those are indeed even distinct categories anymore), I have found that some thoughtful discussion is enough to bring most of them around to a pretty sympathetic stance on the subject. I taught a film and literature course with a theme of Bad Mothers earlier this summer, and within days students were groaning at the prospect of studying yet another merciless and unjust lambast of mothering and sharing examples of such treatment that they had recognized, for the first time, all around them, as must anyone whose eyes have been opened to that phenomenon. Perhaps the reason for my success was that I showed them how no mother is safe from such guilt-inducing portrayals: the stay-at-home mom, who is frequently caricatured as overprotective or seeking to live vicariously through her children; the so-called working mom, who is generally presumed to be selfish or power-hungry; the Jewish mother, who is commonly depicted as emasculating and overzealous; and so on. Consequently, most of them could see some unfairness to their own mothers in such generalizations and thus better recognized the unfairness of all of them – of the very untenable situation that they create for mothers. Whatever we do, whatever our intentions, someone, somewhere, will find some way to cast aspersions on our actions or on the results of them, implying or outright accusing us of being Bad Mothers. Often that someone is ourselves or someone close to us – mothers, fathers, partners, in-laws, siblings, neighbors, our children’s friends’ parents … not least of all, our children themselves.
During one of our frequent telephone conversations, my mother recently mentioned, only half in jest, that she believes that most children do not really respect their parents’ ideas until they are at least 25 years old. Yet my 18- to 23-year-old students are often the staunchest defenders of their mothers. Whatever type of mother their own was, they are likely to defend that choice (whether or not it actually was a choice) as the ideal one. Of course, there are a few students who upbraid their parents as abusive, which must be true sometimes. Yet I think that many mothers would be surprised to hear the glowing descriptions of them that their college-age children give in my classroom. Or at least mine certainly would, apparently.
Of course, recognizing that these mothers might have felt ambivalence about these choices/roles perhaps tarnishes the romance, but I think that that recognition is important all the same. I hesitate to argue anything based on the ubiquitous best interests of the children – they so often seem to demand the eradication of mothers’ own interests and even individuality, separate from their children, in this day and age – but do we really want that for our children? Do we want our daughters to feel misled and shortchanged when they realize that, even if they can have it all, they cannot have it all at once, or they can only have it all if they are willing to find themselves endlessly torn and dispersed among those disparate interests? Do we want our children to feel that they must forgo having children of their own in order to follow their (other) dreams? Do we want them to think that they are the only people in the world who have felt murderous anger or hopeless frustration when they cannot get a moment’s peace even merely to clear their minds, or when that baby wakes up again in the middle of the night and they have not gotten more than a few hours of sleep at a stretch in months, or when all perspective is lost and it just seems – as it occasionally does – that everything is out of control and going wrong?
I cringe when I see friends post Facebook status updates such as, “Of course the baby woke up as soon as all the other children were asleep – but I love it!” or hear women justify going out and leaving a young child with a sitter “because it will make me a better mother tomorrow” – as though that is the only justification for a grown woman to go out for an evening! I wonder if that is what they really, truly feel. Do they even know themselves? Or are they just better mothers than I?
Instead, I try to resist the impulse to hide my needs or wishes or feelings in service of some ridiculous ideal of motherhood that, I believe, serves no one. Sometimes, my son drives me absolutely nuts and I want nothing more than to be away from him for a while – but of course I would never want to be completely rid of him, and, for the vast majority of mothers out there, that should go without saying. And yet even the suggestion that a mother might feel that way probably provokes an involuntary feeling of horror and disapproval, even in the most disciplined feminist mothering studies scholar. Or it does in me, at least. We must resist.
Motherhood inevitably involves feelings of ambivalence … but perhaps acknowledging as much will actually mitigate it. It is okay to want to get in the car and just keep driving sometimes. We all feel that way occasionally. But if you have never actually done it – at least, not without all sorts of arrangements of various degrees of complication ahead of time – then you do not have to feel guilty for thinking it, for considering it, even, on top of everything else that you already have to worry about as a mother in this world today. The vast majority of us never need worry about being Bad Mothers. Both we and our children would likely be happier if we recognized that.