Museum of Motherhood

Thursdays with *Dr. Mama*, “Confronting Maternal Ambivalence”

I spent the better part of last Friday at a doctoral thesis defense at York University.  (As I write this on Saturday, I’m stranded at the Pearson airport for 7 hours in Toronto trying to return home, but that’s another story.)  May Friedman wrote a fabulous and insightful study of “mommyblogging” and I was the external reviewer on her thesis committee.  It was an afternoon of courageous thinking and ideas and I loved being part of it.  One of the ideas that surfaced, in fact as a result of May’s insights, was about maternal ambivalence.  In particular, she talked about ambivalence as a form of empowerment.  One of the committee members inquired about whether being ambivalent could function as empowering for women.  May, soon to be Dr. Friedman, argued that it could.  I agree.  This is a point I have been trying to make in my own writing.  So many mothers have a very difficult time trying to combat social messages that mothering is nothing but beautiful and magical and serene, that motherhood is, as Jennifer Gilbert wrote in Friedman’s co-edited anthology, “all of the goodness of chocolate pudding and fluffy kittens put together, but with none of the funny aftertaste.”

First of all, I remain unconvinced that motherhood is all that.  But even in its terrific moments it’s also interwoven with complexity and difficulty and hardship of one kind or another–physical, spiritual, financial, emotional.  And this is no less the case with our children than it is with any other given person with whom we have a relationship, as Friedman noted last Friday.  Human relationships are complicated.  We get annoyed by people we love; we question the wisdom or the benefit of relating with particular people we care about; we wonder what life would have been like if we had had different parents, or siblings, or girlfriends/boyfriends, or bosses.  We don’t NOT question or wonder such things about our kids just because they’re our kids.  So I have tried, and do try, to write in a way that works to reveal my own ambivalence about mothering.  My desire is to add my voice to the chorus—however small or muffled it may be—of women who confess that our humanity extends even to relationships that are deemed sacred and untouchable by that humanity.  Even to those relationships branded ‘unconditional.’  Even to those relationships to which we are fiercely devoted.  Even to the mother-child relationship.  My hope is to help amplify this chorus, as some other bloggers, like Ayelet Waldman and Heather Armstrong have a history of doing, and like Laura Carroll and Lucy Cavendish did earlier this year, so that when mothers inevitably feel about mothering what relating humans feel about relating with other humans, they don’t get wiped out by it and are instead positioned to work through or with their complex responses.  It seems that frequently, when mothers admit to complex human feelings about motherhood, they feel compelled to qualify it with: “it’s all worth it though!” (and if they don’t go there their commenters surely will), as in Capitol Mom’s recent post.  And this policing and erasure of women’s ambivalence functions to redirect the discussion toward the insistence on perpetual happiness in mothering, which supports the argument that mothers are generally expected to not have human feelings toward about their lives as mothers.

Rather than be shamed into silence or shocked into self-loathing or shackled by denial, we can be exonerated from all of that and can live truthfully and fully.  My hope is that, as more of us admit that mothering is a messy, complicated thing emotionally, more of us will be equipped to deflect the feelings of inadequacy that surface when we feel what we suspect a mother “shouldn’t” feel, or can’t accomplish what a mother “should.”  From our audacious confrontation with our ambivalence and our confession that some days we feel deluged by, some days delighted by, some days deleted by motherhood—we can parent more freely, and live unfettered.

When I was young, and I don’t mean just as a kid or teen but as a younger adult, I think I was held hostage by my ideas of what, for example, a partnership should look like.  These are ideas I didn’t just create from my own revelries, mind you; I had lots of help in creating my ‘hostage situation.’  Like cultural silence about what love and sex are or could be for one thing, and from films, children’s books, song lyrics, religion, and television to name a few more.  I was held captive by these ideas.  So I had developed no skills for complex relationship management other than repressing my feelings till they nearly ate me alive or drinking them to numbness or acting out in self-destructive ways or, my personal favorite (still), running myself so ragged and spreading myself so unbelievably thin that I scarcely had any energy left to feel anything.  If I could have known, really known, that human relationships, even family-based ones, even love-based ones—perhaps especially these—were by definition characterized by conflicted feelings, I would have been able to talk through some of my thinking and emotion, get advice from other people, allow myself to be human without having to repress, or drink, or act out, or work myself to a frenzy in the hopes of erasing my conflict or ambivalence.  Or project my sense of terrible humanity onto the people I care about and then resent them for it.

I imagine that there are mothers, lots of mothers, who are working very hard to avoid confronting their ambivalent feelings about motherhood.  And I’ve a feeling that if the chorus of women who are confronting them were amplified all the more, we’d see a great surge of energy in the maternal stratosphere—energy that’s no longer wasted and pointless because it’s been redirected into fertile and fruitful arenas—that could infuse women’s identities and relationships and lives with a degree of power and strength and force the likes of which we have never seen.


About M. Joy Rose

Woman, Mother, Human, Rocker, Educator, Activist Director; Museum of Motherhood President and Founder; MaMaPaLooZa Inc. a company by Women, Promoting (M)others for social, cultural and economic benefit. Dedicated to a more educated, more peaceful, more musical planet.


4 thoughts on “Thursdays with *Dr. Mama*, “Confronting Maternal Ambivalence”

  1. wow. sometimes when we read certain things they can be so timely. i have been struggling with this all week. specifically, i have been struggling with the ambivalence of my role as a mother and as a grad student. for some reason i thought that if i asked my partner for extra support this week to prepare my phd applications, i would have the freedom to detach myself from the daily duties of mothering. there have been many times in the past where i have understood that this is never possible, but because of the intensity and weight i have directed toward this application process, i thought this week would be the exception. NOPE–what was i thiinking?? as i locked myself in my room on my computer in an effort to write essays, i found myself feeling isolated and missing out on the giggles overheard in the living room after dinner. as i sit here now, i am still having difficulties articulating the thoughts and feelings that i have been wrestling with this week. the situation is complex, muddled, and conflicting–it is ambivalent.

    thank you for providing an opportunity to discuss these things. i agree, more mothers need to be heard and validated in these ways. we need the opportunity to consider that it is not always worth it. more importantly, an opportunity to ask ourselves as human beings, worth what?

    Posted by Andrea Doyle | December 10, 2010, 14:32
  2. Thanks so much for your post, Andrea. One of the greatest struggles for me emerges when I try to figure out which one of my conflicting feelings are the “real” ones. I figure if I could figure this out, I could let go of the other and stop feeling like such a mess. But that’s a faulty logic of course, since the whole thing about ambivalance is that you do feel BOTH sets of feelings. They’re both real. And I like your point about the strange ambiguity of “it” in discussions about whether the efforts are “worth it.”

    Posted by Dr. Mama | December 11, 2010, 23:30
  3. Yes. It is such an individual thing, perhaps as mothers we could to be more honest and open with one another in that regard. It is other mothers in my experience who aim to silence one another’s ambivalent voices in the early years. Sometimes it just needs to be voiced – not ‘fixed’ / smothered with condescending platitudes.

    Posted by naomie hatherley | December 13, 2010, 21:09
  4. Yes, Naomi. We could each contribute by allowing mothers the freedom to express their conflicted responses to motherhood without feeling like we will find them wanting or not measuring up to our views of what “mothers should” feel. Another question to ask is what are the mechanisms in place societally that make us so invested in our own ways of feeling that might encourage us to issue judgments against other mothers. IF we judge what other mothers feel, why do we feeled compelled to do so? What investments are we protecting?

    Posted by Dr. Mama | December 15, 2010, 20:54

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