In my contemplation and recognition of Maternal Mental Health Week I have been spending the morning reading articles and blogs on the ambivalence of motherhood.
Maternal ambivalence is having emotional conflict in one’s feelings about and towards one’s children and motherhood. You can completely both love and hate being a mother at the same time.
““I hear about the intensity of feelings an infant can evoke, from blind rage, to numbness and boredom, to overwhelming love and tenderness. I hear from mothers who tell me they wanted to throw their crying baby out the window when the crying wouldn’t stop, and also, from these same mothers, that if anything really bad ever happened to their baby they couldn’t see going on living.”
~ Harriet Lerner, The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life
Feeling ambivalent as a mother is a completely natural and normal experience, and yet one that society often doesn’t support. Society tells us that you either completely love your children and being a mother, or there is something wrong with you and you’re a bad mother.
This leaves mothers feeling a lot of shame around feeling this way. And this shame often leads to self-deprecating thoughts and feelings of depression.
I remember one of the hardest moments for me, when I was suffering from exhaustion and depression, was a mother at a mother’s circle expressing “Isn’t motherhood so wonderful! Don’t you just love it and isn’t it so amazing!!” I didn’t feel safe to tell her that I wasn’t enjoying it at all at that moment and there were many aspects of it in that that I hated. I didn’t feel safe sharing that I was experiencing a lot of boredom and that the exhaustion was torturous. So I walked away from that experience, like I am sure many mothers have, thinking I was a bad person and a bad mother.
And that didn’t mean that I there weren’t moments that I experienced so much joy and love towards my baby. In fact, the first 4-5 months of motherhood were pretty blissful despite the often stressful and exhausting moments. And mother’s need to feel safe to share their joy and bliss around motherhood too.
We need to normalize the conflicted feelings that arise in motherhood. There will be aspects and moments of motherhood you will completely love and aspects and moments you completely hate and that is completely normal. What helps to dissolve the shame and grief around feeling this way is being willing to open up and talk about it.
What also comes up for me when I think about the ambivalence that modern mothers are feeling is the lack of support that many mothers have. Without the physical and emotional support that mother’s need it is normal to wonder “What is wrong with me?” “Why am I struggling so much with being a mom? Why don’t I love this all the time? Why do I want to run away, or take breaks?”
Because mothers shouldn’t be having to doing all the parenting primarily on their own. Nor should couples being doing it primarily on their own either, ambivalence towards their children can come up for fathers too.
The problem here is not in the parents themselves or the thoughts and feelings that are arising in them. These are normal feelings, especially in today’s society.
The issue is in how society takes care of parents. These feelings that arise are often signs and signals that a parent’s needs that are not being met. The needs of: getting enough proper sleep, me-time or time for self-reflection, having an outlet for creative expression, having social connection with other adults, mentorship from our elders, time for self-care, being accurately heard and reflected back to, space held for our emotional expression without judgment, eating a healthy nutritious meal in relative peace, and more.
One of the themes that has been coming up lately when I talk to mothers, is the feeling of being entrapped or caged by their children. Due to the lack of societal support many of these mother’s experience, they can’t actually act on their own impulses or desires because their children are attached at their hip. Nor do they feel they have permission to even contemplate these desires since society expects them to just be in complete service of their children and not to have any of their own needs.
What I know and also envision of traditional tribal cultures is that these needs would be met for mothers and parents. Tribal and traditional cultures practice alloparenting rather than solo parenting. Because it really does take a village.
“Alloparenting (also referred to as alloparental care) is a term used to classify any form of parental care provided by an individual towards a non-descendant young.”
With alloparenting a mother or parent would be supported in being of service to their community in ways that call them. They would be supported to sleep and take good care of themselves, because the community would recognize that a healthy mother is essential to a healthy community. They would have the social support and connection they need so that they can truly enjoy parenthood.
For example, the baby has been screaming at a mother for an hour for some unknown reason and her nerves are fried? A grandmother or aunty comes to take over the care of that baby so the mother can attend to her needs and get herself centered again. A mother didn’t sleep that well because the baby had her up most of the night? Another member of the community takes over the care of the child so that the mother can lay down and rest.
This is how it should be. However, I want to acknowledge that it is not the reality that we live in, although there are many of us working towards it.
In the absence of the village, having a Postpartum Care Provider (aka Doula) can make all the difference in having the support you need so you can enjoy motherhood more.
In the meantime if you are a parent, I encourage you to be very gentle on yourself. You are only one person and not a village, and most likely you need more support. Know that in our modern culture it is very normal to feel ambivalent and not to love all aspects of being a parent or of your child. Be honest about it. The path to healing is to find someone you can trust to hold space for you to express what is real for you. And this can also be healing for other parents to hear.
Rather than struggling with our ambivalence internally, and it leading to feelings of shame and guilt, let’s remind each other that it is normal, and we need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge that is completely okay if we don’t love being a parent all the time. It doesn’t make you a bad parent, it just makes you human.
Let’s share our thoughts and stories so that we can normalize parental ambivalence, post them below.