Coping with Maternal Ambivalence : Part 1

What is ambivalence? Webster defines it as 1.) Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward an object, person or action. 2. A) Continual fluctuation… B) Uncertainty…

 As you likely already know, it is quite common to feel contradictory feelings about many of the things that we experience in life. Even things we are truly committed to; our work, we can love it, feel energized by it and yet at times truly dread it or parts of it. Or exercise, it can simultaneously feel grueling, like you’d rather be doing anything else and yet there is pleasure when you reach the summit, the finish line, or the end of a workout. Ambivalence can be present in relationships too. We can love someone and have difficult, unsettling and unpleasant feelings about that same person, all at once.

 Feeling uncertain, confused, muddled or overwhelmed by a flood of conflicting emotions is difficult, uncomfortable and anxiety-producing. Yet, it is an inescapable part of the human experience, something we all feel at times – normal.

 Yet, when it comes to women’s ambivalence about mothering, it is not seen or accepted as a normal part of the experience. Our culture tells women that their feelings about mothering should be pure, pure in their positivity. Women should be overjoyed from the moment of conception onward, with no uncertainty, no muddled feelings. Unfortunately, this is not only unrealistic, it is utterly unattainable. Due to this unreachable ideal of motherhood, a women’s journey is set up to feel like a failure from the start. This is such a pervasive and powerful idea that women, themselves wholly believe and they are completely broadsided when pure joy and happiness with their new life as a mother is not their reality.

 How do mothers navigate these mixed feelings inherent in their experience of caring for another human being? She can love her baby, but not love the unrelenting tasks of baby care. She may have wanted this child, but long for her “old life”. She may feel connected and simultaneously want to be anywhere but there.

When there is no place to take your ambivalence, no forum to speak openly about how hard mothering is, where do those feelings go?

[“The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new." -Osho]

What would it be like if we gave mothers permission to feel all of it, everything they feel, with no judgment, no shame, no guilt? What if you could fumble about, not-knowing, figuring it out as you go, with mixed feelings about the enormity of what has happened to your life? If you could freely feel the normal feelings of shock, overwhelm, fear and joy…all of it.

In order for mothers to heal, to find their way, hone their instincts, learn about their baby, build competence and confidence, they need to be able to feel their experience in all of its messiness and ambivalence. When there is only one “right” way to feel and only one path of motherhood, ambivalence has no place and no voice and a mother’s real experiences get lost.

The repercussions of this are profound. Whenever we deny feelings, repress them, put them away on a shelf somewhere, hoping they will disappear, they almost never do. They sit there, waiting for us, waiting for the next time we feel something painful and uncomfortable, something that we think we are not supposed to feel and then there they are.

If instead we can give these complex feelings a voice, a story, a narrative, if we can be with those feelings, talk about them, share them and eventually embrace them and accept them, they become less threatening and cause less anxiety.

The first step in the process is just to notice. Notice when you feel these feelings. Start slowly, to recognize the feelings of maternal ambivalence. Notice. Notice and be kind. Let yourself feel what you feel. Feel it and share it. Share it, knowing that you are not alone, because you are not.