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A silenced part of mothering

A mother is in a playground and feels a fleeting feeling of hate for her child. This emotion upsets her. But what she doesn’t know is it’s perfectly normal... Dr Margo Lowy explores.

15 April 2021

The mother is at a local park with her newborn baby and two-year-old toddler. She tells her son to stay close by and not to climb to the top of the slide. But after less than a minute, she spots him at the top of the play equipment, unsure how to get down. She is immediately gripped with terror. She carefully climbs to the top, experiencing a momentary flash of hatred as she begins to process his disobedience coupled with her own shock and fear about what could happen if he fell. This feeling turns into relief as she reaches him safely and hugs him, her tears of joy a sign of her overpowering and strengthened feelings of love. This is maternal ambivalence, a central but silenced part of mothering which I examine in my book The Maternal Experience: Encounters with Ambivalence and Love.

My book disrupts the current conversation in which mothers are expected to be all-caring, present and fully accessible to their children. Rather, I advance a more realistic view of everyday mothering. I consider that the uncomfortable and distressing feelings that most mother's experience are valuable, both as a key to internal transformation and to improve the mother and child relationship. Furthermore, these feelings need to be unveiled, truthfully named and given a voice.

Side by side

There are some assumptions that underlie my thinking about mothering and the mother's experience of her ambivalence. English psychotherapist Rozsika Parker, a trailblazer in the area of maternal ambivalence, describes it as an experience in which the mother's loving and hating feelings sit side by side. The mother's ability to struggle with these contradictory feelings and to fight the temptation to deny the problematic ones allow her to reach, and be comfortable enough with her mothering.

I believe that most mothers experience momentary feelings of hate at times and these very feelings act as a fuel for her maternal love. I understand mothering as a fluid experience which relies on the mother feeling that she is enough rather than perfect. This means that she is present and connected, enough of the time, and that she can accept that while she continually makes mistakes, they equally provide opportunities for repair and learning. Her fluidity is also shown in her capacity to forgive herself and her child, to maintain hope for the future despite the unknown, and to use humour and laughter to help her survive difficult times. The mother continually struggles against the temptation to be perfect, which is sourced in rigidity and unattainable expectations about herself and her child. Real mothering is drawn from honesty and is a messy, loving but interrupted experience.  

American psychotherapist and author Daphne de Marneffe makes the insightful and perhaps unpopular assertion that the experience of unpleasant feelings that emerge in relation to one's children is the place "where the real human work gets done, where the emotional action is". This encourages a different version of mothering. One in which the dirty and unseemly parts of mothering are touted as valuable and worth reflecting on. It's indeed a paradoxical way of thinking.  

A taboo

I do understand that to most people the notion of maternal ambivalence is perplexing. It is understandable that the idea of putting mothering and hatred together is confronting and raises many concerns and doubts. I use it only in the context of maternal love which excludes any association with brutality, cruelty or violence. Then there is the misunderstanding about what ambivalence means. It is often confused with indifference, a deadened static state of disconnection from one's one's feelings. Ambivalence, on the other hand, is marked by a fluid and passionate engagement with all one's contradictory feelings. A person who is able to sit with their conflictual feelings, to bear and learn from them while resisting the temptation to dismiss any of them – that's an evolved and healthy human. A struggle with oppositional feelings such as love, hate, enjoyment, despair, disdain, tenderness, anger, frustration is challenging and can be tumultuous.  While society is able to accept these ambivalent feelings in most relationships – including marriage partnership, friendships and even children toward parents – when it comes to mothering, a mother's experience of her ambivalence is overwhelmingly taboo.   

This discussion leads to the question: Is there paternal ambivalence and if there is, is it the same as maternal ambivalence? I'm almost certain that fathers experience paternal ambivalence, but the research in this area is not widespread. I don't think there is an umbrella term, like parental ambivalence, which covers the experience of both mothers and fathers. Biological and social differences are likely to mean very different experiences.

Only in the context of love

Let's go back to the mother in the playground. The mother was unsettled and shocked by her strong reaction. She reflected on her feelings as she safely descended the slide with her toddler in her arms. She once again imagined the chilling scene of her son falling from the slide and its possible dire consequences. She tried to understand her emotions during this moment. She recognised deep flashes of hatred connected to the possibility of him being injured or worse. She heard an internal voice: "How could he do this to me?"; "My life would have been over if something happened to him", and "How could I have been so stupid to take my eyes off him for even 10 seconds?" She was coming to terms with what she could have lost.    

However, these feelings almost instantly transformed into the strongest and most earnest loving feelings the mother had ever experienced, attended by gushes of compassion, relief and gratitude. She hugged her toddler tightly and gazed at his innocent but mischievous face. Her heart melted. The moments of hatred had been real, understandable, known and easily identifiable to others mothers.

The flashes fueled and intensified her love. They existed in her mind and her heart and did not hurt anyone, rather they taught her a lot about herself and her son. They existed only in the context of love and made it more powerful. 

Not a picture perfect vision

The experience of ambivalence continues throughout the years of mothering. Here is an example of a mother's encounter with her teenage daughter. The mother collects her intoxicated 16-year-old daughter from a party. She experiences total love and relief as her daughter is now safely with her. But she also experiences hatred as her daughter exposed herself to danger and had broken her promise not to drink alcohol. The mother is both horrified and gripped by her experience of maternal ambivalence.   

The mother had time to reflect on the night after she put her drowsy daughter into bed. She admitted to  her troubling and piercing moments of hatred,  but was so thankful that she has the presence of mind not to react and admonish her daughter at the party in front of her friends. The discussion could wait until the morning. 

She could see her expectations about her daughter were probably stuff of fantasy and that she needed to be real. She  decided to be more open and fluid in her conversations with her daughter. She needed to be a connected but not a perfect mother. An accepting one who could both remain present while letting her daughter know that her poor choices would have consequences. The mother could also clearly see that  her flashes of hatred had value and that mothering is not the picture perfect vision often portrayed on the social media; it is gritty and real.   

These two experiences demonstrate that mothering is not about perfection, it's a messy, interrupted and loving  experience. This expression is a clue to what I mean by maternal ambivalence. It's a mother's struggle with all her feelings, including the momentary feelings of hate. By owning all her feelings, her love can betransformed and strengthened. When the mother can be as fluid as possible and stay away from the word should and  the judgement it carries, her experience will be more truthful and easier. And if she can laugh – well, all the better. 

Dr Margo Lowy, a psychotherapist and author, has three children. She recently released her first book Maternal Experience: Encounters with Ambivalence and Love.

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