Mothering and ambivalence; a book review, sort of

I wrote a post a few months ago about feeling torn between intense love of my child and hallucination-provoking frustration of full time motherhood. I felt emboldened that my feelings were neither unique nor damning after reading Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood. But tonight I was reading What Mothers Do by Naomi Standlen and felt temporarily shamed for those feelings. Give me a minute and I’ll explain what made me re-examine my feelings and conclusions about how experiencing both sides of the spectrum is normal and honest, then the reasons I reject Standlen’s conclusions about the inherent selfishness and destructiveness of ambivalence. (Don’t blink…that was the summary. Save yourself some time and re-read that sentence and go on with your life.)

In examining the writings of mothers (Adrienne Rich, Rachel Cusk, Kate Figes, Rozsika Parker, Jane Lazarre, and Susan Johnson) who address their maternal ambivalence by name, Standlen asks, “Are we talking about a group of women who have picked up a sophisticated psychoanalytic concept—ambivalence—to dress up the fact that they are all so self-centered? Are they too selfish to be loving mothers?”( 202-3) Rather harsh, I think, as a description of women who are giving everything they have to mother their children because that’s what they believe the children need.

In her wording, though,  and her background as a psychoanalyst, we can understand Standlen’s tone. Ambivalence for Freudians is very technically a love/hate polarity that revolves around the same source (here, the child). But for the writers she mentions, ambivalence is a much less rigid term, meaning only existing at two levels, two valences. It doesn’t necessarily mean polar opposites. Standlen explores, for several pages (196-98, et al.), statements from writers about how they get frustrated or angry or resentful about their babies. I’ve only read the full text of half the books she quotes, but none of them talk about hate when I read them. They talk about feeling conflicted because they are angry and frustrated and resentful while being in love. While caring so deeply they sacrifice sleep and health and sanity for a small creature. And that feels difficult and awkward and not at all something glorified. But certainly something real and therefore valid.

Further distancing their mothering multivalences from Standlen’s Freudian definition of ambivalence, the authors in question seem to hint that the contradictory feelings arise from difference sources. Maushart explains pretty clearly that love for the child and hate for the job of full time mothering are daily and hourly occurrences, but that distaste for the job doesn’t mean lack of love for the child (nor that true, deep, unflinching love for the child means lack of frustration with the unceasing work of parenting).

Standlen argues that a baby raised by an ambivalent parent with have an adult-sized case of PTSD. (210-12). A mother who loves you and hates you, she asserts, is like a capricious god who terrifies then patronizes then rewards then punishes. Mothers who get angry and yell at their children apologize, she says. Ambivalent mothers, she argues, yell or withdraw because they think it’s an okay way to parent. And happy chldren are obviously loved, while shy children who don’t warm quickly to strangers are clearly experiencing some ambivalence damage at home.

What twisted, monster version of moms do you see in your practice, Ms. Standlen? Sure, unconditional, patient, flawless love (which she calls wholehearted love) is “more straightforward.” My love is wholehearted, madam, and I hate not having one minute of peace to myself.  My love is wholehearted, and I hate the way I feel each day because I choose to sacrifice my sleep to give my child what he needs. And after comforting him gently 12 and 15 times a night when he’s teething or sick or scared, I want to throw him against the wall. I don’t do it and never will, but I’m putting that I writing for the whole world to see because it doesn’t make me any less wholehearted in my love. It means I am human and I get angry and I love a person but loathe a circumstance. (As I write this, Peanut is waking from his fourth nightmare of the evening. He has been writhing and talking in his sleep for several minutes, and just screamed. He might be asleep, he might be waking. I’ll know in a minute. If it is the former, my heart will go out to him as long as he is tormented. If it the latter, my body will go to him, as long as he is tormented. By about 2 am, this will get really, freaking old, and I may get angry—not at him, but at the constant interruptions. I’m not angry with him. I’m angry at whatever keeps his sleep cycles from maturing, angry with whatever demons dare disturb his growth and sweetness. And now I’m even more angry with Naomi Standlen for suggesting that I don’t love the little cacahuete.)

I resent Standlen’s assertion that the women who feel conflicted are bad mothers who are harming their children. She spends a lot of time dancing around her belief that working outside the home when you have small children is not ideal, but won’t really hurt children; and that breastfeeding is ideal, but formula really won’t hurt them. So why can’t she not say that being perfect is ideal, but occasional bouts of self-doubt and frustration and anger and longing for something different really won’t hurt children. As long as we learn to take our ambivalence (not love/hate the child but love the child and hate the intense labor pains of making room for them in your life, when the space they need takes up 99.999999999999% of your existence) and channel it in productive ways, why is she spending a whole chapter calling those of us who haven’t found unfettered bliss, selfish and unloving and confusing and frightening?

Standlen notes that most of these authors who express ambivalence are in a similar position: “These mothers don’t sound easy with their moments of hate. All of them are intellectual women, with careers ahead of them….[Julia Darling] found it difficult to be a mother, but she doesn’t mention hatred or the feeling that her babies were making limitless demands on her.” Did she work outside the home? Did she have a caregiver, either professional or familial to help? Because maybe she didn’t feel limitless demands because she got out of the freaking house and had what Virginia Woolf termed a room of her own. Maybe the women to whom you attribute “chilling” ambivalence are surrounded by yellow wallpaper, the likes of which Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew all too well.

Standlen is horrified by several lines from Maushart, but finds this couplet particularly abhorrent: “We harbour no doubts that mothering our children is infinitely worth doing. It’s only that we’d really rather be doing something else.” I don’t need to defend Maushart’s writing. But it is clear from the rest of the text that she means this about moments of the days and weeks. Not about the entirety of mothering. And certainly not about her children. We’d really rather be enjoying 100% of this job, but that’s simply not possible. (If it was, no mother or father would ever plunk their child down in front of the t.v. to get a moment’s peace.)

When Jon, the father on Jon & Kate Plus Eight expressed frustration at all the damned work of parenting (times eight), he said something along the lines of, “I just want to play with my kids. I don’t like doing all the other crap that goes along with this job.” And full-time parents around the country looked around to see if anyone else heard that. What do you think we do all day, my friend? Sunshine and lollipops and imaginary friends and dancing and games and kisses and stories? Yes, plus tantrums and snot and outbursts and teaching and discipline and meals and cleaning up and redirecting and stalemates and poop and cat vomit and negotiating and avoiding tantrums and planning the next three steps so there aren’t more tantrums and yet more tantrums. There is no “playing with your kids,” unless you’re only home for an hour a day. And even then you’re bound to get in 30 minutes of play and a few minutes of less appetizing stuff. (I’m not knocking Jon. He gets 8 kids dressed each morning before work. I’m just saying there is no time with children that is just fun and games.)

In the end, my anger at Standlen’s book comes from a perceived hurt—this woman who has never met me and has spent eight chapters cheering my every parenting choice now tells me I’m an unfit mother. She says that feeling anything but incessant, unconditional love is just wrong. That there is no room for both frustration and exhaustion and anger and love. You must simply love.

But she isn’t insulting me directly. And her assumptions are flawed. Ambivalence is not simply Freudian love/hate. Women who experience ambivalence are not selfish, and are often staying at home specifically to give their children everything they can afford. The well-balanced mothers she cites are probably working outside the home or addressing their own needs with a care giver or other help, and are therefore a little more, well, balanced. And in the end, these women Standlen criticizes are writers. They intellectualize their every moment of their day, every emotion, high and low. And they need to express what they find. Maybe they don’t need psychoanalysis so much as a community of other mothers to empathize with them. Being the scourge of society and of Naomi Standlen is really quite terrifying.

(We’re on nightmare number five and he’s officially awake. I need to go. But let me say this–my blog will always be a place you can come to feel ambivalent, appreciated, and understood.)

(And no, I didn’t type that while he cried. I typed it after I got back. I’m not a selfish monster. I’m an ambivalent, attachment co-parent. )

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3 thoughts on “Mothering and ambivalence; a book review, sort of

  1. Amen, Sister! How you didn’t burn the book is beyond me! It’s hard enough to explain this ambivalence to your husband, who thinks you just get to play all day and that if your that frustrated it must be at the kids, not the mound of laundry or dirty dishes or that stupid tooth that just won’t cut and be done with it. Now we have perfect strangers complaining? Ugh.

  2. Great entry!

    Yes, I think there are all times and days when we get tired of our kids. It doesn’t mean we love them any less, it just means that parenting is hard work and some days are harder than others.

    I think it’s far better to realize that yea, you may need a moment to recoup your senses than to just pretend that parenting is easy as pie and it isn’t any trouble.

  3. Pingback: Flux and another book on the choices of motherhood « Naptime Writing

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