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.