Psychiatrist Explores Dark Side Of Motherhood

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Writers from Erma Bombeck to Anne Lamott have confessed to harboring dark thoughts about their children, even though they loved them dearly.

Psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Almond calls it the hidden side of motherhood, and says mothers shouldn't be afraid to be more open about it.

In her new book ,"The Monster Within: The Hidden Side Of Motherhood," Almond explores mothers' negative feelings about themselves and their children and explains why those feelings need to be addressed and expressed.

Barbara's son, author and Here & Now literary critic Steve Almond, also joins the conversation with his take on Barbara's parenting style.

The Monster Within: The Hidden Side Of Motherhood

By Barbara Almond

The Ubiquity of Maternal Ambivalence

Ambivalence is a combination of the loving and hating feelings we experience toward those who are important to us. Maternal ambivalence is a normal phenomenon. It is ubiquitous. It is not a crime or a failing. This book is about maternal ambivalence.

“Admitting to Mixed Feelings about Motherhood,” by Elizabeth Hayt, appeared as the lead article in the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times on May 12, 2002—Mother’s Day. Here was one expression of the current groundswell of revolt against the idealization of motherhood in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from the enthusiasm and perfectionism of the baby boomers as they took on the “job” of parenting. Two days before reading this article I had talked with a young woman in her mid-thirties, the mother of two small children, about a parenting class she had attended. Although she had taken the class to learn more about child development, especially during toddlerhood, her most intense reaction was one of vast relief on discovering that other parents could feel exhausted, lonely, bored, and short of temper with their children. She learned she wasn’t alone. As this woman is both educated and emotionally sensitive, the degree of her relief was impressive. I suspect that the majority of women taking that class shared her feelings.

On July 2, 2001, ten months before the publication of the New York Times article, the cover of Newsweek carried the shocking headline, “{hrs}‘I Killed My Children’: What Made Andrea Yates Snap?” Andrea Yates was a depressed nurse, the mother of five children under the age of seven, who one morning, in the grip of severe postpartum psychosis, became desperate, lost control, and drowned all of them. The article was followed by Anna Quindlen’s Last Word column, titled “Playing God on No Sleep,” in which Quindlen admitted frankly that as horrified as she and others were by the murders, some part of her understood all too well how it could happen.

This book addresses the subject underlying the young mother’s reaction to her parenting class and the two articles, maternal ambivalence—that mixture of loving and hating feelings that all mothers experience toward their children and the anxiety, shame, and guilt that the negative feelings engender in them. If you hate your parents, siblings, spouse, friends, colleagues, or people of the opposite sex, or other races, religions, and nationalities, you are considered unfortunate, unreasonable, bigoted, interpersonally difficult, even seriously disturbed. But if you hate your children, you are considered monstrous—immoral, unnatural, and evil. It is my purpose to explore and understand the spectrum of maternal ambivalent feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and where possible to see them for the normal, inevitable, and ubiquitous phenomena they are. My secondary purpose is to encourage women to seek help of various kinds, including the kind of psychological treatment in which they can be heard and understood without negative judgment or condemnation.

Controversies surrounding the emotional investments and duties of motherhood have probably existed for centuries, but this past century is most pertinent to the unique dilemmas of contemporary women. Before World War II the “ideal” middle-class mother stayed home and cared for her family. Of course, many women worked out of necessity or inclination, but that was not considered ideal. World War II partially disrupted this arrangement as middle-class women put their children into day care centers and went to work. In the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s they returned to the “bliss” of domestic suburban life. When Betty Friedan exposed their hidden, and largely unexpressed, misery in The Feminine Mystique, she acknowledged women’s wishes to also have work and a life outside of the home. Her ideas heralded the more open expression of ambivalence about motherhood that characterized the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. This ambivalence may have been more openly expressed at that time, but it was never really acceptable then, nor is it now.

Several contemporary writers have tackled the idea that motherhood is not automatically an all-fulfilling state. Their work has been greeted with outrage and discomfort. As cited in Hayt’s New York Times article, these writers are acutely aware of the controversial nature of their writing. For example, Peggy Orenstein says of the mothers she interviewed for Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World:
It was almost furtive for them to admit motherhood is not fulfilling. . . . It actually makes me feel deviant and anti-mother to say that. But I’m not. It’s like being anti-American. Motherhood silences women. The Kryptonite words for women are fat, slut, bad mother and selfish. The words make us lose our powers just like Superman loses his in the face of Kryptonite.1

Barbara Almond, author of "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side Of Motherhood."
Barbara Almond, author of "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side Of Motherhood."

While “fat” reflects the mania for being thin and in shape that has possessed American women for the past forty years, regardless of whether they are mothers, “slut” and “selfish” are intimately connected to “bad mother,” the most Kryptonite-laden term of all. Good mothers are not sexy—that is, they are not sluts—and they put their children’s interests before their own at all times—that is, they are not selfish.

The concept of maternal ambivalence and its forbidden quality has been explored by various writers but still remains highly unacceptable in our culture. This book sets out to present the spectrum of maternal ambivalence, its presence in all women, the dangers inherent in keeping it a silent phenomenon, and the means with which women can approach their own ambivalence in a healthier way. The negative, or hating, side of maternal ambivalence is the crime “that dares not speak its name” of our time. Aggression in women—the behavioral manifestation of their hating feelings—is generally considered problematic, that is, not feminine. But when women’s aggression is aimed at their children, it becomes even more unacceptable. It is one of those societal problems that fill us with outrage and horror, even as some part of us secretly understands its normality.

Since the Enlightenment and especially during the Victorian era, childhood has come into its own.2 This increased valuation of childhood developed hand in hand with the gradual rise in importance of the nuclear family and the recognition of the value of education in the growing middle class. Although the children of the poor continued to labor in mines and factories, especially during the industrial revolution, child labor laws and universal education eventually released them to be children.3 With the increased importance of the family came an idealization of the mother-child bond and greatly heightened expectations of maternal care. This idealization was most marked in upper- and middle-class society, but it was not absent in working-class families. A major class difference in child rearing was the reliance of the upper classes on domestic help for child care and household work. It should be noted that it is much easier to idealize motherhood when someone else is doing the lion’s share of actual child care.

The idealization of motherhood has continued into the present and grown in intensity. Two additional problems increase the strains that contemporary mothers face. First, as families move great distances from each other in search of better jobs and housing, the extended family living in one place has become less common. Fifty years ago, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings often helped raise children. The breakup of the extended family now places the burden of child care squarely on the parents, usually the mother. Second, the breakdown of the nuclear family—the current divorce rate is about 50 percent and the number of children born to single mothers 25 percent—more often than not leaves both mother and child quite on their own to deal with their complicated mutual psychological needs and interactions.

Paradoxically, as the conditions of mothering become more difficult, more is expected from mothers, and mothers, in turn, expect more from themselves. Fierce and demanding pressures surround contemporary mothering. Perfectionistic standards of childcare in every area—feeding, sleep, play, emotional and intellectual development—prevail. Breast-feeding, the healthy and natural way to feed infants, has become more a fanatical pursuit than a preference; babies must, at all costs, sleep on their backs even if they sleep better on their tummies, so they won’t die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); toys must be carefully vetted for their educational value rather than their appeal; and so on.4 Add to this conflicts between work and home and the absence of family support systems, and you have a situation that leads inevitably to increasing frustration and resentment as mothers are expected, and expect themselves, to be perfect.

Here’s a recent example of what I’m describing. “Cosmopolitan Moms,” an article by Stacy Lu published in the Fashion and Style section of the New York Times, describes a group of eight Philadelphia mothers who meet every Friday afternoon with their children for a play group. But this is a very unorthodox play group, for on this one afternoon each week, while the children play and drink fruit juice, the mothers treat themselves to a glass or two of wine or beer. The article highlights that these women are merely seeking a release from the pressures of motherhood. They are not out to get drunk, nor are they acting irresponsibly. Instead, they are seeking, as the article put it, “a way to hold on to a part of their lives that existed before they had children and to bond over a shared disdain for the almost sadistically stressful world of modern parenting.”

Maternal ambivalence must be increased in this “world of modern parenting” where women feel they should be able to do it all. One could argue that the deferment of childbearing, so common among educated and professional people and so rationalized by the availability of assisted reproduction in the form of in vitro fertilization and other techniques, is in no small part an expression of this ambivalence. The declining birthrate in first world countries may be another manifestation of ambivalence about parenting. Advanced reproductive technology doesn’t always work, but it allows the delay of a decision that is more difficult for many women than they can easily admit. For not only is it unwomanly not to love your children unconditionally, but it is considered unnatural not to want children in the first place.

Interestingly from the paternal point of view, these issues seem to play out a bit differently. The father’s concerns have more to do with providing the means for the biological and social survival of the family. Although men struggle with wishes to have or not have children, and with issues of good fathering, they do not hold themselves so thoroughly responsible for the emotional care of their offspring. While those concerns can be deep and terribly troubling, striking at the heart of what it means to be a man and manly, the emotional well-being of the family is generally laid at the mother’s doorstep. The emotional well-being of the children especially is seen as the mother’s territory, for the father plays a very important role in protecting the needs of the adults in the family.

Although it is not my purpose to discuss the biological validity of our assumptions about women and children, current sociobiologists and primatologists, such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, maintain that loving motherhood is not automatically programmed into the female of our species but is an extremely complex equation of genetic, evolutionary, emotional, and social factors aided by powerful hormonal influences.5 My interest lies in exploring some of the emotional dimensions and qualities in the spectrum of maternal ambivalence in an effort to describe, understand, and “normalize” it—that is, to recognize that however problematic this ambivalence may be, it is part of the human condition. And this recognition is crucially important. Too many women suffer as they attempt to be perfect mothers, an effort driven in part to cover over their ambivalence. Modern “maternally correct” mothers are literally driving themselves and their offspring crazy in their quest for maternal perfection, which can only be proven by the perfection of their offspring. And it doesn’t work! It’s hard on the mothers themselves, their children, and their spouses, and it needs to be seen for the impossible goal that it truly is.

© 2010 by The Regents of the University of California

This segment aired on January 7, 2011.


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