You would think there is nothing left to say about motherhood. We have hundreds, thousands, of mommy blogs. We have motherhood memoirs, scientific studies about perfect child rearing, countless magazine articles explaining that we’re all doing it wrong. Surely every angle has been covered, right?
Read about zombies and other crazy happenings in 'After the Apocalypse.'
Barbara Almond makes the argument in The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood that actually we have a very difficult time discussing maternal ambivalence. Most, if not all, women have deeply conflicted emotions and fears about bearing and raising children, and yet there is little room in the culture to have that conversation. In her fluid and compelling book, she discusses common fears, that women will either bear monsters or that their bad parenting will turn their children into monsters, the fear of harming their children physically, and our inability to escape the issues we built in from our own mothers.
Almond and I discussed why we can talk endlessly about potty training and a thousand things that mothers should—no, NEED—to be worried about and vigilant for, and yet not admit that this most natural of relationships is actually pretty terrifying.
Do you think our culture is still in the grips of denial when it comes to maternal ambivalence? We have certainly seen a lot of literature published in praise of the "bad mommy," but it still seems like it comes with a manic dose of "but a mother's love is eternal and pure and blah blah blah..."
I think our culture is very troubled by the realities of maternal ambivalence. It is impossible not to be ambivalent about anyone or anything that matters deeply, anything that may disappoint us, leave us or fail us, and our children certainly fit into that category. Ambivalence is an inevitable condition of motherhood, although hopefully the love and positive attachment predominate.
We can make this concept somewhat more comfortable by emphasizing its universality, and to that degree the idea is more acceptable than it was. But it is still very disturbing and that is what may produce the protestations that motherlove always triumphs. It is important to remember that ambivalence does not mean hate alone, although in popular culture the word is used for the negative side of feelings. It means the mixture of love and hate that accompanies the things that matter most deeply to us.
How would you classify the current attitudes toward mothering? There is so much to worry about—the media is constantly telling us about all the different things we should be worrying about, and lately I've read articles that say mothers need to worry about worrying too much, that all the helicoptering is harming their children. How does one raise a child and not be driven mad by all of that?
I would classify the current attitudes toward mothering as "overwrought and maddening." If one listens to the media, and lots of people do, they can't help worrying. And, as you say, now this worrying is in itself a maternal crime.
I think one of the problems is that we no longer turn to the old sources of information, modeling and support when it comes to parenting. We don't turn to the older generation, to family, particularly more experienced family, e.g. grandparents. We turn to the media, which is often sensationalist, sometimes incorrect and highly sensitive to the vagaries of fashion. And, in the absence of stability and supportive family ties, fashion prevails.
I also feel that one of the factors that increases maternal uncertainty and ambivalence is that motherhood does not come as naturally to human beings as it does to animals. Because we can think and anticipate, and because we know about loss and death, which does not bother your mother cow or horse or dog, we are terrified of making mistakes. This results in fierce competition and painful pressures on both children and parents.
You have much to say about [pediatrician/psychoanalyst Donald] Winnicott's "Good Enough Mother." (Let us now have a moment to sing the praises of Winnicott.) But, of course, no one wants to be the Good Enough Mother anymore, they want to be the Perfect Mother with the Perfect Children. Do you think Winnicott needs to make a comeback?
Yes, let us sing the praises of Winnicott indeed. His intuitive and sensitive understanding of the mother-child relationship stands the tests of time. "Good enough" is damned good in my opinion. He can write about all the reasons a mother may hate her baby, and they all ring true. But he makes this normal and understandable because he recognizes the power of the underlying love and intuition that comes along with normal motherhood. Unfortunately, we can't resurrect him in person!
I heard Adam Phillips, the child psychologist, say recently that the definition of sanity should encompass a healthy relationship to our own insanity. Does that pertain to motherhood ambivalence as well? That the healthy relationship allows for the darker feelings, and that can actually strengthen the bond between mother-child?
I agree with Phillips that sanity has to take into account the inevitable insanity with which people struggle. Maternal ambivalence can be a spur to learning. In fact, Winnicott makes a very important point about this. A child whose every wish is anticipated and fulfilled has a harder time individuating, which means learning actively who he or she is and what he or she needs and wants.
You write in your book about how we expect so much from mothers and excuse so little. Obviously, there are some biological roots to that, as we need our bond with our mother to be secure enough that we don't think of the world as a terrifying, lonely place. But how much of that do you think is cultural?
There are certainly powerful biological and psychological roots to maternal love. Women who have planned to give a baby up for adoption often change their mind as soon as they take their first glance at their newborn. But not every woman reacts this positively and instantly. And certainly the strains of child-rearing, and the inevitable clash between the infant's needs and some of the mother's needs, produces negative feelings.
A mixture of feelings is inevitable and a culture that denies this, as ours does to a large degree, does women no favors. Women have a much easier time recovering from their negative feelings when they are cut a little slack by society. However, It should be added that women themselves cultivate a lot of the competitive maternal perfectionism that characterizes so much of middle- and upper-class parenting.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.