Sunday, April 20, 2014

Barbara Almond: The Monster Within

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I must have said on this blog a million times that I'm not having kids. In real life, I've said it 8 billion times, and those who know me are certainly sick of it, or at least know that I feel very strongly about this. I have never wanted them, I don't want them know, don't anticipate wanting them ever and get pretty touchy when people say "oh, you'll change your mind." I feel like it's pretty lame to assume that all women will want kids because all women (or those who have biologically female parts) have uteruses. Are we really that biologically determined? We don't even believe that dogs are that biologically determined in everything they do anymore: dogs hump not just because of sexual drive and not just because of dominance (argh!), but also for other reasons: sometimes they're playing! Sometimes they're trying out new social relationships! If we can see this nuance in dogs, why can't we see this nuance in ourselves? Some women don't want kids. Sometimes a uterus is just a body part. Some women have complex relationships with maternity. Thankfully, I live in a time and place where I can make this decision. I have the economic and social standing to have control over my body to make this decision.

And there's more: some women who have kids don't feel 100% hearts and rainbows about them all the time. Some women go into motherhood with complicated and ambivalent feelings about being mothers in the first place. Some mothers don't want to be mothers, or may only kind of want to be mothers, or may only have kids because they think it's the "right" thing to do, or any other number of circumstances. This seems so obvious, right? But we idealize motherhood and demand everything of mothers, demand and expect perfection. Think of how we collectively dumped on Tiger Mom who wrote a book about her demanding style of mothering and how quick we are to jump on and criticize mothers who do outlandish things like have 8 children or awful things like kill their children (yes, that's a whole blog about it). So we expect a bunch of moms, but we don't even give them that much- the US has crappy maternity leave policies, we don't have accessible child care and now women "get" to be supermoms: they have to work AND be perfect moms.

Enter Barbara Almond and the concept of "maternal ambivalence." "The biological, social, and psychological strains of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering are enormous" she writes,
and, I believe, more underrated than we are willing to admit. It doesn't always go as naturally or as easily as we wish. So of course mothers cling to every possibility of doing it right. But trying to do it right is, in itself, less of a problem than feeling that one must love doing it right. Conflict between the needs of the mother and the needs of the infant and child is the major source of maternal ambivalence. And maternal ambivalence is a major source of anxiety and guilt to mothers. And this anxiety and guilt leads to efforts and reparation that further interfere with the satisfying of reasonable maternal needs, needs that are already eroded by the more pressing neediness of infants and children. It would seem to be a vicious cycle, and it certainly leads to a lot of undue suffering (229-230).
Although a little Freudian for me, okay, a lot Freudian for me, Almond argues that ALL women are ambivalent about children. Whether they're ambivalent about having them before hand or during pregnancy or once the kid has been born, every mom has some kind of negative feelings about their kid and about being a mother. Some have the feelings a lot, some resent their children or being a mother all of the time, and some moms just get annoyed once in a while when the snot is too much. But this part of motherhood is routinely ignored, dismissed or worse, portrayed as disgraceful. Almond, an analyst, uses experiences from her practice and literature to show that ambivalence is normal and routine. She argues that normalizing this will help women be better mothers, help children have better childhoods and foster better relationships between mothers and their children. Almond has written a lovely, compassionate and well thought out book heavy with Freudian references that almost kill it in their datedness. Hopefully the message will get out: it's okay, it's normal, it's enshrined in the literature: mom's are people, too.


mamagotcha said...

Sounds interesting... might have to look into this one, although none of what you describe is really news to me. I'd say that "...some women who have kids don't feel 100% hearts and rainbows about them all the time" is more like most women, and that the taboo about discussing this ambivalence has been gradually dissolving thanks to writers like Anne Lamott and publications like Brain, Child magazine.

themacinator said...

I think you're probably right- some moms "get it" that it's okay to be real. On the other hand, pop culture sure doesn't see it that way, and Almond would say that many of us have ingrained psychological tendencies to either beat ourselves up over perceived failings or lash out on our kids. I know I would beat myself up- "help, I hated my kid for an hour while he snotted! I'm a terrible mom! I have to do better!" which would certainly not have any productive response.

And you're right- it's most or all women. I can't remember if I was doing my normal tongue-in-cheek writing or if I misspoke!

Anonymous said...

Whew...good to know "mom's are people". Yes, there are balancing acts, yes, one does not love their child at every moment (particularly during tantrums", yes, some guilt is involved. AND....over the long run, it's been a great gig for me. Of course, I am pretty lucky with my offsprings!

thb said...

Are you sure this "DB" is real couldn't "she" be some sort of e-bot posting comments all over the place about what a great gig motherhood has been? sounds very made up to me..."mr mom"