Thanks to the talented Emily Pardy for today’s blog post! Emily is a counselor and founder of Ready Nest Counseling in Nashville, TN. Ready Nest Counseling helps couples prepare for parenthood by caring for their relational wellness as they transition through conception, pregnancy, post-partum, and infertility. Emily has written for multiple parenting publications including Thriving Family magazine and ParentLife magazine. She has her Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy from Lipscomb University and is the author of For All Maternity, a humorous memoir of her own journey into motherhood. Emily resides in Nashville, TN with her husband and three rambunctious daughters.
Parenthood comes with many paradoxes. You may have tried and tried to conceive, only to instantly sense deep doubts or dread once the pregnancy test turned positive. You can pray all evening for your screaming baby to fall asleep and then miss them desperately a mere minute after they are tucked in bed. You might plan a getaway with your spouse in an effort to escape the humdrum of domestic daily life, only to find yourself filled with worries and anxiety steering your heart back home.
Even if you haven’t experienced those specific moments, chances are good that good old-fashioned GUILT has caught up with you at some point. Mommy guilt so rampant these days that it’s becoming more common for women to question themselves when they don’t feel it rather than when they do! Too many times, I’ve heard moms make the remark “Shouldn’t I feel bad about that?” in regards to simple self-care efforts like going to the gym or grocery shopping alone.
The simple answer is: No. No, you shouldn’t feel guilty for taking care of yourself or your family. No, you shouldn’t feel guilty about not feeling guilty. You see what I’m getting at – enough already with the guilt (or the lack thereof). What’s truly going on underneath this mess is something that every mother deals with but most know nothing about: Maternal Ambivalence.
Maternal ambivalence is a fancy term for that gut-wrenching sensation of loving and hating aspects of motherhood all at the same time. It’s a remarkable ability that humans can hold two polarizing emotions at once; but, instead of standing in awe of our vast spectrum of feelings, we worry ourselves sick that we must not be doing something correctly if we can equally feel so contrary towards something or someone.
The core concern of maternal ambivalence is the fear that someone will think we hate our children. It’s horrible to feel resentment towards an adorable, helpless little being, and no one ever told us that becoming a mother might feel this way. Pile on the unattainably perfect images that social media grants us and suddenly we look in the mirror and see a monster instead of an absolutely normal person struggling with the extraordinary transition into an expanding identity.
Adrienne Rich gives an enlightened description of these mixed feelings in her book, Of Woman Born:
“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”
That quote hits home, doesn’t it? The problem isn’t in having these feelings. The problem lies in our lack of anticipation of them and our perspective in what they mean to our lives. We’re well aware that pain will come with childbirth, so there is no surprise when contractions intensify and our abdomens clench with agony. Yet, mothers sit silently in frustration and personal disappointment as their love for their new baby is riddled with unexpected feelings of anger or bitterness.
Here’s the good news:
- It’s normal.
These torn feelings that seem to ebb and flow with each day are felt by every parent and not just mothers. A popular saying “The days are long, but the years are short” sums up the fleeting love/hate that wants bedtime to arrive quickly but graduation day to stay far away. It’s exhausting to contain these double-emotions and it will feel overwhelming if you don’t get honest with yourself, your partner, and a good friend who can empathize with the day-in-and-day-out of caring for needy little people. Talk openly about the guilt and frustration you feel. Look yourself in the mirror and remind yourself that you are not alone in these emotions. Just as you were not the first mother to experience painful contractions, you are far from the first to struggle with parental ambivalence.
- It’s healthy.
Not only are these feelings prevalent, but also they may very well be interpreted as developmentally necessary as a woman transitions into the role of a mother. You don’t just stop being whomever you were in order to take on the identity of motherhood. You don’t stop being a wife or worker or sister or friend so you can wholly devote your life to a baby’s needs. So, this struggle of emotions can actually be useful to yourself, helping you maintain a balance of who you were and who you are becoming. Aren’t we all caught in that limbo anyway? Yet, as mothers, we rarely allow ourselves the extra grace that process demands in order to truly grow and make the most of this season. In other words, some of the negative emotions our children stir up in our souls are the very motivation we need to look beyond them for our needs to be filled. Go! Do! Be! You are more than just a mommy.
- It’s okay.
Get sleep. Eat well. Step outside. Breathe. These are the first things we push to the side as mothers, yet would never tolerate if someone tried to steal them from our family. Protect yourself against the little things that make the slippery slope of mommy guilt turn into a giant avalanche of emotional turmoil. Mixed feelings are absolutely normal, but if you consistently find that you don’t enjoy anything like you used to or can’t control your negative emotions, it’s time to reach out for help. It’s okay to ask if what you are experiencing is actually normal or if there is something deeper happening like depression or anxiety that might need to be addressed with counseling or medication. Those struggles might require a level of coping that you may not currently hold, so don’t wait to get on a track to healthy living.
Every mother wonders how every mother is doing it better than she is doing it. Feelings of doubt and frustration are woven into the same heart that explodes with pride when we see our offspring conquer new milestones like crawling or potty training (Lord, help us all). As you experience the ups and downs of the triumphs and tragedies that come with motherhood, be gentle with yourself as you develop new strength for holding all the emotions that come with them. You’re doing great, mama, and you’re not alone.