123: Maternal Ambivalence: What it is, and what to do about it

Title card for Your Parenting Mojo Episode 123 Maternal Ambivalence: What it is and what to do about it with the title of the episode on the upper right, the Your Parenting Mojo logo and slogan on the bottom that reads Research-based ideas to help kids thrive. A picture of a tired mother, her eyes closed, touching her forehead while her child sleeps in her arms.

This episode builds on our recent conversations with Dr. Moira Mikolajczak on Parental Burnout and with Dr. Susan Pollak on Self-Compassion. Today we talk with Dr. Sarah LaChance Adams, Florida Blue Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Director of the Florida Blue Center for Ethics at the University of North Florida, on the topic of maternal ambivalence. This is the idea that we love our children dearly but we can also feel very torn between our love for them, and our role as their parents which may make us feel as though we have to constantly put our own needs on the back burner in favor of theirs. We may even feel like we lose our own sense of self and our own ability to understand and meet our needs in this process.

Why do we feel maternal ambivalence? What are the different forms that this experience can take? And what should we do about it if we feel it? We discuss societal-scale issues, as well as things we can do locally and personally to navigate this tension we feel related to our children.

Some key points from the interview:

5:03         Maternal ambivalence is, having extreme emotional conflict in one’s feelings towards my [one’s] children. Dealing with intense love and sometimes intense hate, the needs to be very intimate and close to one’s children or one’s child, but also to have a sense that one needs to get distance to have strong feelings.

8:34        I’m thinking about Bell Hooks’ work, and she had said, “but had Black women voiced their own views on motherhood, it would not have been named a serious obstacle to our freedom as women, racism, availability of jobs, lack of skills, or education would have been top of the list, but not motherhood.” I’m wondering, is maternal ambivalence a middle-class, white phenomenon? Or do you see it in other places as well?

11:27      If a woman lives in a culture where there’s an intense romanticization of the mother-child relationship, and she feels that she can’t express any kind of conflicted emotion at all. And then when you have these things piling on top of each other, then you start to see it gets more and more and more intensified. The more these things compound, the less a woman is able to reflect on these emotions, think about them, share them get relief, get that kind of distance that the feelings are telling her.

15:41      The idea that maybe, just maybe, this whole guilt thing and the whole ambivalence thing is a product of our culture, where, on one hand, women are required to be these productive citizens who contribute to the capitalist economy, and on the other hand, were supposed to give our all to our child and mother intensively.

18:35      One thing I want to really draw out here is the idea that women ourselves are very often the ones that police this. It’s sort of like patriarchy, it’s not just men saying, well, this is your role, and this is what you’re going to do. Women are just as responsible for the socialization of this idea.

20:54      “How could you say that you don’t love being a mother at every moment?” And I think I mean, you’re already stating the solution, you know, we have these brave women coming forward, saying that they don’t always love it.

29:18        She [Simone de Beauvoir] writes about devotion and the devotion of the mother, and how this can be a very twisted thing and how, oftentimes, mother’s devotion is really something that can be very awful for herself and her child because it can be a replacement for her having anything else in her life. And it can become a sort of twisted obligation for both of them. And, you know, a sort of martyrdom…


Dr. Sarah LaChance Adams’ faculty page

Dr. LaChance Adams’ books:

Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a ‘Good’ Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence

The Maternal Tug: Ambivalence, Identity and Agency


Links to resources and ideas discussed in this episode:


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

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