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. LaChance Adams’ books:
Links to resources and ideas discussed in this episode:
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. I’ve had today’s topic on my mind for a while and it came out of seeing posts in online parenting groups where mothers just seemed like they had had it with being a mother and the seemingly endless tantrums and battles over eating and negotiations over everything. And part of this line of thought took us to the Parental Burnout episode, but then I kept chewing it over and I thinking there must be more to it than this because not everyone experiences full on parental burnout but plenty of parents go through periods where they just wish parenting was different and maybe even that they hadn’t had children even though at the very same time they know that they love their children.
So here with us today to discuss this topic of what’s called maternal ambivalence is Dr. Sarah LaChance Adams who’s Florida Blue Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and religious studies, as well as the director of the Florida Blue Centre for ethics at the University of North Florida. She earned her BA in Critical Social thought at Mount Holyoke College, her Masters in Psychology from Seattle University, and her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Oregon. She’s an internationally recognized scholar and author of the book Mad Mothers, sorry, Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence, and co-editor also with a very recent book with Dr. Tanya Cassidy and Dr. Susan Hogan, the brand new book The Maternal Tug: Ambivalence, Identity and Agency.
So welcome Dr. LaChance Adams.
Dr. LaChance Adams 02:25
Thank you very much.
And I also just want to give you an additional credit here, I know that you’re the editor of the journal, Hypatia, which is a journal of feminist philosophy. And I’ve been getting some negative reviews on Apple podcasts lately. Because of my explorations of topics like this, I want to give a special shout out to Jeff2013 who says, I love the data and continue to watch, I assume he means listen, because I can draw my own conclusions from the data. However, be careful because in some episodes, there is a clear liberal or feminist bias. So, Jeff, if you are watching or listening, you might want to skip to another episode today. We’re going to dig into that topic more deeply in a few weeks. But yes, today you’re going to hear some liberal, some feminist bias, if you want to call it that. And I’m going to be crystal clear about that and upfront. And I think the real problem here is in thinking that data itself is unbiased, because actually, scientific research has this kind of cloak of objectivity. We’re actually biases are baked into every step of the research processes, just that we don’t always see them. So, with that said, let’s go ahead and discuss maternal ambivalence. And I feel like I’m talking a lot already. But there’s a passage that I really love that you opened your book with. And that I also opened Adrienne Rich’s book of Women Born, and you quote it in the Maternal Tug, and it’s a passage from her diary that was written in 1960, and I’d love to get from that passage to a definition of what maternal ambivalence is just to kind of set the scene. And so, Adrienne Rich says, “My children caused 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 edge nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself in my feelings towards these tiny, guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance, that voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all the need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. And I’m weak sometimes from held in rage. There are times when I feel only death will free us from one another, when I envy the barren woman who has the luxury of her regrets but lives a life of privacy and freedom. And yet other times I melted with a sense of their helplessness, charming and quite irresistible beauty, their ability to go and loving and trusting their staunchness and decency and unself-consciousness. I love them, but it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.” Oh, gosh, that reminds me so much of Glennon Doyle kind of anticipates it so can you please help us from there? Understand how do you see maternal ambivalence? What is it
Dr. LaChance Adams 05:03
I think the most straightforward initial way to understand what maternal ambivalence is, as Adrienne Rich describes it, so heartbreakingly beautifully, is having extreme emotional conflict in one’s feelings towards my 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 of desire [inaudible] than child away or to run away. Get far as one can from one’s child or children. But part of what makes this experience so beguiling is that it’s not as though one’s child is just the separate being. There’s also the sense that of self-estrangement, because mothers who feel maternal ambivalence, also feel very integral with who their children are, is very integral to who the mother is the self, she identifies with the child, the child is a part of her. So, in this sense of struggle, she’s also in a struggle with herself and who she feels she is most intimately and most deeply. And so, it’s not as though it’s just this other person who I love this other person who I want to push away. It’s also within her own self that she struggles.
Yeah, and I think a lot of parents who are listening are going to be like, “Yes! I hadn’t, that hadn’t even occurred to me before. And now I hear that.” It’s like, “Yes, that is what it is.” I’m just thinking about some words that came up in a study by Dr. Aleksandra Stavenva, she interviewed a series of women about their experiences with this, and one of these women kind of contrasted these pairs of feelings – this feeling of extreme loneliness, but also having the baby as her secret friend of having concern for the baby in the middle of the night when they wake up, and yet also having violent urges towards them at the same time, and then adding on this also this additional layer of struggle with yourself. I mean, it almost seems as though it’s all just one big story.
Dr. LaChance Adams 07:07
And so, I’m wondering about the different ways that different people experience maternal ambivalence. And we call it maternal ambivalence, because I think it’s primarily studied related to people who identify as women having children, but what about gender nonconforming people and lesbian couples and parents of differently abled children [who] I think go through this, too. And what about fathers? How did the various different roles fit into this?
Dr. LaChance Adams 07:33
Yeah, there’s definitely diversity in terms of people who experience ambivalence. There isn’t as much research yet and this is something that I really love to see more of in gender non-conforming people. However, there is plenty of research with regard to people who are differently situated socially with regards to socioeconomic status, racial status, same sex couples, even paternal ambivalence, adoptive mothers, there is a commonality among people who are differently, socially-situated. Their experiences are diverse, but there does seem to be this core experience of ambivalence at the same time. And the central feature, really is this, all the while there is this extreme vulnerability in the person that one is taking care of. And so that that seems to be part of what unites all of these different experiences is that you have the child who is extremely vulnerable. And there’s a tremendous responsibility that accompanies this.
Okay. And 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?
Dr. LaChance Adams 08:57
Yes, you definitely see it in other places as well. And since that writing, many black women, American women have written about this phenomenon. Actually, just recently, LaKesha Williams, who also lives in Jacksonville, where I live, has written an article for helpline on COVID-19 and the childcare crisis. And she’s written about the conflict of sending one’s child back to, or sending one child into childcare during this time where it feels like it’s a dangerous thing to do, but and loving one’s child and not wanting to put them in that position. But at the same time feeling does need to be able to work and to have that time to oneself. And so, I think the way that I would not disagree with Bell Hooks, but add to what she is saying is that the issues of poverty and the issues of racism really exacerbate the conflicts of maternal ambivalence. That these are from what I’ve seen these issues are not it’s not one over the other, which tends to be it’s not that one is more in conflict than the other. It’s that one tends to exacerbate the other. So, the problems of poverty and racism really add to the problems with maternal ambivalence.
Okay. And so, one of the key thesis of your work, I think, is around whether maternal ambivalence is necessarily a bad thing.
Dr. LaChance Adams 10:20
And I was really interested to read your stance on this. I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about that, and whether… are there any conditions under which maternal ambivalence is a bad thing? And if not, why not?
Dr. LaChance Adams 10:33
Yeah, absolutely. There are circumstances in which maternal ambivalence is a bad thing. The way that I think of it is that there are extremes of it where it becomes intolerable. So, the things that exacerbated it, there are many things I talked about poverty, I talked about racism, social isolation is a real problem. When there’s extreme financial vulnerability, when there is no ability to have any sort of break or any sort of social support, it can be exacerbated by gender inequality. Sometimes when couples, heterosexual couples, especially, they have a child, any sort of gender inequality that had existed, or maybe there didn’t exist any sometimes when a child comes along, now you see a dramatic change in terms of how the couple relates to each other. If there’s dramatic change in lifestyle, for a woman, after a child comes along, that can exacerbate it.
Dr. LaChance Adams 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. Maybe she needs. And then and the ability to process, this kind of emotion, this kind of intense emotion, that’s where women and children are in a dangerous position where that ambivalence can’t be dealt with it where it can’t be processed. And that’s where you end up in situations where child abuse is a real threat, where violence becomes a real threat, where self-harm becomes a real threat. So as these factors multiply, that’s where you see women aren’t able to actually treat maternal ambivalence with the creative possibilities that I have.
Dr. LaChance Adams 12:33
So, in general, I think of emotion, maternal ambivalence included, as information that needs interpretation, just like any information. You know, you said earlier that there’s no such thing as unbiased on… I forget exactly how you put it. There’s no unbiased knowledge effectively.
Yeah, yeah. Academic research that we think is unbiased.
Dr. LaChance Adams 12:56
That’s right! Exactly. I think of emotion as information, just like any information that requires interpretation. And if we have resources to interpret that information, other people we can talk to, other ways of going about processing that information, then there are real creative possibilities there. And one of the things I talk about in Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, What a “Good” Mother Would Do is a lot of the artistic products that can come out of maternal ambivalence as a way to process and think about its significance. When we have the ability to be creative and thoughtful about emotion, that’s when we… productive and creative things arise from it.
Hmm, what kind of productive and creative things are you thinking of specifically?
Dr. LaChance Adams 13:42
Well, a little artwork that women have done to process it. There’s one artist and I don’t actually I’ve never heard her name pronounced before, so but it felt something like “Nicolein, Nicole Aman” I can’t remember. I don’t I don’t know how it’s pronounced, we can look it up and spell it for the listeners, where she goes and it’s a performance art piece where she… part of the pieces that she periodically calls her baby sitter and asked if the children are okay, and she does this repetitively over and over and over again, with a way from her children’s doing this art piece and in fact, part of the art piece is to call the babysitter repeatedly and ask if the children are okay. And by the way, I feel I feel sorry for the babysitter.
Yeah they got like 1000 calls or something.
Dr. LaChance Adams 14:29
Yes, it was. Yeah. Yeah it’s this performance of his guilt very much for just being away from the children to do this art piece performed in the very art piece itself.
Dr. LaChance Adams 14:41
And something like that, I just find I find extremely powerful. So very, what I call in the book of Speculative Moments thinking of the work of, oddly enough, the 19th century philosophy. Georg Hegel, Friedrich Hegel…he’s got many names…, but Hegel, yeah, so things like that. So, I see artistic potential. There are poets that I mentioned in there. There’s other philosophers like Lisa Seva, who created works, when I say this, because she has a piece of the combination of philosophical work, and then a poetic work where she goes back and forth very abruptly, and the pieces about motherhood. So, she goes back and forth very abruptly between these two kinds of tones, one that’s analytical, and telling the other that’s poetic in tone, to show how abruptly different these modes of thinking are. So, there’s a number of different instances that I do point to.
Okay. And something that really stuck out to me, what you just said was the idea of guilt.
Dr. LaChance Adams 15:40
And where that comes from, and 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. And so, I’m wondering, do you see that as sort of a fundamental driver of maternal ambivalence? Or is are there other factors that are more important?
Yes, absolutely. You had mentioned in our previous conversation before this, neoliberalism. The way that I look at it is that we have a culture that very much values, individual responsibility, individual perseverance, individual “ism”, in general. And when it comes to responsibility for children, they’re very much viewed as the possession of the parents, the achievement of the parents, the responsibility of the parents. And there’s less and less a model of collective responsibility. And I think that that in itself is pretty damaging. So, when it comes to who’s responsible, along with that comes who’s guilty. And at this point, in our culture, the mother is generally the one who’s guilty when things don’t go well. And if things do go well, I don’t know that it’s not necessarily the mother who gets all the credit for either. But broadly speaking, the mother is the one who’s guilty if things don’t go well. I think that’s pretty clear.
Mm hmm. Okay. And so this idea of the “Good Mother” is, I mean, if listeners, if any listener who’s listening brings what is a good mother, like, maybe that would the idea that comes to mind, the culturally accepted idea that when we see replicated in TV and movies, and you know, in all of our cultural publications, is, you know, it’s expert defined, it’s something that a doctor has said that this is what a good mother is, it’s a white middle class parent who is mothering intensively in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome for the her child. And its kind of seems to leave everybody else by the wayside in just in the definition itself.
Dr. LaChance Adams 18:00
Absolutely. Yes. And not only that, as you well know, we also have to have a life of our own, you know. So, there’s, there’s that added to it. For women who choose to stay home or are required to stay home. There’s another added level of shame as though now their whole life revolves around their children. And, and they have to feel bad about that, too. And so, there’s really no winning. You can’t possibly do it right. You can’t possibly.
Dr. LaChance Adams 18:31
Are you feeling it right now, Jen?
My daughter has been clamoring for my attention all day and I’ve been trying to get the next podcast episode researched. So, I would say no, I’m balancing it the best I can. And does it feel as though I’m being torn in different directions every day? Yes, yes, it does. So, 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 and patriarchy is when we tell our boys you know, “Don’t cry, grow up. Be a man, this isn’t what boys do. You’re being girly if you’re crying if you’re expressing emotions.” And some of the ways I’ve seen this play out related to this, what does it mean to be a good mother is Rachel Cusk wrote a memoir, I think it was called A Life’s Work on Becoming a Mother, where she expressed a good deal of ambivalence and the vitriol that she caught in the press was just incredible. And in groups of people, Reddit and other forums where people discuss her work. And then another way that I saw a paper describe it is through an organization called M.O.P.S. (?), which I think is, gosh, now I’m going to forget what the you know what, what the what it stands for? Yeah, it’s an it’s a Christian-run organization that has groups of parenting groups and parenting support groups as part of the church and it’s a very the way the groups are run, really kind of support this idea that there is an intensive way of mothering that that is the right way that when you’re doing that work, you’re doing work that matters. And so the really explicit goal this is this is a goal that’s stated in their literature, is that the job of M.O.P.S. is to remind mothers, they are doing the most important job in the world, it is particularly important for intensive mothers to receive this message so they can maintain their efforts to meet the intensive demands. And so, I think it’s where and this is, of course, mothers showing up to these groups and having these conversations in which they are reinforcing these narratives of what it means to be a good mother. And so, we’re doing this work ourselves, right, to a large extent. So how do we get out of that bind? Where we’re the ones that are kind of keeping ourselves in this position?
Dr. LaChance Adams 20:54
That’s a great question, what you’re saying reminds me of when Naomi Wolf’s book, Misconceptions, came out, and that was less than 2000. And that was one of my first introductions to this issue. And I remember she went on Oprah, this was the women who she interviewed in her book, and the people went crazy on them, too. And this meant that, you know, 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. I had a dear friend the other day post on Facebook. And actually, her husband, who has been the primary stay at home parent since their son was born, originally posted this story about their toddler who has just been a nightmare, having tantrums, you know, the Terrible Threes, don’t forget about the Twos, the Threes are really where it’s at and it ended in a moment where their son had bit her husband in a very vulnerable location. And, yeah, it was just like, it was the nightmare scenario, you know, and I think, even posting stories like that, you know, there’s the cute pictures, but then there’s the one where my daughter, I foolishly decided to take her to a conference, because this is me. And she’s having a tantrum on the floor of the airport. And I took a picture of that, and I posted it as birth control for all my childless friends, you know? Like, how do we stop doing it is by we stopped doing it. And we show both sides. We show all the sides. And so for those of us who are willing to talk about it, we talk about it, in spite of the fact that you know, somebody may call us “Good gracious, we have a feminist agenda” you know, Congratulations for that, by the way.
Thank you. Yeah. Never nice to see your five-star review status dropped to a 4.8 stars for two reviews…
Dr. LaChance Adams 22:51
I know right?
…that both call into question or feminist bias, but at the same time, you know, I’m kind of okay with that being the reason why.
Dr. LaChance Adams 22:59
I think so. Yeah.
And then its kind of leading on from the idea of talking about it. I’m also wondering if there’s this element of showing that we value maternal labor in other ways if physical support and emotional support and financial support of which there’s very little. I mean, we’re basically providing unpaid labor and actually, that I think draws on a point that you made in Mad Mothers, Bad mothers, you said “Historically, men have been quite comfortably conceal their own dependency on the work of women and slaves, as wealthy countries continue to conceal their dependency on nature and exploited countries. However, I think it is much more difficult to shake the dependence of others on oneself.” So, it is there that needed element of really recognizing this maternal labour for what it is?
Dr. LaChance Adams 23:45
Absolutely, yeah, well, and it’s not just maternal labor. I think, for those of us who are privileged enough to hire help, we have to remember where our labor is being subsidized as well. So how are we hiring nannies? Are we hiring childcare workers? Are we hiring people to clean our homes so that we can go work and have careers, so there’s always someone’s labor that is probably being taken for granted right now. My spouse is on the other side of the screen filling up a giant stuffed shark, you know, so just the valuing of that kind of work overall, I think, in general, we need to be doing that. And so, in my own life, I have to constantly remind myself not be a hypocrite about that as well. To not buy the $3 dress online, you know, that somebody’s making in a foreign country because I know what kind of conditions they’re probably living and working in, if that’s, if that’s what I’m buying. Yeah. So, to take a bigger picture view of it, that’s global. It’s not just personal and things, not just thinking about my labor that’s being taken for granted. But taking a bigger picture view of things. So and also changing part of as a philosopher part of what concerns me is on thinking about where we’re putting responsibility for how we’re oriented toward who has responsibility, ethically speaking, not just focusing on individuals as ethical agents, but ethical agency as something that’s collective. So, when a mother kills her child, when a child is discovered, having been severely beaten, for months, for years at a time, what happened in our communities such that that occurred? As we know, the end of my book, Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do, I end with a story of a child who was discovered in Eugene, Oregon, who have lived down the street from my dissertation, one of my dissertation advisors, who had been severely beaten for years. And this woman was in Oregon, sentenced to the death penalty. I don’t know that it was carried out, I have to follow up on that story. But the prosecutor said this was the one person who could have protected this child. And I absolutely object to that conclusion. The other people knew what was going on. And so, to say that it’s the mother who’s primarily responsible for the child is just wrong. There are many more people responsible for the child. And there’s many more people responsible for that mother. And so, we need to not just think about ethics and responsibility in this sort of dyadic mode. That there is a community that’s responsible for that child, there’s a community that’s responsible for that mother, and not think of them as out there somewhere in asking these bad or good acts, but that there’s more people involved. And a community needs to ask themselves, “What did we do to participate in what went wrong and what went right?
Where did the society failed this mother that she felt that that was the best course of action here?
Dr. LaChance Adams 26:56
Yeah. Yeah. I remember reading that anecdote in the book and there was a stepfather in the home as well, wasn’t there? And who was called to account in some way, but in nowhere near as much with as much severity as the mother so…
Dr. LaChance Adams 27:11
And the child had a father that was still alive. This child had grandparents this child had been in public school, and people have suspected something was wrong.
Yeah. And yet, still, yeah. On a lighter note, you started out this section by saying that your husband is sewing a stuffed shark on the other side of your screen and he’s wondering why you’re smiling at him right now. And part of me is shocked that you’re not multitasking and doing it yourself while we’re talking.
Dr. LaChance Adams 27:37
He does the sewing.
And I think it also gets to the idea of gender roles and I’m wondering if we would feel less maternal ambivalence if we had a different concept of gender roles, and maybe a part of that is letting go of the idea that everything has to be done our way and done perfectly, you know, I, I might think, well, I could sew that shark better than my husband could so I’d better do it when actually, does it matter if it gets done perfectly? As long as the thing holds together for Halloween. No, it probably doesn’t. And so, do you see gender roles in a similar way? And the kind of releasing of the need for everything to be perfect as an important component of this?
Dr. LaChance Adams 28:18
Absolutely. I mean, there’s the need not having to be perfect. There’s also the need that sometimes as women and mothers, we need to let go of thinking that, “Well, okay, so you talk about this group that says, you know, being the mother is the most important, but how do they put it as the most important?
Act in the world or something like that? Yeah.
Dr. LaChance Adams 28:36
Like, well, is it? Well I mean in some way it is. You know, but if we don’t want it, if we don’t want all that pressure, we also can’t take all that credit. So, there’s a little bit of letting go there, too. That has to happen.
Yeah, yeah. So, it’s so much of this, I think is related to what you just said, is around taking the credit. And the idea that well, if the child is coming out well, if the child can say, Please, and thank you on command, or not, not on command, preferably, but when it’s socially appropriate to do so if the child can do all of these things that are expected, then oh, my goodness, I am a good mother. I am succeeding in this role. And that reflects on me as much as it does on the child.
Dr. LaChance Adams 29:18
Yeah, right. I mean, there’s the Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the second fact, she writes about in that book, she writes about motherhood. And she 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, and so we need to be on the lookout for that as well, because that can be the cause of a lot of trauma that can then get passed on from generation to generation.
Dr. LaChance Adams 30:02
And so, when women don’t have anything else in their lives, that which was an issue to a great extent in the time and place where if Simone de Beauvoir was writing, this can be very damaging as well.
Yeah. And I think that takes me nicely to the passage that I hope I’m saying this right. Dr. Sagashus Levingston. Did I say that right?
Dr. LaChance Adams 30:22
I think so.
Okay, so she contributed and just a stunning essay.
Dr. LaChance Adams 30:27
I know. There’s a reason we start the book with her.
Yeah, I figured as much actually. So, yeah, so anyone who wants to listen to this and thinks, oh, my goodness, the Maternal Tug is the book that this is in. I’m just going to read from the middle of it. This essay is about the difficult relationship that she has with her daughter, her daughter seems to be constantly complaining that someone’s taking her stuff or eating their food or did something to her. And her mother just curls up in bed as soon as her daughter wakes up and kind of just stays there, hoping for no interaction until the daughter leaves the house for school and she says it feels like a poltergeist is leaving the house. And so, the passage that I want to read is this.
“I regret not touching her or getting up to ask her if she needs me to do something to ease her anxieties. I want to hug and tell her I love her, and the things are going to be okay. I cannot. Something in her triggers something in me and for my own safety, I don’t reach out. In fact, she’s a version of me when I was her age: awkward, insecure, and depressed, full-figured emotional. Like me, she cries almost instantly about almost everything. She’s a fighter who stands up for what she believes in. And for those who she believes in. She’s loud and rebellious and funny and beautiful and verbally aggressive, all the things I was at her age, all the things I believe in and promote in a girl. A woman. Yet I cannot touch my own child and embrace all of her because she reminds me too much of the girl I was at her age, the girl who remained untouched for all those same reasons. I’m torn between giving her the comfort she needs and reassuring myself against my own unresolved hurts. For my own protection, I do not touch her, I do not jump out of my bed to comfort her because I cannot face the image of me that I see in her. I leave her to storm through our home and as I lay in my own bed terrified about what will happen to me if I reach out for her. My terror appears to her as resentment – a much safer, more socially acceptable emotion from mother to a daughter.”
And that I mean, that entire essay is just stunning. But that passage just cut right through me because I think it gets to the heart of one of the causes of ambivalence, which is the wounds that we ourselves carry, as parents and the way that we were raised, which were perhaps caused in part by our culture and the way that our parents were raised. And then of course, there’s the additional layer that Dr. Levingston is black, and she says in the essays she’s experienced additional traumas are associated with poverty and racism. And so how much of this do you think is associated with current trauma that people are facing right now as well as intergenerational trauma?
Dr. LaChance Adams 32:57
Yeah, yeah, I get wrapped up in that story. And I was taken away with it. And I did not hear your question since I was… can you say the question again?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, she does have that effect. And she and her writing. So basically, the idea that maybe some of the maternal ambivalence that we’re feeling is a result of trauma that we’re currently experiencing in the form of racism and poverty for some people, or other forms of trauma or intergenerational trauma that’s been passed down through our families.
Yes. I was thinking about that. And I was thinking about that on the other side, as well. So, this isn’t where you were going with it but I was thinking that also the way we love our children can also be influenced by the trauma that we’ve experienced, too. So, in the ways, not just that, maybe we experienced trauma, and it makes it difficult for us to love our children, in some ways. We experienced trauma that makes us give more and love more. And so, I think that both things are aspects of that. Absolutely. So, you know, ambivalence is really about both of those emotions and that intensity.
Dr. LaChance Adams 34:04
And so, but also just the self-doubt, am I doing this right? And what am I reacting to? And am I really responding to what’s going on now? Or am I responding to something that happened before? And just that not knowing that not knowing of what am I responding to, and that’s that, I think, that gets again, to the heart of what ambivalence is about is not just this relationship to this other person, but a self-relation, and not knowing and just this decision within oneself, and not really knowing which aspect of themselves is that war was what aspect of oneself or which side to side with, and just knowing that there really isn’t necessarily a correct answer, but that one has to be present with and respond to all of it in some way, achieve an integrity that doesn’t deny either side.
So not difficult at all then?
Dr. LaChance Adams 34:53
No! Simple. Easy.
Yeah, and I think the idea of the split that you introduce there, I mean, that goes back to patriarchy as well, right? This, even the split between the body and the brain and that if I think something rationally, then I’m allowed to think that and that’s valid. But if I can I even feel something below my neck is, is there any source of valid information, there is something that I think patriarchal society has denied all of us, not just women, but all of us for a very long period of time. And so, we don’t know how to trust ourselves. You talk about how do I reconcile this? It’s almost like but what even in my reconciling? Is it isn’t even macro level question? Do you think?
Dr. LaChance Adams 35:40
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s a very helpful concept that comes from Martin Heidegger, who is by no means a feminist champion, at all. But the concept is the befindlichkeit, and it’s a German word that translates, how do you find yourself? And I think that it’s a very useful concept because it’s not about the mind. It’s not about the body. It’s not about. It’s all of that. It’s how do you find yourself like, its time its place its mind and body it’s how do you find yourself? If you’re ambivalent, you find yourself in the world in a certain orientation, a certain disposition that entails all of them. And so, it’s not something that asks you to just look at one of those things? So, I believe I used the concept of depression or anxiety when I describe it in the book. But it’s when you feel anxious, it’s not just your mind that things shift. You’re not just thinking anxious thoughts. And your body isn’t just anxious. But the world is a place that’s anxious for you. And so, all of these things come together. And I think that that to me is the more useful concept for thinking about it. Because as I said before, I think our emotions are information. And so, to just say that, if some information about me is not quite accurate, it’s also information about the world I find myself in. And that’s a better way, I think, for us to integrate who we are in a certain situation in a certain given world that we’re finding ourselves in.
Dr. LaChance Adams 37:19
It’s not that I’m the individual reacting, it’s that the world is having this impact on me. And so, it’s not as though where these billiard balls you know, just getting bumped into, but that the world is not just infiltrating, but it is an active part of who I am. And I am an active part of what it’s doing to me. And so, to me, it’s a much more, it represents more about, or explained more to me about how permeable we are. Thinking of like a fish that’s actually breathing the water in and out, and that we are that integrated into what’s going on around us.
Yeah, yeah, by the time this episode is released, there’ll be another episode out with Heather Plett on the idea of holding space. And she thinks a lot about boundaries. And she actually thinks of them in terms of kind of like a cell wall that are quite permeable, they have an ability to keep out some things and let some things in and that idea also reminds me of an idea in Buddhism, which is the idea that the brain isn’t, or the mind isn’t contained in the brain, but it extends outside of the body as well. And I couldn’t, I just could not understand that at first. And I read this example, that when you write something, the thought is in your brain, but also is involved in your arm and your hand and the pen and the paper, and this whole loop that comes back to your brain again. And when I heard that, I thought, “Oh, yeah, now I get it.” That the mind doesn’t necessarily, it isn’t completely contained in my head, but that it interacts with the world around it as well.
Dr. LaChance Adams 38:52
That’s right? That’s right. The early French psychologists Jean Piaget, the child developmental psychologist, he did all these wonderful interviews with children, his conclusions about them notwithstanding, one of the things that children would say, if you say were, what do you think with and sometimes they would say, with my brain, but sometimes they would say with my mouth, or my ears, and he thought, oh, too bad. They don’t understand you think your brain is better than the French, a phenomenologist also psychologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty came along and said, “No, no, no, these children are very smart because they realize they do think with their ears and with their mouth, because they think in conversation with other people.” You know, and our consciousness is, it’s more places than in here. Absolutely. It’s right now my consciousness is very much with you. And it’s also in this room beyond the screen, you know, and it’s on the paper that I’m writing on. And it’s in three dimensions and it’s been time and it is far out there beyond.
Yeah. Cool. I love digging into this kind of stuff. So now to bring it back to the practicalities for those people who are listening and thinking, Okay, well, that’s great. And now I understand that the mind is outside of the brain. But what do I do with all this information and self-care? And I think is one prescription that’s often offered for maternal ambivalence. And I think that in I think this was an essay from your book that the subtext of this is warped in a variety of ways. Audrey Lorde’s quote often comes up here, where she says “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It’s self-preservation. And that is an act of political warfare.” But she wasn’t talking about bubble baths and manicures, she was talking about, you know, black woman’s survival in the face of patriarchal white racism. And then secondly, this narrative is kind of been adopted by the beauty industry to sell us all kinds of stuff that we probably don’t really need. And that whole justification that is given for this self-care is if you can take care of yourself, you’ll be a better parent, you’ll be better able to take care of others when you come back. So, you’re not doing it for yourself, because why would you do that? But you’re doing it for others? What do you make of these kinds of narratives?
Dr. LaChance Adams 41:05
There’s a lot there. Whenever I hear a black woman quote that Audrey Lorde quote, I’m like, “Okay, you know, something I don’t.” And I don’t know that Audrey Lorde is speaking to me when she says it. I feel like, you know, maybe it’s not for me, as a white woman. I could be wrong. So, when a black woman says it, and she relates to it, I think good. I can’t necessarily relate to it. When the beauty industry says it, I curse words come to mind. Of course, I hate it. When people say so you can be better taking care of other people, I think, well, that just came full circle. What you know, that wasn’t really for me, just like nothing else is supposed to be. But ultimately, for me, it just comes back to this concern with a neoliberal individualism that thinks of a person as the individual unit that is basically responsible for itself. And to the extent that it’s responsible for someone else, this dyad. I’m responsible for you, you’re responsible for me, or as I think of humans as far more interconnected than that. And also, that, maybe we need to think more about caring for caregivers. And that, you know, so maybe somebody else take care of me a little bit, you know, and that’s really when I get some relief, as a caregiver is when another person takes care of me. And then you know that there’s the care is more, there’s a wider net of care that’s actually happening.
Dr. LaChance Adams 42:38
Those of us who are used to taking care of others, aren’t, it’s not that easy to just be like, okay, now I shall pause taking care of others and shall take care of me. It sounds like “Wait, how do I do that? Should I cut the crust off of my toast?” I don’t know. What are you talking about? I know, you don’t mean a bubble bath. But what are you talking about? Exactly.” It’s just it’s just so oversimplified. I just, I find that kind of… I wish I found that helpful and I know some people do. But for me, it’s useless advice.
So then what is helpful in a world where we’re so like, we just, I am speaking from personal experience here. A lot of the time, I don’t even know what my own need is. I can’t even identify my needs. So, it’s not like I can say to somebody, you know, this is what I need you to do. It’s more like I just something isn’t right. And I’m not sure and I’m kind of crappy about it. But I don’t know how to identify what my need is. So how do we get from this, that phase that’s sort of due to the way we’ve grown up and our habits that have we’ve perpetuated over a long period of time, to a phase where we can feel cared for some of the time by others?
Dr. LaChance Adams 43:45
Well, this is the part where I’m glad I don’t have to pretend to be unbiased, because I think neither solution is for people to live more communally. Some of the best times I’ve had is living with other women who understand the same thing. And they can look at me and they know themselves and they’re like, I know what you need. Here are some toast with no crust. I didn’t even have to ask for it. Thank you so much! You know, living with friends and who also have children. And one night they make dinner the next night, I make dinner. The following night, their partner makes dinner where it’s not, you know, it’s a sense of like each individual family for themselves. To me, in my own experience, that’s where I’ve had the most relief.
Dr. LaChance Adams 44:31
So, I struggled personally with living in a nuclear family model. I think that and for my children, they’ve had fun living with other people’s children as though it’s like cousins together and aunts and uncles together. And to me, I’d love to live in a village sort of model where there’s a shared responsibility, shared fun. That’s difficult in the society that we live in now. It’s really not structured that way. Currently, I live in an apartment complex in Jacksonville, Florida. Really not set up for that kind of living. So, I think the solutions are really not individual, the lasting solutions are collective ones. And so, you know, those are not easy. They’re not easy to find.
Yeah. And it’s funny how much sway things like the housing stock has over this kind of thing, right. And the fact that we have a country full of houses that are single family houses and lonely people sitting in them. Even family units themselves, they’re self-contained, but they’re still lonely within that unit. And, but there’s nowhere to go to have this kind of experience that you’re describing because…
Dr. LaChance Adams 45:40
Even just the fact that we have neighborhoods set up, so that you have houses, and then there’s a busy street in between them. Right. You know, what if there was grass in between them? Then that might be different. You know?
Yeah, I’ve seen something like it actually. I was up in Bend Oregon earlier this year and there are a bunch of big traditional houses up there as well. But there are a few places where they’re experimenting with different kinds of things, and quite small houses, where you would probably only have been able to get two one a lot, two, or three, and having six or seven with a communal area in between with a bunch of barbecues scattered around in a grassy area. And I looked at it, I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.”
Dr. LaChance Adams 46:27
Some of the solutions can be deceptively simple. You know. It’s not to say that you’ll always get along with your neighbors, but you know, I mean, I like that idea better than the way I live right now.
Okay, so I’m just kind of trying to Okay, if we, if we can’t move, which you’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time and your living in an apartment in Jacksonville, and yeah, I live in a single family house. And if we’re not in a position where we can move, I’m thinking about where can we go with this? And I found one study that I mean, admittedly, it was small, it had four participants in it, and it didn’t say their race, but that usually means they’re all white. And it did say they all spoke English, and it was in England, so. So that’s a fairly safe observation, I think. And it observed that as children got older, mothers increasingly found they had a greater sense of self-acceptance, as they realize their own maternal ambivalence wasn’t damaging their child. And then also, as their child’s getting older, they’re starting to be able to balance themselves out and take on other roles that recognize their own identity and their own value, in addition to their identity as being a mother. And so, I’m wondering, is there a real solution here? Do you just kind of accept that this thing exists to do what we can to talk about it in the moment right now, but to some extent, just kind of wait it out and have a sense of self compassion so it doesn’t end up taking us over, but to know that it’s going to get better?
Dr. LaChance Adams 47:49
I mean, that’s all well and good for people who get through it without child abuse, and neglect, and abandonment, and suicide and murder, and…
I was trying to head towards a slightly productive conclusion…
Dr. LaChance Adams 48:04
…hooray for those poor people. I’m glad it worked out for them.
And so then it’s a combination then of societal support and the self-acceptance and knowing that if I can get some support here from my community, then what I’m doing is not harming my child, probably assuming I’m not so far along the burnout curve, that this is objectively harming my child. If that support is there, but I’m still feeling some ambivalence is self-acceptance a part of it or are there other elements that we need to consider?
Dr. LaChance Adams 48:41
Well, for those of us who are susceptible to the rhetoric of intensive mothering, I think the solution probably is, and I’m speaking advice from my commencement speaker when I graduated in 1999, from Mount Holyoke College, to do less and not do it as well. So, we can call that self-acceptance. But it’s more concrete than that. Do less and don’t do it as well. I think that that could be a solution mentioned, you know, things don’t have to be perfect. I think that that is a trap as you I’m sure know. That there is no such thing as perfection and that it’s actually it’s a trap. It’s constraining not just for parents but for children as well. Compassion, absolutely. I think leading with compassion for ourselves and others is always the best way to go. And I think when we’re looking for solutions, not just for ourselves, but for the broader world, we have to lead with compassion. And so that’s always the best fallback solution, in my view.
Yeah. It seems as though I’m just thinking about the kinds of places where things like this get shared, where parents say that they’re having a hard time and that if what they get back from that is compassion, rather than how dare you admit that, that you don’t always love your children every second of the day, that can only help, right?
Dr. LaChance Adams 50:01
I mean even parents who do end up doing, you know, some things that we would say that we shouldn’t do that. We can still say, like, I get why you might have done that. I mean, oftentimes, it’s not like they don’t know that they shouldn’t have done it. And we can still say like, you know, you shouldn’t have done it. I know you should have done it; I can understand why you might have done it. We can still hold those two positions at once. I know people who hit their children. And I’ve said, “You shouldn’t have done that. And I said to their child, like, she shouldn’t have done that. I know, she loves you, but she shouldn’t have done that. And was my friend mad at me. Yeah. Am I the one who inherits her child if she and her partner both die? Yeah. So, we can know it we can we can be honest with each other about what’s right and wrong, while still being compassionate toward each other when we mess up?
Yeah, okay. So yeah, holding the two together, I’d like that as a conclusion that we’re not absolving ourselves of all responsibility for messing up, you know, but acknowledging that we are going to mess up because we’re not perfect. And that when that happens, we can bring compassion to ourselves and compassion to others while we still work to not kind of intensively mother and be perfect, but kind of try to be the parent that our child needs.
Dr. LaChance Adams 51:24
Yeah, yeah. And I think for me, when I do mess up, it’s, it enabled me to be the more compassionate toward others. So, it’s not a matter of being perfect or not being perfect. What do I turn that into? You know, my own feelings of guilt and maybe even shame? Like, Ugh, you know, what did I do? Ah, okay, I’m part of the human community again, you know. There we go. Yeah.
Yeah. And what do I do with that energy? And how do I take it forward in my relationship with my child and with other parents as well?
Dr. LaChance Adams 51:56
Awesome. Well, thanks for digging into the philosophical issues with us, as well as helping us with some super practical tools. I’m really grateful for your time.
Dr. LaChance Adams 52:06
My pleasure so much. Thank you.
So listeners can find the link added to the book The Maternal Tug: Ambivalence, Identity and Agency as well as the references, I’ll try and get those references to all the philosophers as well that we talked about and put those up on the references page at YourParentingMojo.com/MaternalAmbivalence.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the FREE guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. For more respectful research-based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you, I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1993. The meaning of motherhood in black culture and black mother–daughter relationships. In Double stitch: Black women write about mothers and daughters, ed. Patricia Bell-Scott, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Janet Sims-Wood, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, and Lucie Fultz. New York: Harper Perennial.
Gubi, P.M. & Chapman, E. (2019). An exploration of the ways in which feelings of ‘maternal ambivalence affect some women. Crisis and Loss. Retreived from: https://chesterrep.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10034/622560/Full%20text%20Maternal%20Ambivalence%20research%20paper.pdf?sequence=3
Henderson, S. (2018). The blurring effect: An exploration of maternal instinct and ambivalence. Unpublished Master of Arts by Research thesis, Kent, UK: University of Kent. Retrieved from: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/66794/1/211The%20Blurring%20Effect%20An%20Exploration%20of%20Maternal%20Instinct%20and%20Ambivalence.pdf
Henderson, A., Harmon, S., & Newman, H. (2016). The price mothers pay, even when they are not buying it: Mental health consequence of idealized motherhood. Sex Roles 74, 512-526.
hooks, bell. 1990. Homeplace: A site of resistance. In Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Books.
LaChance Adams, S. (2014). Mad mothers, bad mothers, & what a ‘good’ mother would do: The ethics of ambivalence. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
LaCance Adams, S., Cassidy, T., & Hogan, S. (Eds). The maternal tug: Ambivalence, identity, and agency. Branford, ON: Demeter.
Newman, H.D., & Henderon, A.C. (2014). The modern mystique: Institutional mediation of hegemonic motherhood. Sociological Inquiry 84(3), 472-491.
Rich, A. (1994). Of woman born: Motherhood as an experience and institution. New York, NY: Norton.
Takseva, T. (2017). Mother love, maternal ambivalence, and the possibility of empowered mothering. Hypatia 32(1), 152-168.
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.
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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