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https://www.bbc.com/-By Amanda Ruggeri
Motherhood is hard – and many women have conflicting feelings about the role. Why is saying this so off limits?
Even before having her first child, Libby Ward knew what kind of mother she wanted to be. Patient. Loving. Intentional. But her hopes went beyond that, especially when she looked at the mothers in her social circle. She wanted to emulate them in other ways, too: home-made meals, pristine houses, nap schedules.
When she had her daughter in 2014, Ward found herself, for the most part, able to mother how she had hoped. Two years later, she had her son. They had problems breastfeeding. He didn’t sleep for more than two hours in a row. He seemed to be in pain.
“I felt like I couldn’t meet his needs for food, or sleep or comfort,” says Ward, who is based in Ontario, Canada. “I couldn’t live up to the standards I had set for myself. And everything just fell apart.” More than anything else, she felt rage. Resentment bubbled up towards her partner, her children, even complete strangers – anyone who seem to be having an easier time than she was. Then she felt shame for feeling that way.
“It was about five months into being a mom of two when I finally looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t recognise myself physically, emotionally, mentally,” says Ward. “I said, ‘This isn’t me. This isn’t who I am. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I expected to be.'”
She had tapped into a condition experienced by many, but talked about by few: maternal ambivalence. Defined as feeling complex, often contradictory emotions around motherhood, ambivalence doesn’t stem from a lack of love for a child. Indeed, mothers who identify as ambivalent tend to be clear they would do anything for their kids – so much so that, for many, the worry, stress and fear they feel for their children is part of why they find being a mother so challenging. But they might also feel anger, resentment, apathy, boredom, anxiety, guilt, grief or even hate – emotions most people are not brought up to associate with motherhood, never mind with being a ‘good’ mother.
The mix of emotions isn’t surprising. Mothering is, after all, a time-consuming, labour-intensive, emotional task – one that means a fundamental shift in one’s identity as well as often-difficult physiological changes. Mothers have likely had conflicting feelings about it as long as mothers have existed.
Still, a few things make maternal ambivalence today a little different and, most likely, more difficult to navigate. First are the often-unrealistic standards around what it means to be a ‘good’ mother (or, for that matter, a ‘good’ baby or child) – heightened further by the information overload and comparison offered up by the parenting-advice industry, internet and social media. And second is the shame and stigma many mothers feel, in a culture that prizes adages like ‘Treasure every moment!’, for even broaching the subject.
Mothers might be allowed to say that parenting is hard, but it’s far more taboo to say that they don’t necessarily enjoy the role.
The motherhood paradox
“Maternal ambivalence is about embracing the ‘and’,” says Sophie Brock, a motherhood-studies sociologist in Sydney, Australia, and host of the podcast The Good Enough Mother. “We’re in so many paradoxes as mothers, and ambivalence is saying, ‘I actually feel both’.”
Think ‘I want to spend every minute with my child, and I cannot spend another minute with her’. ‘I am so grateful my child exists, and I can’t stand what my life has become.’ ‘I want to be the best mother possible, and I’m so angry about how much my identity has changed.’ Or even ‘I love my child intensely and, in this moment, I also hate him’.
This article is part of the BBC’s Family Tree series. Explore more from Amanda Ruggeri, including in-depth looks at male post-natal depression and why new mums are expected to ‘bounce back’ quickly.
Ambivalence can be confused with, or exist alongside, a condition like postpartum depression or anxiety. And if it goes unexpressed, ambivalence can raise the risk of poorer mental health, so it’s always important to seek professional help if in doubt.
But for the most part, maternal ambivalence is normal and healthy, say researchers and psychologists.
“Almost every [mother] I speak to who is feeling safe enough to share their true experience has mixed feelings about their role,” says Kate Borsato, a therapist in British Columbia, Canada, who focuses on maternal mental health. “And this makes sense to me. Their life has changed so much. Their sense of self confidence, the way they spend their time, what they think about – every single thing is different.”
One mother who knows this first-hand is Jessica Rose Schrody, a comedian and digital creator based in Los Angeles. When she got pregnant in her early 20s, she debated whether to continue the pregnancy. “But overall, I was like, ‘Oh, I can do it, I’ll be able to figure it out’. Now, at 31 years old, I’m like, ‘Wow – this has made your life so much more complicated in every single possible way’. And none of them were ways I really understood, or could really process, at 21 years old.”
The struggle to be ‘good’
Motherhood has always been hard. But today’s particular pressures may make it even tougher. Unlike in, say, the first half of the 20th Century, mothers now are expected to give their ‘all’ to their children in terms of their time, labour and emotional, mental and financial resources – while still being high-performing at work and in their relationships. In 1996, this cultural construction of motherhood was given a label that stuck: ‘intensive mothering‘.
Making matters worse, women are struggling to live up to this ideal in a time when support for parents largely hasn’t kept pace with the demands of modern life. Some of the world’s wealthiest countries offer fewer than four months’ maternity leave. In dual-income families in the UK, more than 50% of the average woman’s full-time income goes to childcare.
We’re overburdened, overstretched, overworked, carrying the majority of the emotional labour, carrying the majority of the domestic sphere, the pressures of paid work. And then we’re expected to hold up a mask of, ‘I’ve got this all together. I’m the perfect mother. ‘I’m not struggling’ – Sophie Brock
“Everyone who’s a mother knows this already: we’re overburdened, overstretched, overworked, carrying the majority of the emotional labour, carrying the majority of the domestic sphere, the pressures of paid work,” says Brock. “And then we’re expected to hold up a mask of, ‘I’ve got this all together. I’m the perfect mother. I’m not struggling.'”
For Alecia Carey, 35, a mum-of-two who works in political philanthropy in Boston, Massachusetts, maternal ambivalence began even while pregnant – something which is not unusual. “When I became pregnant, I felt like I got downgraded from human to woman. The people I worked with, all they would talk to me about was that I was pregnant. It was the only thing about me. It became my whole personality. I hated that,” she says.
The change to motherhood has been especially difficult to adjust to, she says, after spending so much of her life developing her own career, social circle and personal interests and aspirations – something that past generations of mothers, who tended to become parents younger, may not have experienced quite as fully.
Lizzie Laing, 27 of Cornwall, England, says she also felt unprepared for the transformations brought on by motherhood – and that seeing other mothers seemingly have an easier time with it made her feel worse. “You’re in mourning for the ease of your old life and your relationship with your partner,” she says. “And you see other people who are just cracking on. I just felt so on a different planet to everyone else – really struggling. I had some friends who had babies around the same time. But I could see in their eyes that they were being really sweet like, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean’, but clearly I was in a different place to where they were.”
Carey felt alone in her experience, too. “I felt like I just got sliced out of our social circle because of being pregnant,” she says. “It was very isolating, and made more isolating by dint of the fact that on the internet, and in these mothers’ circles, everyone seems to love and enjoy and take fulfilment out of it. I found the whole thing uncomfortable and isolating, and I was riddled with anxiety the whole time.”
But the barrage of noise around motherhood doesn’t end with how mothers themselves should behave. Another challenge is expectations around how children are ‘supposed’ to act – something that is often seen to reflect back on the mother’s own skills as a parent.
“Motherhood was all I ever wanted for my life,” says Emily Whalley, 32, of Derbyshire, UK, who had her first child in 2015 and her second in 2019. “It’s very hard to admit that, actually, I don’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.”
Much of it has conme down to her children having serious health issues. She became especially obsessed with her son’s sleep, she says, only to later find out that his not being able to settle was largely medical: he had an undiagnosed tongue tie. “I’ve not managed to have a nice experience of becoming a mother. Looking after a young infant has been full of stress and worry,” she says.
Laing’s misconceptions of how babies behaved also “stole her joy”, she says. Family lore and media portrayals convinced her that a new-born would sleep most of the day, giving her time to get on top of chores or work, and that babies fell asleep on their own.
Reality came as a shock. Laing’s baby could stay awake for six hours at a stretch. She would only sleep with brown noise blaring, in a sling, as Laing bounced on a ball. “Basically, the ‘textbook baby’ was not what we had. But I was sold that as the norm,” says Laing. “And when that wasn’t the case, I was resentful.” She felt like she was failing as a parent.
‘Am I missing a part?’
It’s common to feel shame and guilt for not feeling contented by motherhood. That’s especially when everything from social media to family conversations can paint a picture of it being blissful and rewarding – and when few mothers are open about just how tough it really can be.
The stigma around speaking out isn’t imagined. When digital creator Schrody said she regretted motherhood in a recent podcast, 90% of the responses were from other women who felt the same. But she’s gotten her share of push-back, too.
In particular, she remembers a video someone made saying how awful it must be to be her daughter. More than 30,000 people ‘liked’ the video, says Schrody. It worried her. Maybe she shouldn’t be open about her feelings. Like most other mothers, despite making it clear that – as she says on the podcast – “I don’t regret my daughter. I regret the role”, her biggest concern is that her child’s feelings will be hurt.
You’re in mourning for the ease of your old life and your relationship with your partner. And you see other people who are just cracking on. I just felt so on a different planet to everyone else – really struggling – Lizzy Laing
Of course, it isn’t just women who share their feelings publicly who feel guilt and shame; many end up going through these emotions silently. “I was expecting the first few weeks and months of becoming a mother to be the best in my life,” says Kayleigh Thomas, 30, of Warwickshire, England. “Then I felt bad that I wasn’t being what I had seen online, or read about.”
Even mothers who have deliberately tried to throw off the expectations of intensive mothering, like Carey in Boston, still feel guilt intrude. Carey won’t allow herself to feel “obvious ‘mom guilt'” about things like going out to dinner with her husband or taking a child-free vacation, she says. But when she recently went on a trip abroad with her husband, a friend texted saying, “Don’t you miss your daughter?”
“I was like, ‘No’,” she says. “Then I was like, ‘Am I awful? Am I a serial killer? Am I missing a part where I’m supposed to want to throw everything about myself out the window and just adopt this new personality and set of interests?’ I don’t feel capable of doing that, and I feel resentful that I’m being asked to. And my husband isn’t being asked to.”
It’s common for mothers to criticise themselves for their ambivalence, which is “just adding extra pain on a situation that is already difficult”, says Borsato. “It’s already difficult to hold all these emotions. You don’t need to pile on more criticism, and more judgement, and more negative feelings.”
And the downside of women silencing themselves, says Borsato, is that if a mother is open about her feelings, she is likely to feel less alone and self-critical – feelings that can lead to darker places, like depression.
The problem, says Borsato, isn’t the maternal ambivalence itself. It’s the meaning we make of it. “If a person concludes that there’s something wrong with them, or that the fact that they’re ambivalent must mean that they’re not cut out for motherhood, or that they made a bad choice, or that their child deserves a mother who doesn’t have this ambivalence – then that can become dangerous,” she says.
While plenty of shame remains around the idea of maternal ambivalence, the conversation is slowly shifting.
Some women have dedicated their careers to helping others have a more joyful experience of motherhood – and to know that not feeling joy all the time is okay, too. After struggling with her own role as a mother, Borsato, for example, found her purpose in helping other mums prioritise their mental health. Whalley, meanwhile, started a business trying to help parents understand more about infant sleep and rule out any health issues. “That’s why I do the job that I do, just to try to make other people’s journeys happier than mine,” says Whalley.
Others have committed themselves to lifting the stigma around talking about it.
Schrody was shaken by the negative comments she experienced. But she has kept speaking up about her experience, hoping to show other mothers that it’s OK to have mixed feelings about the role. “What’s perfectly in line with a misogynistic society is the idea that ‘you should be a lot quieter about this’,” she says.
When Ward couldn’t see other creators opening up about how tough motherhood could be, she decided to do it herself. She started sharing her experience of motherhood on TikTok in March 2020 under the handle Diary of an Honest Mom. Six months later, she launched a sister account on Instagram. Many of her most-liked videos are those that show the challenges of parenting – like her frustration with her kids not eating the lunch she made for them, a rap about how motherhood made her less ‘fun’ and a snippet of her family letting her ‘sleep in’ on Mother’s Day (spoiler: no sleep was had).
Today, the platforms together have nearly 1.5 million followers. Ward gets so many messages from mothers that she’s had to hire someone to respond. Women tell her they didn’t realise other people found parenting so difficult, or that they thought their feelings meant they were bad mums. “So many mothers feel so ashamed and so guilty for struggling in motherhood,” she says. “And they feel so alone in that.”
“The moms I tried to be like, who I looked up to in the beginning, I realised they never talked about the hard things. They didn’t talk about sleep deprivation. They didn’t talk about shame. They didn’t talk about how they yelled at their kids. They didn’t talk about any of the things that I was facing and felt completely alone and isolated in,” she says. “And it wasn’t until I finally started sharing them that I realised they were common experiences.”
Amanda Ruggeri is a science and features journalist. You can find her at @amanda_ruggeri on Twitter.