Maternal Ambivalence: Dr. Barbara Almond Discusses the 'Hidden Side of Motherhood'

Filed under: Medical Conditions, Books for Parents, Expert Advice: Health

maternal ambivalence

Dr. Barbara Almond tackles the topic of maternal ambivalence in "The Monster Within." Book cover design and illustration: Lia Tjandra

Twenty years ago, psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Almond assumed all women had the maternal instinct.

It didn't occur to her that some women might make the conscious choice to not have children. That assumption was proven wrong when she treated several women who were each conflicted about whether or not to have offspring. The more she heard the more awestruck she became with the intensity of their mixed feelings, what she later came to call "maternal ambivalence."

In her new book, "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood," she writes: "I came to realize that all my female patients, past and present, had been or were (at least part of the time) dealing with guilt and shame about the quality of their mothering or their avoidance of motherhood."

ParentDish recently spoke with Almond about her new book. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ParentDish: This is not a self-help book, but I'm wondering if some women might be seeking some sort of self-help material when they pick up the book. What will they find inside that might be useful?
Barbara Almond: I think that it's not a self-help book, but it's a help book. It's meant to help. I'm describing a pretty widespread phenomenon, I would say ubiquitous, among women. No matter how much they love their children, it can never be 100 percent nor should it be 100 percent. There's much too much guilt and much too much pressure, internally generated pressure in women, which is supported by the pressures that all their friends and relatives are also struggling with, you know that one is supposed to be an all-loving, all-understanding perfect mother as if mothers were not people with needs of their own. Needs for quiet, for sleep, things like that.

PD: Your comment about not having to be 100 percent brings to mind a comment by author Ayelet Waldman about how she loved her husband more than her kids. It caused quite an uproar. What's your take on it?
maternal ambivalence

Dr. Barbara Almond. Photo: Richard Almond


BA: I think she loves her children but her children don't give her the kind of satisfactions that her husband does. They give her a different kind of satisfaction. She's a grown woman and he's a grown man, they have an emotional, intellectual, sexual relationship of the sort you don't have with 4-year-olds. They're adorable and you love them, but they don't satisfy the needs of the adult woman, they satisfy the maternal needs that she has, which are not an exact overlap.

PD: In your book you talk about the "guilty mom" and the "angry mom," two different ways of responding to maternal ambivalence. Can you elaborate?
BA: The point that I'm making is that women feel guilty about the negative side of their ambivalent feelings. Even though I make pretty sure in the book to say several times that ambivalence is a normal human phenomenon, that when you love someone or need them or care about them, you can't help not being aware that you might lose them in one way or another. You might lose their love, they might grow up and leave you, they might run off with another woman, there are all kinds of threats and even when something is very important to you that's not a human relationship, [for example] an athlete may lose his powers, a pianist may have an injury to their hand ... you can't help feeling some ambivalence toward anything that is very important to you, that is, you both love it and hate it because it's so important to you.

This is a normal phenomenon, but women feel so guilty about their angry feelings and their angry dreams and their occasional angry murderous thoughts, that they give themselves an awfully hard time, they feel guilty, they feel angry at the child for provoking their guilt and angry at the child for not being the perfect child that they as perfect mothers should be raising.

PD: How has the book been received? Any surprises?

BA: One thing that surprised me is that the book even got published. My agent ran into so much resistance to this idea, that it would freak people out, that nobody would buy it, that it would be too upsetting to their readers; and I felt it was a needed book. It really kind of blew me away. I thought to myself, 'Well, don't these people read the newspaper? They think this is bad news?' That surprised me.

I'm surprised it's catching the attention it is and doing as well as it is because I was given to believe that no one would touch it with a 10-foot pole. I don't know that I believed that but it was certainly said to me enough times.

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