Tips For Owning Your Maternal Ambivalence And Silencing The Critics

Motherhood can be so many things, but we mostly just hear the positive sides. Those are great, they really are, but with so much social expectation for positivity aimed at new mothers, it can be difficult to articulate the tough sides to being a mom. This mix of emotions is called maternal ambivalence. Psychiatrist Aparna Iyer says, "Maternal ambivalence describes the greatly conflicted emotions that a woman can feel toward her child, ranging from love and affection to frustration and anger. Often, a mother can experience all of these emotions at the same time" (via mindbodygreen). It's also worthwhile to note that maternal ambivalence is not postpartum depression; however, psychologist Diana Lynn Barnes says that maternal ambivalence can, in some cases, be a precursor to postpartum depression (via the Center for Postpartum Health).

As human beings, it's normal that we'd experience a mix of emotions around something new; we can be nervous and hopeful about a new job, or optimistic and fearful about a new relationship. A complex tangle of emotions is natural, but for some reason, motherhood seems to be the one arena where mixed emotions are frowned upon. Mothers are expected to be one-dimensional: blissful, serene, delighted, and brimming with sacrificial love. Of course, those feelings exist, but so can a whole panoply of other emotions that are equally valid and need to be discussed without shame.

The myth of the immediate bond

A useful position in which to place ourselves while discussing maternal ambivalence is comfort with paradoxes. Having a child can be one of the greatest days of our lives, but it can also be a harrowing, traumatizing experience. The bodily trauma incurred from childbirth, even relatively "normal" births, can lead to PTSD. Maternal mental health expert Patrick O'Brien told the BBC that childbirth is so physically challenging that women can struggle with flashbacks and anxiety, even by watching someone else give birth in a TV show or movie. Even worse, because birth is such a common event, women's pain both during and after is often disregarded, since it's perceived as part of life, or natural.

In the midst of this physical and emotional turmoil, a mother is expected to bond with her child the moment she delivers it. Dr. Susan Lareau told The New York Times that while some mothers do feel an instant bond, others don't and that's perfectly okay. "Many women just need the first few hours, or days, to recover, be it a C-section or a difficult vaginal delivery. They're too tired to think of anything other than 'I want to go to sleep,'" she said. Women need to cut themselves some slack; in the aftermath of grueling pain, the expectation to bond can be a notch too much. Relax about the immediate bond; instead, focus on physical rest and recuperation. The bond will come when it comes, and sometimes it can take weeks.

Accepting the new identity of motherhood

It's important to hold onto the nuance of motherhood, especially in holding space for maternal ambivalence. Just because our feelings around a child are complex doesn't mean there's a loss of love or a lack of quality parenting. It just means that we're human. It's perfectly normal to miss the lives we had before children, and to palpably feel the shift from being an independent adult to suddenly having a dependent (per BabyCenter). Katie Shea admitted to The New York Times after having a child, "I just felt very disconnected from my old me, and like I was mourning a really fun chapter of my old life."

It's worthwhile to hold space for all the ways in which our lives have changed after a baby arrives; our careers get put on hold or slowed, and our own passions and interests get put on the back burner. Travel and leisure suddenly seem like impossible luxuries. While there's room to grieve that old life, the best course of action is to slowly start accepting and enjoying this new chapter (per Johns Hopkins Medicine). The best part is that, once we're ready to return to our careers and previous life, there is tons of support. There are several websites and support groups to help moms re-entering the workforce. In fact, Good Copy is a company that writes resumes for moms returning to work. There are support groups for moms going back to school too, so rest assured, when the time is right, there is help.

The lie of perfectionism in motherhood

We've been dealing with perfectionism long before motherhood, but becoming a mom amps up perfectionistic expectations, because suddenly we're caring for someone else. The impact of perfectionism on mothers can be detrimental; it increases anxiety and can dampen self-esteem, according to Psychology Today. Maternal ambivalence can be doubly challenging when faced with perfectionism, because we don't perceive mixed emotions to equate the "perfect mother." So how do we become happily imperfect moms? The first thing is to question the internal monologue that tells us we're doing it wrong. Psychology Today suggests journaling these thought patterns to challenge them. Secondly, journal positive self-talk. Write down all of the things we did well, and the things we tried.

Setting the tone for a kind, peaceful way of speaking to ourselves is crucial, especially for those with perfectionism. Also, setting small, reasonable goals is key. It might do us good to aim for some achievements, but these kinds of achievements should be about prioritizing sleep and rest; carving out some personal time; eating nutritious, energizing food; and other things that make us feel whole (per Mother). We need to especially let go of any bogus pressure to bounce back weight-wise, which will only make us feel more upset and frustrated, as Women's Health points out.

Walking away from critics

While we can be our own worst mom-shamer, external voices can be utterly overwhelming to deal with as a mother, particularly when we're feeling ambivalence. People seem to have (unhelpful) opinions about everything, from breastfeeding to body recovery, on top of the expectation that the experience is supposed to be one of the best in a woman's life. Via Verywell Family, Dr. Carly Snyder explains that walking away from mom-shamers is the best solution. "Often, the best thing to do is disconnect from the conversation," she says. "You don't have to justify or explain your parenting to anyone —you're doing your best."

But as more and more mothers open up about maternal ambivalence, the stigma can lose its grip. Elle Wang spoke to The New York Times about her slow bond with her child. "It took me some time. It took my husband some time. It took the baby himself some time! The baby needs a moment, too," she said. "And I think if we have an honest conversation about it, it can save some people heartache." Honesty might be the most powerful tool we have when it comes to maternal ambivalence. It's natural and means nothing when it comes to quality parenting.

But if someone wants to seek out support, there are options. There are several resources to continue researching maternal ambivalence. Plus, counseling can be hugely beneficial as licensed counselor Susannah Baldwin notes in Counseling Today. She points out that mothers are so busy mothering that they also need to feel cared for, too.