What mothers do: AIBU on maternal ambivalence?

(21 Posts)

I'm reading Naomi Stadlen's 'What Mother's do' which is often recommended as a light, positive read for mums with newborns.

I've just got to the chapter where she problematises the inevitability of maternal ambivalence. I can see why its useful to challenge this idea but she attempts to do this by what seems like a slur on the mothering competency of particular academics who have written on the subject. She goes looking for hidden reasons why these mothers just aren't able to get with the 'wholeheartedly' loving your child programme, diagnosing poor latches and unresolved childhood issues along the way.

AIBU to think its as rude and inaccurate to suggest that all mothers would find motherhood easy if they were more skilled, less selfish and had an untroubled childhood as to suggest those who find motherhood uncomplicated are repressed or lying?

TerrariaMum Tue 13-May-14 10:31:19

Interesting. I didn't read it that way. I more thought she was saying that these mothers were too selfless, that they thought being a good mother meant giving until they dropped. I don't think she was saying they weren't good mothers.

I wonder if, also, it ties into the very premise of the book. Perhaps they were saying 'See! See! Mothering IS doing something, look how hard I am working at it.'

I also don't think she is saying motherhood is easy, more that it is unrecognised as valuable.

Burren Tue 13-May-14 10:39:50

Yanbu, OP. I like the book, but I think this is one of the most problematic parts, that she simply doesn't believe in the reality of maternal ambivalence, and sees it as more or less an academic invention women feel they have to go along with, rather than some women's reality. I used to go to one of Naomi Stadlen's 'Mothers Talking' groups (source of the quotations used in What Mothers Do, though I attended long after) and believe me, I made it extremely plain that ambivalence was alive and well and living in north London, as far as I was concerned. I think she was a bit taken aback.

I do like the premise of a lot of the book - the insistence on the importance of what can feel like lack of achievement, befuddlement and slowness - but I was a career-focused woman with a fulfilled life in her late 30s when I had my baby, so of course I was ambivalent, as there was an awful lot I suddenly had to do without. I learned to adore my baby gradually, but the deprivations of being a mother kick in immediately, before the love. For me, anyway.

I get that she is demonstrating the value around the silent activities in mothering, I really like that and I have enjoyed reading this book for that. But in this chapter, she is suggesting that those who find their relationship with their baby has something wrong with them.

While writing this post I have bfed my baby, he has vomited, I've cleaned him up, he has cried. I guess fortunate enough that I'm ticking along ok but I understand not everyone will be pissing rainbows about attending to the endless needs of a newborn. I dont think they would be wrong or have a problem to diagnose.

those who find their relationship with their baby, missing words..., tricky or complicated

That's really intersting Burren. This is my third child, so not as vulnerable to the 'this is how it should be' around raising babies but it seems grossly unfair to disregard the feelings of women she spoke to label maternal ambivalence as either a discursive construction or the result of half assed parenting.

Sorry, I've lost the ability to write.

Burren Tue 13-May-14 11:16:17

I have to say I was the primary spokeswoman for maternal ambivalence in the group - no one else seemed to feel it particularly!

I loved the group, which was a total saviour of my sanity at a very isolated time - and the other women at it were much more my cup of tea than my NCT group, but, while I had expected to admire NS, I found her a slightly admonitory figure. For instance, she vocally dislikes the word 'parenting' because she thinks it hides/undervalues what the specific role of the mother is, but for me 'parenting' is an important feminist principle, which recognises that both parents should raise a child, and which doesn't fetishise the mother. We also had an argument about Rachel Cusk's book on motherhood (which I think she discusses in What Mothers Do?) I

I suspect she was rather relieved when I moved out of London.

minipie Tue 13-May-14 11:24:09

I haven't read the book littlemiss but from my perspective maternal ambivalence (if by that we mean mixed feelings about the experience of motherhood) is a completely sensible and normal way to feel. It's a bloody tough job and usually a shock compared with previous childfree life. Loving every second of looking after a baby would be surprising, IMO.

If Ms Stadlen thinks otherwise, I suspect she probably had the world's easiest babies.

seamew Tue 13-May-14 11:25:43

I'm so glad someone else thought this! I liked the book as a whole, but I found the chapter on maternal ambivalence actually quite unpleasant. In particular, the way she basically had a go at Rachel Cusk et al for feeling as they felt, attempting to psychoanalyze Kate Figes at a distance and so on - I was genuinely shocked by its nastiness. I also thought it was extraordinarily at odds with the drift of the book as whole, which I took to be non-judgmental (not that I thought it always achieved this elsewhere by any means), reassuring, and in general trying not to make mothers feel like failures.

minipie Tue 13-May-14 11:26:04

And the reason I haven't read the book is partly because I think it does fetishise the mother - which like Burren I disagree with.

Thurlow Tue 13-May-14 11:36:43

I haven't read the book, because there is something about even the title that puts me off. Obviously I'm not very qualified to comment on it without reading but the idea, what mothers do, not what parents do... I don't know, it almost strikes me as sexist. I'm happy to be told otherwise though.

But I definitely agree with your (wonderfully put) comment not everyone will be pissing rainbows about attending to the endless needs of a newborn.

Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. You're going to take to some stages of it far better than you will others. I found the newborn stage ok but with hindsight I had an incredibly laid back and easy baby; I imagine I'd be royally rubbish with a high needs baby. 26 months is not striking me as a fabulous stage right now wink I might be amazing with a 5yo. So I definitely agree, not being at one with a newborn baby doesn't automatically qualify you for maternal ambivalence.

As for wholeheartedly loving your child - the way it was for me, I was fiercely protective and anxious for my child the moment they were born. They were mine to care for, I knew that. But I didn't love them the very moment they were born. I took me time to fall in love with everyone else in my life, I wasn't surprised that it took me a little bit of time to fall in love with my child too.

TerrariaMum Tue 13-May-14 12:12:36

Despite what I said above which is one possible interpretation, I can see that it can be read as having had a go at those women. To be honest, I remember now that I thought that when I first read it as well. Aren't some of them American as well so they would have different limitations?

So, upon reflection, OP, YANBU.

I suppose I feel a bit duped.

I had selectively ignored the issue around centring mothering and minimising parenting and enjoying having my hair stroked and the soothing noises about how tiring and worthwhile it all is only to be thrown to the bloody wolves half way through.(Maybe I'm more conflicted than I first thought).

It's reassuring to hear that other people think that it's not as simple as Stadler suggests and I'm not just being defensive. (Perhaps for some uneesolved issue I'm not smart enough to be aware of hmm)

WilsonFrickett Tue 13-May-14 13:47:08

I read this book when DS was 8 weeks old and I honestly don't remember that part so I can't say whether I agreed or not blush

The point about fetishizing motherhood is a valid one, however at that point I needed mothering to be fetishized, iyswim. Well out of the other side of early babyhood with my feminist hat back on I do see that message isn't ideal, but at the time I needed something to be all about me, if that makes sense?

Echocave Tue 13-May-14 14:05:12

Burren - absolutely spot on, couldn't agree with you more. I had (mild) PND with dc1 and before it was diagnosed a kind soul on here recommended the book to me to make me feel better. To be fair, I'm not sure if anything much would have helped at that point but actually I found the tone of the book weird and rather isolating. That chapter of course made me feel even more of a nutter.
I am now onto Dc2 and despite early wobbles, have not succumbed in the same way so I happened to pick the book up again the other day. And straight down again as I have two shouting children now!

Ubik1 Tue 13-May-14 15:59:04

Slightly different perspective but - was there ever a time when women didn't feel ambivalent about motherhood?

Years ago childbearing and child rearing was fraught with pain, stress and exhaustion. I remember reading Sunset Song years ago and its depiction of the mother who had six children and had killed herself and her twin babies because she had discovered she was pregnant again.

Speaking to older relatives - one described her husband working nights in a carpet factory to pay to feel their five children, priest coming round asking why she hasn't had more

Another relative's mother who had eight children was so troubled by her experience she has no relationship with her grandchildren.

I think most things in life are experienced with a kind of ambivalence, it's not normal to be completely well adjusted!

MiaowTheCat Tue 13-May-14 16:12:18

I ain't a natural newborn person, never have been. Loved my own of course - but more in an "ok, you're cute, oh gawd have you filled your nappy AGAIN!?" kind of way and distinctly didn't waft around in an aura of breast milk combined with Johnsons baby lotion (DD2 was on Neocate for allergies so always was more of the aroma of slightly stale potato than any nice new baby smell) and in newborn baby bliss.

Now one's a toddler and the other's working on being a toddler... adorable and I love it - give me the strops, totally illogical toddler logic and hilarious attempts at talking any day.

But it's meant to be the reverse - you're meant to love the newborn baby bit and survive the terrible twos... I guess I never got that memo. Fuck that - and fuck portraying the whole motherhood thing as some amazing journey... it's a journey fine - but it's like all journeys - you've got the bit where the sun's out, there's a cracking song on the radio and you're feeling like an 18 year old swooshing your hair around singing along to it... and then you've got paying £50 for a manky pasty at Little Arsington Services.

alarkthatcouldpray Tue 13-May-14 16:47:16

YANBU. I couldn't explain why this book made me uncomfortable at the time but it did. I particularly remember her writing about a discussion of sleep deprivation in one of her groups. The consensus seemed to be that you just got on with it, got up 1, 2, 3, 4 times, whatever it took to settle your baby and although it was tiring that was just that. To me there seemed to be a certain shame in wanted to scream and feeling despair with the situation. To me it undermined the needs of the mother and I personally didn't find the supposed deification of motherhood much of a substitution for only getting 4 hrs sleep for a year.

I loved the Rachel Cusk book 'A Life's Work: on becoming a mother'. Yes it was pretty dark at bits but I cried with recognition at some of it. Maybe I just read it at the 'right' time for me.

When I see people recommending 'What Mother's Do' on PND/ what happened to my life type threads I cringe!

Mrsfrumble Wed 14-May-14 03:06:52

This chapter really spoiled the 'What Mother's Do' for me. I'd actually read Susan Johnson's book 'A Better Woman' (one of the authors Stadlen is critical of) and I couldn't believe that Stadlen quoted her writing without mentioning the horrific birth injuries Johnson suffered, that were mostly to blame for her 'ambivalence' and were the main subject of the book!

hackmum Wed 14-May-14 19:34:18

I've read her second book, which is very good, but not this one. I'm curious to read it now - I really liked the Rachel Cusk book, and it seems obvious to me that a lot of women get really pissed off at the whole experience of being a mother.

While I'm at it, I find the term "maternal ambivalence" faintly irritating. "Ambivalent" means "wanting both", ie you both like and dislike being a mother. That may be true, but it doesn't quite do justice to the feelings of rage and despair that motherhood can induce.

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