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Not quite postnatal depression but still not OK – why we need language for maternal ambivalence

·6-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Last night, as I was trying to settle my fretting son to sleep, I had a thought, clear as day: “I just don’t want to do this any longer.” He’d been grizzling for 45 minutes, his dad was out, and after a long day at work, all I wanted was a glass of wine and some mindless telly.

When it comes to being a mother, I’m afraid to admit I feel like this quite a lot. There’s a lot about parenthood I dislike. The wrangling into clothes every morning; the endless picking up discarded Cheerios from the floor; the cursed middle-of-the-night wake-ups.

Yet, there’s also a lot I enjoy. Watching him take his first steps; mundane tasks like washing and folding his clothes; stroking his soft lockdown mullet, which he will only let me do when he’s sleepy.

That’s the reality of motherhood: it’s both good and bad. But it’s also the gaping, shallow bit in between.

I felt this most keenly right after he was born, at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. When he was laid on my chest under the wincingly bright lights of the hospital operating theatre, I felt nothing. I looked down at his pinched red face, my glasses steaming up from tears, and just felt a yawning emptiness.

This emotional chasm continued for the next few months. When he sucked at my veined breasts it felt like he was sucking all the life out of me. For something that, now, I can best describe as “nothing”, it’s astonishing how much that can hurt.

As a society, we don’t have the language to describe the pain of becoming a mother

I suspected what I was feeling wasn’t quite postnatal depression, but I certainly wasn’t okay either, despite being “ticked off” at a health check-up a few months after he was born. What I’ve come to realise at a year postpartum is that this maternal ambivalence is almost impossible to talk about openly. As a society, we don’t have the language to describe the pain of becoming a mother. For somebody who uses words to give meaning and shape to things, I struggled to articulate why the transition into motherhood – matrescence – left me utterly cold.

In the months after the birth, I railed against the stock phrase “best day of your life” (I had a catheter and couldn’t walk, which doesn’t exactly send it to the top for me) that seems to be part of every mother’s vocabulary, both real and fictional. And I thought really carefully before deploying the standard line “he’s the best thing that ever happened to me” and “I can’t imagine life without him”, because, truthfully, he isn’t necessarily and I can.

Becoming a parent has made me realise that life is a complex, evolving patchwork of emotions, relationships and events; each with their own highs and lows. I could see that nothing was ever wholly good or completely bad. I love my son and I’m so pleased he’s part of our family, but I just can’t subscribe to the belief that my life is automatically better with him at the centre of it. (What I can be sure of is I now spend a lot more time wiping spills off the floor.)

Maternal ambivalence is a topic that has been lightly touched upon in popular culture. Rozsika Parker, a psychotherapist and parent, highlighted the term in her 1995 book, arguing that the coexistence of both loving and, yes, hating a child actually sharpens a woman’s capacity to mother. Reading that was a lightbulb moment for me. Rather than feeling shame for the flashes of resentment I felt for my baby, I understood that the negative feelings were – and still are – an important part of learning how to parent and navigating this monstrous transition. I just wish the phrase “I sometimes resent my baby” went down better at the pub.

I love my son and I’m so pleased he’s part of our family, but I just can’t subscribe to the belief that my life is automatically better with him at the centre

A 2019 paper from the University of Chester, An Exploration of the Ways in Which Feelings Of “Maternal Ambivalence” Affect Some Women, found that the women analysed experienced a loss of independence, relationships and confidence after the birth, which led to many “unexpected and unwanted” feelings. “They were shocked and confused when they experienced feelings of resentment towards themselves, others and their children. They also experienced unexpected feelings of boredom and anxiety in relation to mothering.”

The authors concluded: “These feelings of ambivalence are not in themselves problematic; rather it is their culturally dependent interpretation of them that causes difficulties and leads to women feeling judged and judging themselves as ‘bad’ mothers.

“As a result, some mothers are too ashamed to talk about these feelings which leads to more loss and further perpetuates the myth that ‘good’ mothers are contented and fulfilled by motherhood.”

I certainly still feel like a “bad” mother, whether I’m deflecting criticism about sending my child to full-time daycare to go back to a sanity-saving, much-loved job; deciding to introduce a nightly bottle of formula; or admitting I agonise over the most taboo subject: that maybe I should’ve never become a parent.

I’m no more maternal or caring now than before I had children, and still enjoy doing the same things I always did: pubs, travel, sexy adults-only hotels with absolutely no room for a travel cot. The difference now is that I have a small person to think about as well.

Time is a healer, they say. It is. Clawing back “me” took a long time and a lot of childcare. Fourteen months on, I am still finding the words to describe the spaghetti junction of emotions that is my mother self. As for being patient with his sleep habits, I’m learning that too.

Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week is a week-long campaign (4 to 9 May 2021) dedicated to talking about mental illness during pregnancy or after having a baby and signposting to support for all mums

If you need support or resources; PaNDAS, a charity which offers hope, empathy and support for every parent or network affected by perinatal mental illness (call 0808 1961 776), Support for Mums and Families, Association for Post Natal Illness (helpline open 10am – 2pm – 0207 386 0868 or email info@apni.org), Best Beginnings or Tommy’s, which offer free support and information for women and families at any stage of pregnancy or after birth

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