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Motherhood is difficult, and many women have conflicting feelings about it. Why is saying this so taboo?

Libby Ward knew what kind of mother she wanted to be even before she had her first child. Patient. Loving. Intentional. But her expectations were higher, especially when she considered the mothers in her social circle. She wanted to be like them in other ways, too: home-cooked meals, spotless homes, and nap schedules.

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Ward found herself, for the most part, able to mother her daughter in the way she had hoped. She had her son two years later. They had difficulty breastfeeding. He didn’t get more than two hours of sleep in a row. He appeared to be in discomfort.

“I felt like I couldn’t meet his needs for food, sleep, or comfort,” Ward, who lives in Ontario, Canada, explains. “I couldn’t live up to the expectations I’d set for myself. And then everything fell apart.” She felt rage more than anything else. Resentment erupted against her partner, her children, and even complete strangers – anyone who appeared to be doing better than she was. She felt ashamed for feeling this way.

“It was about five months after becoming a mother of two that I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognise myself physically, emotionally, or mentally,” Ward says. “‘This isn’t me,’ I said. This is not my personality. This isn’t who I want to be. It’s not the person I expected to be.'”

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She had tapped into a condition shared by many but discussed by few: maternal ambivalence. Ambivalence is defined as experiencing complex, often contradictory emotions related to motherhood. It does not result from a lack of love for a child. Indeed, ambivalent mothers are clear that they would do anything for their children – so much so that, for many, the worry, stress, and fear they feel for their children is part of why they find motherhood so difficult. However, they may also experience anger, resentment, apathy, boredom, anxiety, guilt, grief, or even hatred – emotions that most people are not taught to associate with motherhood, let alone being a ‘good’ mother.

The range of emotions is unsurprising. After all, mothering is a time-consuming task. labour-intensive, emotional task – one that means a fundamental shift in one’s identity as well as often-difficult physiological changes. As long as mothers have existed, they have most likely had conflicting feelings about it.

Nonetheless, a few factors make maternal ambivalence today distinct and, most likely, more difficult to navigate. The first is the often unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a ‘good’ mother (or, for that matter, a ‘good’ baby or child), which is exacerbated by the information overload and comparison provided by the parenting-advice industry, internet, and social media. Second, in a culture that values adages like “Treasure every moment!” many mothers feel shame and stigma 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

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“Maternal ambivalence is about embracing the ‘and,'” says Sophie Brock, a motherhood-studies sociologist and podcast host in Sydney, Australia. “As mothers, we face so many contradictions, and ambivalence says, ‘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 that my child exists, and I can’t stand what my life has become.’ ‘I want to be the best mother I can be, and I’m so angry about how much my identity has changed.’ ‘I love my child intensely, but I also hate him right now,’ for example.

Ambivalence can be confused with or coexist with conditions such as postpartum depression or anxiety. And, if unspoken, ambivalence can increase the risk of poor mental health, so it’s always a good idea to seek professional help if in doubt.

However, maternal ambivalence is generally considered normal and healthy by researchers and psychologists.

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“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 specialising in maternal mental health in British Columbia, Canada. “That makes sense to me. Their lives have drastically changed. Their sense of self-confidence, how they spend their time, and what they think about are all unique.”

Jessica Rose Schrody, a comedian and digital creator based in Los Angeles, is one mother who understands this firsthand. She debated whether to continue the pregnancy when she became pregnant in her early twenties. “But overall, I was like, ‘Oh, I can do it, I’ll be able to figure it out’. ‘Wow – this has made your life so much more complicated in every single possible way,’ I think now, at 31 years old. And none of them were ways I could understand or process as a 21-year-old.”

The struggle to be ‘good’

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Motherhood has always been difficult. However, the current pressures may make it even more difficult. Unlike in the first half of the twentieth century, mothers are now expected to give their ‘all’ to their children in terms of time, labour, emotional, mental, and financial resources – while also performing well at work and in their relationships. This cultural construction of motherhood was labelled ‘intensive mothering’ in 1996, and it stuck.

To make matters worse, women are struggling to live up to this ideal at a time when parental support has largely lagged behind the demands of modern life. Some of the world’s richest countries provide less than four months of maternity leave. In dual-income families in the United Kingdom, Childcare consumes more than half of the average woman’s full-time income.

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