Monday, December 15, 2008

A way too long post (sorry) about maternal ambivalence

In the talk I did at my local writers’ festival recently, I said something like: “I feel like it’s a sad and somewhat controversial thing to admit that I feel it would be a lot easier for me, as a mother, to have no ambitions.” One of my fellow speakers, artist Sarah Tomasetti, later admitted that she was expecting me to say what would have been much more controversial statement: that my life would be easier if I hadn’t had children.

Well, I think it goes without saying that a life without children would be an easier one. Except that, as someone who always wanted kids, I would have become obsessed with wanting them and had to go through a long process of coming to terms with my childlessness. That said, I have more sympathy now with those who choose not to have children than I ever did before I had my own—not because I have regrets, but because now I actually understand the sacrifices that are made.

The desire to have children is a peculiar force—a biological trick or animal urge perhaps, if you want to see it that way, but therein lies its legitimate power. Considering that getting pregnant is for most Western women a choice nowadays, if that biological compulsion was not there, I cannot imagine what other arguments you might pose to yourself in making the case for becoming a parent. It is not one that can be made on any logical grounds, on the basis of some cost-benefit analysis. Like art, the urge to create children is mysterious and unbidden, and the rewards unmeasurable.

Particularly among the artistic community, there are still many for whom their work takes the place of children, or at least who feel kids would be too great a spanner in the artistic works. (The whole time I have been writing this, with my computer on my lap, I have also been playing shops with my three-year-old daughter, ‘scanning’ items with the phone and taking her ‘money’, with her occasionally grabbing my face between her hands and saying: “You’re not looking at me!” The only alternative is letting her cut up my partner’s music magazines, which wouldn't be worth my life.)

Of course children are, among other things, a constraining force in an artist’s, or in anyone’s, life. There are those who would say this is just the reality, and there are those who would say this is a limited way of seeing things—a great failure of imagination—and, in a sense, both are true. Or the truth lies somewhere in between. And doesn’t this just some up the maternal experience? For many, if not most of us, to be a mother is to be mired in a state of contradiction.

Which gets to the theme of this post: maternal ambivalence. The other day I was thinking what a marvel is that such a word exists in the English language that so perfectly sums up the experience of mothering—and one I still associate with poet Adrienne Rich’s description of mothering as the the "murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness". I was pondering this while listening to a BBC Women’s Hour program about Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I haven’t yet read), groundbreaking for many reasons, but partly because of its honest depiction of mothering. One of the commentators on the show was Lionel Shriver, whose book We Need to Talk About Kevin (another on my stupidly long list of ‘must-reads’) made her the unintended spokeswoman for maternal ambivalence.

I wrote quite a long section in The Divided Heart about whether an artist’s imaginative powers might be one of the very things that stops them from having children—it later got cut. But Shriver was one of my main case-in-points. “What has continued to frighten me off children for all these years?” she has asked, rhetorically. Among other things: “The relegation of one’s own ambitions so far to the backburner that they fall off the stove. A precipitous social demotion that I inferred from the chuckle of those smarmy adults who discounted my renunciations at eight: You say you want to be a writer but you’re a girl, and all you really want to be is a mommy.”

She had long ago decided that her mother got the raw deal in her family, and went on to readily embrace her hostility (her word) toward motherhood. “…when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, ‘Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little ... selfish?’ I bellowed into the receiver, ‘Absolutely!’” As she admits elsewhere: “They [kids] would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.”

In an attempt to resolve her repulsion for motherhood (her word again), she wrote her bestselling Kevin, which describes an antagonistic relationship between a mother and son, who at fifteen goes on a horrific killing spree at his school. “The massacre is and isn’t the mother’s fault,” she says, i.e. that's up to the reader to decide.

You can check out two of her articles for The Guardian here and here.

In part, her lack of maternal desire was a reaction against the “unwritten gag rule” that expected her mother to bury her real feelings and instead present a rosy picture. A remarkable number of readers, Shriver says, expressed their gratitude that “someone in modern literature has put motherhood’s hitherto off-limits emotions into print”. As she puts it, she wanted to get away from novels’ routine portrayal of children as adorable moppets who come out with nuggets of wisdom at the dinner table. Also, she rails against the idea of childhood innocence; the belief that kids’ behaviour is out of their control and purely influenced by environmental factors.

“While we may have taken the lid off sex, it is still out of bounds to say that you do not like your own kids, that the sacrifices they have demanded are unbearable, or that, perish the thought, you wish you had never had them.”

Shriver is a powerful and talented writer, and I do not have a moral objection to her views per se. But it does seem to me that they only paint half the picture—something that makes sense, I suppose, Shriver having chosen to remain child-free and basing much of her beliefs on her mother’s experience (which wasn’t a good one) and her memories of herself as a child.

Without wanting to take away from the validity of what Shriver does have to say—she is a writer of great imaginative powers and her words clearly speak to people—can you actually be the voice of maternal ambivalence when you haven’t experienced maternity?

To me, ambivalence implies not only that adverse reaction but, in motherhood’s case, the wild swing between—or even simultaneous sense of—overwhelming frustration and surging joy and adoration. I don’t doubt that there are those out there who genuinely regret having children—and for those whose children go on to commit terrible crimes, this must be a particularly fraught and painful question. But to suggest that some children are just born bad, and that some mothers indeed dislike their own offspring, while perhaps occasionally true, overall seems a little simplistic.

Shriver bases this notion partly on her recollection of intentionally giving her mother a hard time. I’m no expert on childhood, and as a parent I am painfully aware of my deficiencies—just as I am aware that children are not always innocent. Kids can behave badly, it’s true (as can adults), and they are often wilful. The fact that discipline may often be an appropriate response, doesn’t automatically make the child’s actions merely "bad". In developing an identity separate to their parents, a child will test boundaries and limits. That’s the nature of growth.

For those who do not have regular contact with them, kids can be a bit intimidating. But to say that you don’t like kids seems to me a denial of life. You may as well be saying that you don’t like people; that you don’t like yourself.

Shriver looked at the question of maternal ambivalence through a fictional account of a worst case scenario. The Divided Heart was also an attempt at getting to the ‘truth’ (if there can be such a thing) of the maternal experience—its pitfalls and its pleasures—and I hope provided similar solace for readers. (And in saying that I do not mean to be putting me or my book in Lionel Shriver’s league, or to suggest they are directly comparable in intention.)

In presenting a frank account of motherhood, in all its complexity of conflicting emotions, women will always attract criticism and contempt. (I have copped my fair share of this, and have had to remind myself of British author Rachel Cusk’s assertion that she didn’t write her troubled and exhilaratingly candid memoir, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, for “all those Alice-band-wearing mumsies out there”.) In general, an environment now exists where mothers have greater permission than ever to express their feelings of despair as well as gratification.

Occasionally someone at my partner’s work will ask him whether or not it’s worth it: having children. He tells them: “It’s bloody hard work but you’ll laugh more than you’ve ever laughed in your life.” And that much is true.


Kerry said...

I felt ambivalent about Lionel Shriver due to the obnoxious media coverage, and then I read her book and found it more nuanced than anyone had described. I also love Rachel Cusk's memoir. And capped off by the fact that I'm expecting my first child in May, I am officially in love with your blog. Well said.

Kate Moore said...

Arggh, I like Adrienne Rich’s description of motherhood but as a stepmother, feel I don't get the latter part of he description: the ``blissful gratification and tenderness''. I have to suffice with a sense of having done a job to the best of my ability. It's my own self praise I have to look forward to.
Though I have not read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, I heard of it through author Camilla Noli. I interviewed her for the release of Still Waters and pop by the discussion on her website from time to time. I think it's safe to say the character in Still Waters is beyond ambivalent.

Shannon Garson said...

We have a daggy little local newspaper that does profiles of local people. I thought it was interesting that they had to change the question "What is the best thing that has ever happened to you?" to "What is the best thing.. (apart from family) Everyone just used to reply "Having children". I feel that not liking children is like living half a can you just "not like" children? They are essential to the human race.

Rachel Power said...

Yes, I think Rachel Cusk is insanely talented. I hold her up on a bit of a pedastool.
And I hope I didn't sound negative about Shriver as a writer, as I know so many people who love her books and I think she's raising important issues. But I do find it sad when some women who decide not to have kids develop a kind of repulsion for children, and for mothering as a whole. I certainly find de Beauvoir's comments on mothering disturbing in this way (and can't help but wonder how much she was under Satre's influence on this issue). Although it seems they loved surrounding themselves with adult children of the most dependent, sycophantic kind. But more of that later...
I will definitely check out Camilla Noli, Katie. And give yourself a pat on the back--step-parenting is the toughest gig out there, and just the fact that you give it so much thought shows you're doing a great job.

Damon Young said...

To my mind, the important thing is honesty: to recognise we're sacrificing something important either way; that the missed career, or income, or recognition, or parenthood, or marriage is a genuine loss.

In my case, I'll never have the Whopping Great Career many of my male peers enjoy; I lack the hours, energy and income. And I miss the first two (I never had the last).

Perhaps it's easier to paint parenthood as a maddening abyss of doom and darkness, than as something worthwhile (but now impossible).

(Not having read Shriver, I can't say if she's done this.)

Rachel Power said...

Damon, you have made what is still a brave choice for a man--to work part-time so as to be with your kids. To be applauded! And though you might lack hours and energy (and money), I suspect you are more productive with the hours you've got than you ever were pre-kids(?). You are certainly a prolific commentator and provide a great example of honesty mixed with optimism. It's so important that fathers are talking about this singular experience of parenting, not just us mums. So thanks for the comment--now go and get some sleep, Mr Father-of-3-day-old...

Judi Tavill said...

First of all.. I finished your book(which I read on the treadmill and under the covers) and thought it was phenomenal. For me. I would have loved to have found it(although it did not exist) when my children were smaller(they are 12 and 8 1/2 now) but it still rang true throughout. I also was pleased to see somewhat of a "children's age progression" of the subjects as I read on...

I can bitch and moan all day long about the fact that there are not enough hours in the day ...However...I guess the big issue is what you hold dear in life... Is it REALLY making your mark...on society... or on a smaller(could turn out bigger) level...I love the description: " the wild swing between—or even simultaneous sense of—overwhelming frustration and surging joy and adoration" . Isn't that the truth... I would not want to miss that experience.
It's a struggle throughout but I personally wouldn't have it any other way... really... Of course, I would never question the choice of another woman(or man) as we are all individual persons...just like our children...individual persons.
As Shannon said, I feel that not liking children is like living half a can you just "not like" children? They are essential to the human race.
People. Just like you and me.

Ariel said...

'To me, ambivalence implies not only that adverse reaction but, in motherhood’s case, the wild swing between—or even simultaneous sense of—overwhelming frustration and surging joy and adoration.'

Good point. 'Ambivalence' implies teetering between or being undecided between different opinions, not being strongly decided in the negative (which is the way Shriver feels about motherhood).

I loved Shriver's book (and Cusk's, actually) and I absolutely endorse her right to not have children if she doesn't want them. There's nothing worse than an unwanted child, and society will do just fine with a few less people.

As for not liking or liking children, I have to say that I like or dislke children on a case-by-case basis. That's how I interpret 'they're people, after all'. I don't like all grown-ups either. I love my own child with a passion though, of course.

Rachel Power said...

Ariel, I truly think you are the voice of reason. Yes, I think they're great points. Again, I'm speaking about Shriver as a way in to a subject rather than meaning to attack her. As you say, of course I also defend anyone's right to choose whether they have kids or not--and I think artists have been significant in making a really conscious choice on this matter, either way. Which is part of what's interesting about Shriver. But also, yes, of course we are drawn to some kids more than others, just like adults. This realisation was in fact quite a shock to me when I first had kids, because I hadn't really known many children as individuals before that and I think expected myself to like them all equally. Also some of my friends without children have become really dedicated friends to my kids because they have the freedom to focus on them when they're around, and I so appreciate that.

Ariel said...

Voice of reason ... just the thing one likes to hear at this time of year. For any reason. Thank you.

I didn't think you were attacking Shriver at all, by the way. She's a great way in to discussing this issue, and a really interesting character (and not just in the context of this book).

Yes, I'd always thought I 'like children' until I started to meet different kids through my son, and realised that it depends on the kid. I felt terrible about not liking some of his friends for a while, as if I was a bad person, but came to the 'kids are people' conclusion along the way. It's funny what having kids teaches you. Not just the big lessons you expect, but the small realisations along the way.

Rachel Power said...

Yep, what a manic time of year, hey? Feel like I'm crawling to the finish line. Just got told off by some mean-spirited bitch in a bookshop for having a pram in the aisles--took all my strength not to burst into tears on the spot, when some gorgeous shop assistant took pity on me, whipped around and found the books on my list for me--hurrah! In know it's also just good service (Readings Carlton--don't mind advertising my Xmas saviours), but kindness like that can make all the difference at this time of year, I tell ya. Yes, so many small lessons every day. BTW, I'm serious about a book club--let's talk in the New Year (virtual or actual?)... Anyone?

Damon Young said...

Yes, I am more fruitful now. (Not right now, obviously. But in general.)

I think there's a helpful distinction: between individual kids, and the idea of children. Of course individual children can be endearing or maddening - just like their wonderful or woeful parents.

Yet you can recognise this, while still being attracted to the idea of children.

Importantly, this isn't an abstract, uninformed idea: it still contains insomnia, rage, filth and stench.

But it also has the sublime rewards: primordial, milk-redolent beauty; frantic running for bubbles in the yard; the sound of your name in a toddler's sincerity; Lego Daleks in the morning.

It's an openness to the variegated 'stuff' of parenthood.

You can find individual children boring or annoying, and still be in love with this idea.

Ariel said...

'You can find individual children boring or annoying, and still be in love with this idea.'

I agree, Damon - yes. Absolutely, you sum it up well.

Having been a bookseller at Christmas, it's so nice to hear your anecdote Rachel. Lovely for all retail workers to be appreciated at this time of year. People who are sniffy about prams and/or breastfeeding are crap. Or lacking in empathy, at the very least.

Given your taste in books so far - Novel About My Wife, We Need to Talk About Kevin, now Life in Seven Mistakes (which I LOVED) - I would definitely be up for a book club. Virtual or actual.

Anonymous said...


I read this post with much interest...five years ago, my three sons were just entering their teens.

For years, I had felt that every decision I made to spend time at my painting and at my writing was excruciating. I always felt that I was neglecting SOMEONE as I made my way out of the house to the studio. Every trip to the studio, or, for that matter, to a friend's house for dinner, or to the store, was fraught with ambivalence. Three boys in three and a half years---one of them always DID need something from me. And I was so tired. Always tired.

Yet, now, here I am on Christmas morning, writing in a blog. And where are those boys? Nearly grown and gorgeous. I am watching a DVD of snowboarding left in the player, by my oldest son. He and his brothers left the house a while ago with their father--and my husband (still married, despite the strains of raising these boys, of having very different ideas about career...and despite my headlong pursuit of my own rather unprofitable passions for painting, for film making....).

So, these boys are now ages 18, 19 and 21. Beautiful boys and gone. Yes, home for the holidays, but off, every chance they get to snowboard, to ski. I used to go out with them at every occasion, afraid to miss something. Now, I stay home unless the sun shines and they know I will be there when they return.

So, I started to say, five years ago, I was bereft at losing these boys. They had wanted and needed me for so long and so truly. Then, adolescence hit and suddenly, I was no longer the center of their world. And, this loss forced me to look more closely at my own life and my own dreams, ambitions.

While I had taken up writing after the birth of my first child and had continued to write as well as to paint, throughout their childhood, it was always around the needs of THE FAMILY. Always in the cracks. Now, that they were off on their own more, I felt I had neglected my own possibilities. So, I was bereft about that girl I had been before becoming a mother--the girl that wanted to write books, and travel and tell stories and make beautiful paintings....

My response to this was to begin to find other women whose ambition ran up against their need to nurture. Thus was born, my documentary film, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS? Thanks for writing about it, Rachel. Sorry not to have acknowledged your beautiful heartfelt response till now---I am so very NEW at this blogging thing.

Anyway, one thing I can say about children and work. When you have the full care of children, the tasks are exhausting, excruciating and neverending--even as you delight in reading to them before bed, in comforting a hurt, in cuddling a little one, in laughing at their first attempt to tumble across the floor. It is neverending, this caring--in part, I think, because the larger world refuses to acknowledge the awesome, the extraordinary work involved in helping a little one grow to adulthood. So, now what?

The thing is, that five years from my near breakdown, from the sense of loss--for my own dreams, for my own talents as well as the loss of that feeling of being the ONE, the Supremely necessary ONE to my boys---five years from then--my boys come home every holiday and I have used my talents in a way that speaks to others...through making this film! And, if anyone wants to see the trailer and learn more about THAT it is at

And another, strange thing--now, I am the one who tries to find things that my sons and I can do together. I used to sometimes feel that I never had enough time to myself--they were always needing something from me. Now, I am the one who looks for activities we can share!

Then, this last--each of my boys has grown--not quite grown up, but nearly, to do very creative work. My oldest--he of the snowboarding video left on the machine, you might recall--he is now filming videos. He has sold his first--at the age of 21! It is called Road to Nowhere and is about his love--snowboarding! Still. It is beautifully made and full of heart. My middle son composes music and also films. And my youngest--guess? He too films as well as writes.

So, there you go--sometimes, in the middle of parenting, you feel that those little ones just want from you....and the wanting is hard. Yet, all along, they are also learning from you. They watch to see what absorbs you, what makes you laugh....what makes you love your life. They learn what matters. And if you are doing the work you are called to do--even little bits between the feeding and the crying and the diapers and all--then they will grow up knowing that to be an adult means to live one's life as though it matters.

So, sorry for the way too long post. Christmas morning and I have had a breakfast with my men and now am doing the work I love!

cinnamon gurl said...

I remember learning the meaning of ambivalence in a post-colonial lit class in university. But I never really *got it* until I became a mother. I feel like the word ambivalence was made for motherhood. And I doubt anyone who doesn't have children can really grasp the magnitude of it.

That said, there's so much rhetoric of sacrifice around motherhood in particular and parenthood generally, but it never feels like sacrifice to me in the moment, it just feels like a choice, choosing what's important to me. Yes, it's the hardest thing I've ever done, yes there is more rage, more frustration and resentment, more fear, more guilt, but there is also more love, more joy, more laughter, more connection.

All the talk of sacrifice actually makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong, if I'm horribly selfish. But I wonder if that's the kind of thing we can only apply in hindsight?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Great post, Art & My Life just pointed me over here. Nice to "meet" you :)