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The dark side of motherhood

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Spring


A psychiatrist explores mothers’ ambivalence over their needs and their children’s.

Poetry, paintings, and corporate America have long idealized the love of a mother for her child, from Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to Mary Cassatt’s portraits and soft-focus Mother’s Day cards. Psychiatrist Barbara Almond, M.D. ’63, has written a new book about another aspect of motherhood: mothers’ feelings of anger and resentment.

Maternal ambivalence is both universal and inevitable, says Almond, a psychoanalyst, training analyst, and instructor emeritus in psychiatry at Stanford. In her book The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, Almond explores “the conflicts between the child’s and the mother’s needs, both legitimate.” Complicating these conflicts is the fear that accompanies love. “What we love can disappoint us. What we love, we can also lose,” Almond writes. “That mothers have mixed feelings about their children should come as no surprise to anybody, but it is amazing how much of a taboo the negative side of ambivalence carries in our culture.”

Almond draws on stories from clinical practice and fiction to investigate the dark side—from a woman’s commonplace fear that she will love her child insufficiently to extremes that include a mother’s murder of a daughter in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and Andrea Yates’s real-life drowning of her five children.

Almond contends that facing ambivalence, which she views as a mixture of loving and hateful feelings, can be constructive, “when it leads the mother to think creatively about her difficulties mothering and how they can be managed.”

Some publishers—and some reviewers—found Almond’s book too disturbing. On the contrary, she says, “I’m offering this as a comfort to mothers. They don’t have to drive themselves so hard.”

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