Maternal ambivalence: Why we can feel both love and hate for our children

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

An excited Zoe, 16, is dressed and ready for her best friend's long awaited birthday party.

She's wearing a new dress (her dad thinks it is a little too tight), high heels and make-up. She's so excited she can't eat her dinner - but solemnly promises her mother, Bella, that at the party, she will not drink any alcohol, avoid the "bad girl groups" and call for a lift home by 11pm.

At 11.30pm as she is dozing on the couch, Bella's phone pings. It's a text from Zoe, asking her mother to collect her. 

When Bella arrives at the party, she sees Zoe vomiting, surrounded by teenagers, on the street. Zoe's new dress is torn and grubby, her make-up is smudged and she seems to have lost a shoe. It's clear Zoe has been drinking.

Bella's mind is flooded with so many thoughts. Is her daughter drunk? Has she taken drugs? Has someone assaulted her? Why did she break her promise?

As Bella experiences a wave of love and relief that Zoe is now safely with her, she also feels an intense dislike for her daughter for breaking her promise and exposing herself to danger - despite the many talks they have had together.

This is what I term maternal ambivalence, a mother's love and hate feelings for her child - normally a taboo subject but one which is just a routine part of everyday mothering, and not a myth.

Bella's intense feelings for her daughter after the party show us that mothering is fluid and real. It's not all about the picture perfect families we see on social media - it's about the gritty everyday encounters we have with our children - and how we feel about them.

After the party, Bella was able to allow her feelings to flow from anger to relief to hate and to love again.

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Portrait of young woman covering her face with both hands in defeat and frustration

Photo: Getty Images

Instead of holding onto her initial anger and lecturing Zoe about exposing herself to danger, she allowed herself to move back towards feelings of love which allowed her to later have a calm conversation with her daughter (which, as we all know, is not easy with teenage girls!)  Bella experienced a healing within herself about her relationship with Zoe. 

This example alerts us to the importance of respecting the complicated and difficult feelings of everyday mothering.

I believe there is a real danger in repressing our real feelings as they teach us a lot about ourselves. Bella's flexibility and awareness of her feelings meant she could stay present and connected to herself and Zoe and not be paralysed by her own fears, frustrations and anxieties.

I think about mothering as a series of messy interruptions - in this case, Bella thought her daughter was safe but she was faced with shock and confusion when she saw her on the street.

Rather than starting an angry conversation about broken promises and proper behaviour, Bella was able to connect with her daughter by allowing her feelings to flow, while remembering that she once, not so long ago, was a teenager, and everyone makes mistakes.

She understood this was an opportunity to forge a closeness and openness between them.

Mothering is an opportunity for us to learn from our mistakes, and to be aware that feelings of dislike and ambivalence are not only very normal but they do heal.

In fact, intense feelings of anger can actually fuel an overpowering feeling of love - a paradox, but this is how closely tied a mother's feelings of momentary hatred and love seem to be.

Some may see momentary feelings of anger as a distasteful aspect of mothering, and something which should be kept hidden - after all, aren't all mothers meant to be warm, kind and loving? I argue not - mothering is a human experience which needs to be honestly examined, lived and talked about.

We, as mothers, must recognise our feelings for our children. By engaging with hateful feelings and trying to understand and talk about them, mothers can realise an opportunity for transformation and have a richer, more fulfilling relationship between themselves and their children.

Dr Margo Lowy, a psychotherapist and author, has three children. She recently released her first book  "Maternal Experience: Encounters with Ambivalence and Love".