You may have seen this photo making the rounds on social media outlets. It opened up an important dialogue about the myths vs realities for new parents. As I started to read the various responses to this photo, it became clear that embedded in this conversation parents were carefully broaching one of the most taboo mothering topics: Parental Ambivalence.
Parental ambivalence is difficult to define because it’s a complex concept that is understood uniquely from person to person, but essentially it’s the experience of having mixed emotions towards your children. It can range from feeling unbonded to your kids to having strong, conflicting, simultaneous love/hate feelings towards them. It can sound something like this:
“I love my kids… but sometimes I lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I need to get away from them”
“I can’t imagine my life without the kids, but sometimes I wish I’d never had them”
“I’m a good mom, but sometimes I fantasize about running away from home and starting over”
Public responses to these sorts of comments are varied. Some are very shaming and judgmental and imply that by complaining about kids parents don’t deserve them. Some are meant to be encouraging and reassure that although parenting is tough, it’s a rewarding and worthwhile experience so parents should hang in there. Rare is the response that I think most ambivalent parents are hoping for. One that validates that sometimes parenting really sucks and can feel like a lifelong lesson in disappointment and unmet expectations.
What’s going on here? In the midst of the children-are-a-blessing discourse, how is it possible to have so many parents indicating that kids may also simultaneously feel like a curse? I’m curious if part of the phenomenon of loving your children but disliking looking after them is linked to the exhausting and endless work of parenting.
Let’s start by separating the love you feel for your children from the work required to raise them. (This concept isn’t mine to take credit for – tons of people write about this, like Arlie Hochschild, Jennifer Senior, Magda Pecsenye and many more). Next, let’s unpack exactly what this ‘parent work’ looks like, because the daily grind of parenting is actually made of many different types of work. While this is largely shaped by children’s ages and stages, and you could organize the ‘work’ of raising children in a variety of ways, here is a rough categorization of some of the big tasks to give you a sense of how big the job of parent is.
Reproductive Work AKA“chores”. This is all of the physical tasks, domestic work, and household maintenance required to keep kids safe, fed and clean. So, diaper changes, the endless meals they require, doing their laundry, sorting through winter/summer clothes, staying up all night trying to breastfeed. That kind of stuff.
Emotional Work AKA “kissing boo boo’s”. This is all the caring work required support kids with their emotional development. So the empathetic stuff, like holding them when they cry, the resiliency building stuff, like helping them recover from failure, and the fun stuff, like celebrating their successes. It also includes your own emotional work, like all the stress and worrying you do about your kids.
Moral Development Work AKA “don’t raise a jerk”. This is all the disciplining, rule setting and holding your children to accountability when they step out of line. So, helping your kids learn inner discipline, not to whine to get what they want, showing respect for themselves and others, following through on their commitments, keep their hands to themselves, and saying sorry when they screw up.
Life Skills Work AKA “clean up after yourself”. This is all the work you do to help your children turn into independent adults that can live without you. So, teaching them how to cook, get passing grades in school, remember their mittens, wash their hands, eat their vegetables, etc. Often this work can involve spending a fortune on special classes and activities, not to mention all the transportation these events require.
Social Skills Work AKA “how to make friends”. This is the process of assisting your kids build and maintain relationships. So, teaching them how to resolve conflict with peers, how to handle a break up, how to live harmoniously with others. It’s trying to demonstrate and convey the constant negotiation between knowing when to set clear boundaries with others, and knowing when to put your own needs secondary for the sake of the larger group.
Organizational Work AKA “being a personal assistant”. This is all of the managerial and secretarial work required by parents. So, remembering how much they weigh, booking their dental appointments, reminding them to call their grandma on her birthday, or filling in the endless paperwork that comes home from school. This type of work requires calendar administration and ongoing project management.
Notice how none of this work indicates how much love you have for your child? I suspect that a significant contribution to parental ambivalence is actually ambivalence towards some of these buckets of work. Because if we were honest, we would admit that we are not particularly well suited to each aspect of parent work. This is because each type of work described above requires a wide variety of unique skills and knowledge, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect parents to be a super star in each category. Although not everyone enjoys, is good at, or wants to engage in each bucket of parent work, we are forced to do it by virtue of being in the role of parent. And while it is generally accepted that if we force paid employees to do work that they don’t enjoy, are not good at, or don’t want to do, they will become disengaged or start to hate their job, parent work is somehow exempt from this.
I know the feelings of parental ambivalence very well. I find the reproductive work and organizational work of parenting painfully boring and unstimulating. My memory isn’t that great, I held back violent fantasies towards my crying children as they demanded the blue cup instead of the green cup at snack time, and the thought of spending hours at the park walking behind my kids so they don’t fall off equipment fills me with dread. As a result, I made for a grumpy and miserable stay at home mom who drank a lot of wine to cope with the shame of my feelings of parental ambivalence. But life skills, moral development work and emotional work? Love that stuff. There is nothing more rewarding than helping my kids recover from loss or standing by them as they take responsibility when they screw up. I’m not afraid to talk openly with my kids about tough topics like sexual consent or racism.
How might parenting be different if we could talk openly about the buckets of work we don’t like? I suspect it would shift the conversation from trying to determine who is suited for parenting (and who isn’t), and focus on our unique areas parenting strengths. I’d love to hear from you on this topic. What is the parent work that you love? And how do you do more of what you love and less of what you don’t love?
Olivia Scobie, M.A., ACC, CPCC, MSP