What This Psychiatrist Wants People To Know About Maternal Ambivalence
There comes a moment in every pregnancy or motherhood journey when a mother will suddenly encounter a dissonant emotion—one that contrasts sharply with the deep love she feels for her child. This feeling of maternal ambivalence is totally normal, expected, and common. But for so many moms, these emotions can bring up strong feelings of guilt or even shame.
What is maternal ambivalence?
Maternal ambivalence describes the greatly conflicted emotions that a woman can feel toward her child, ranging from love and affection to frustration and anger. Often, a mother can experience all of these emotions at the same time.
In fact, the data shows that as many as 40% of mothers report feeling indifferent 1toward their babies initially. But in today's societal expectations of the "perfect" mother who unilaterally feels a sense of consistent fulfillment on her mothering journey, it's all too easy to internalize messages2 that these feelings are unnatural or wrong.
The seemingly simple notion that all women have a "maternal instinct" that inherently allows them to naturally and easily care for and want children is an erroneous and dangerous viewpoint. These notions are perpetuated by the lack of open discourse around our mixed emotions in motherhood, as well as the rosier side of motherhood being perpetually displayed in our social media feeds.
How to feel supported.
Having strong support during pregnancy and beyond is important for many reasons but especially to help normalize some of these emotions and experiences. A dear friend, family member, trusted physician, or other support person can share their own maternal ambivalence and help normalize yours.
For many, support comes by way of a mental health practitioner, especially one that is well versed in the unique stressors of pregnancy and motherhood. It is important to know that emotional ambivalence around many things, but especially around motherhood, is a normal and healthy experience. It does not detract from how much you love your pregnancy and baby. The data shows3 when professional supports help new moms recognize how common these mixed emotions are, they can experience a sense of ownership and agency during motherhood.
Working toward a healthy and stable bond with your pregnancy and baby is important for a number of reasons. One being the positive bond between mom and baby4 can support the healthy development of your child. Mothers who feel emotionally unwell or feel a sense of rejection toward their babies would likely benefit from a professional evaluation to ensure that there are no other factors, like postpartum depression, that may be contributing to these emotions. And any thoughts to harm your baby or yourself warrant an emergency hospital visit.
In our definition of how we conceptualize a healthy and "normal" approach to motherhood, we must accept that it's OK for all moms to have mixed emotions at times. The more we talk about maternal ambivalence, the more we can normalize it for ourselves and all mothers.
Aparna Iyer, M.D. is a holistic and integrative board-certified psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas. She is an author and speaker on topics pertaining to emotional health and women's mental health. She also works as a consultant, helping organizations implement processes that allow for improved mental health, support of the maternal workforce and inclusivity in the workplace.
Iyer is largely focused on wellness and women's mental health and carefully incorporates psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, and behavior modification into her treatment to help her patients achieve fuller, happier lives.