Laura G Owens ~ Writer. Raw. Real.

Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do, you apologize for the truth. – Benjamin Disrael

Tag: ambivalence

Dealing with negative emotions

I love, I hate. Peace after accepting ambivalence.

All mothers know this. 

That the love we have for our child is so intense and all-consuming that it’s spectacular and terrifying in its power. 

Yet it’s rare we admit that what motherhood gives us, so too can she take away…

Depression

A few weeks after my daughter was born I was hit with severe postpartum depression.

My husband did everything he could within the confines and nerves of new fatherhood. What was he supposed to do as he watched his wife genuinely smile and coo and competently take care of our baby, then an hour later, turn around and sob and crumble into wishing “I’d just fall into a black hole of feeling nothing. Dead but not really dead.” 

How do you respond to your wife’s sort of death wish?

My husband was a hands-on dad from the start. There for me in every way. But with my exhaustion and hormone-imbalanced brain, nothing helped my depression except getting back on hormone replacement therapy (I have a pituitary disorder that requires HRT), more sleep, and sheer time to get used to the demands of being a new mother.

Identity crisis

I was a stay-at-home mother by grateful choice (and self-imposed guilt), but as the months went on sometimes I felt mind-numbingly bored. Flattened and anxious by the drudgery and repetition. Despite the numerous Mommy and Me playgroups I joined. Despite friends telling me “this too shall pass and they’re only young once.” Despite date nights with my husband and girls’ nights.

Without fail I followed the formula prescribed to make the transition to being at home easier. In fact I did more than most of my stay-at-home mom friends who weren’t yet comfortable leaving their little ones.

But it wasn’t enough. 

Not until my daughter started Kindergarten and I had more time to myself and to write. First I wrote cathartic stream-of-consciousness ramblings to self-soothe, then gradually I wrote as a part-time profession.  

Motherhood tore open beautiful facets of myself and my relationships. Richer in emotion, new layers of appreciation emerged as I watched my child giggle at dandelion fluff, blow a ladybug off her finger, run from the waves chasing her little ankles. 

But motherhood also threw me into a full-on identity crisis.

I’d been an ambitious marketing professional for 20 years and then suddenly I wasn’t. A shift so abrupt as to almost reorganize my DNA overnight.

My daughter was of course front and center, her well-being always top of mind. But becoming a parent didn’t suddenly wipe clean my ambition or my need to spend time alone or with my husband and friends. 

And yet I was told that it would, promised that “once I saw that little baby nothing else would matter in the world.” But other things did still matter, even while I fell in love with this perfect creature I wanted more than anything.  

Emotions in contradiction. Or were they?

Mothers are all different as humans are all different

Being at home full-time is just easier for some mothers. I don’t mean the work is easier. 

It’s universally hard to be chronically sleep-deprived and change 800 diapers. To be hypervigilant that your child doesn’t choke, suffocate in her sleep, stick her fingers in sockets or the dog’s mouth, run in the street, smear her poop, sling-shot off the slide or bite her toddler friend – again.

It’s exhausting to worry about Texas-shaped rashes, fevers, teething, vaccine reactions, solid food introductions, weird cries, to nurse, rock, soothe, stroll, shop, play Candyland incessantly and watch The Wiggles for the 90th time. 

But some women adapt better to this new normal. They don’t have a full-on identity crisis as I did. 

It goes without saying that watching your child grow and thrive is spectacular. What’s not spectacular is the exhaustion and the ambivalent feelings we grapple with alongside judgment from other parents. 

The “I love my child, but I hate……” 

I dropped out of the workforce when my daughter was 9 months old (I’d returned part-time after maternity leave).  Once the honeymoon of being home ended and the silence of no adult company crept in, once my daughter’s two-hour screaming fests shattered my nerves — the stress, repetition and boredom drove me mad. 

So to process my feelings, when I had time I wrote.

I also read stacks of books about real motherhood. Gritty, raw stories (My favorite, Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood). These books unpacked and validated the anger, resentment and anxiety mixed with gratitude, awe and love.

To be human is to feel a spectrum of good and “bad” emotion….

The spectrum of emotions I have since become obsessed to accept rather than vilify.

From that space came a compulsion to write what I learned, loved and loathed about the experience of being human, about grappling with ambivalence. 

It starts with the truth. Unpolished. Uncomfortable at first. 

It starts with being radically honest with ourselves (and with people we trust).

Honesty takes a risk. Honesty is terrifying. 

But gradually the chokehold of trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not comes off.  

Freedom comes from (trying) not to judge yourself for feeling different from your friends, mother, sister, cousin, and neighbors.

When I enrolled my daughter in two pre-schools at the same time (half days Mon-Tues for one, Wed-Thu another), you can imagine the comments.

“That’s interesting, I’d never heard of anyone doing that before,” said one friend. “Well at least you’re not doing it just to get your nails done,” said another. “You’re doing it to have time to write.”

“Actually I’m doing it to have time for errands, writing and nails.” 

One of my daughter’s pre-school teachers asked me, “Doesn’t your daughter get confused?” 

“Not it all. She’s doing really well. Does she seem confused to you?”

“Well, no, actually.”  

As humans we share traits born of the instinct to survive and to thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food, shelter, safety, a need for love, validation and belonging.

But we’re also individuals, spectacular in our breadth and depth of interests, challenges and pathways to finding peace, joy, balance and God knows, less angst.

In the end, your authentic self is who should show up every day. Because the ones who love you will love you despite — or probably because of who you are. The others, well, they never mattered much anyway.

Image credit

Joe Paterno’s death reminds us of most complicated emotion – ambivalence

joe paternao, ambivalence, loss of a loved one, deathI recently experienced a death in our family. I’m not ready to write about it because it feels disrespectful to my departed and to my loved ones to talk directly about my ambivalent feelings.

Instead, I’ll write around my feelings.

I started to think about ambivalence, about loving someone “but” having mixed emotions.   Today I ran across an article about Joe Paterno, his death and how of course his family grieved. Along with mention of his passing was a link to his role in the sex scandal case.

Joe Paterno was revered, he was respected by an entire community — “and/but” the world was horrified.

Talk show show host Dr. Phil tells his guests when you follow a sentence with the word “but” you’ve nullified everything you just said.  I think love can be conditional, or rather, how you want to feel when that person is around has conditions.

How you feel about a person’s death depending on their age or circumstances, depending on the life they led, depending on the impact they had in your life or in your mind’s eye, can make “but” the only word that pulls incongruent thoughts together and softens your cognitive dissonance.

Without disclaimers we lie to ourselves and change history to our blurry convenience.

And while blurry memories may bring us closer to closure, to forgiving and emotional freedom, maybe we should SEE clearly before we fuzzy our thoughts so long that time muddies the truth — and then the truth no longer exists.

Anyone who followed Paterno’s role in the child sex scandal case knows the outrage over his failures, they knew about the fortress of worship and blind loyalty behind Paterno’s protected kingdom of collegiate football, an institution where it was blasphemous to question the ruling class of winning coaches.

This was a hierarchy not unlike the Vatican where power and prestige is sometimes cloaked in cheers, chants, prayers and scorekeeping, (Sinner Zero, Repenter 1) where the very highest servants of the Almighty God and Almighty Win keep the People looking UP with distanced worship, bowing from afar until evil is out of focus, recognition or even possibility — until all that’s left to see is what we want to see.

To speak ill of the departed is to slap the living and pummel the deceased.  Yet,  uncomfortable residue after someone dies while it doesn’t, (and shouldn’t) ever steer how we live our own lives, unresolved ambivalence about someone or something needs to be laid to rest for peace, for comfort to come.

Ambivalence is a topic that fascinates me endlessly. The paradox of emotions we carry with us, more, how we react to our ambivalence and what this creates in its wake.

Over the past ten years I’ve written about The Ambivalence of Motherhood, an institution so idealized, romanticized and revered that (at one time) to speak of anything but glory and gratitude and sheer bliss at bottles, bibs, breastfeeding and hours of laundry and Barney was akin to saying you hated your child and rebuked womanhood.

I never felt motherhood was black and white. I only felt my love for my daughter was crystal clear.

Betty Friedan in her landmark, groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, coined the vagabond emotion women used to chase with therapy sessions and valium as “the problem that has no name.”

Ambivalence is in fact, that wispy unharnessed inner nudge we can’t quite put into words or hold with utter confidence.

In the early revolution of inner discontent about something or someone, ambivalence doesn’t get a comforting nod of knowing from others who privately feel the same.  Ambivalence is at first a maverick, uncomfortable and unsettled and lonely. It never invites others to join the revolution until enough people say it’s okay — and then the shouting rolls out from every doorway and blog.

Ambivalence is left for people with “issues” or for pioneers to shape into slow and eventual acceptance.

To love and yet……

I now write so openly about ambivalence —  because I’ve written so openly about ambivalence.  The endless gnawing has to feed itself or it can never become peaceful resolve — at least for me.

Ambivalence feels as innate for me as saying I love you to people I trust, and even so, I feel compelled to frame my thoughts about motherhood into something people can easily reconcile, to put my disclaimer for those who can’t feel two sides of the same story at the same time, so they won’t think me a monster.  

So, this is what ambivalence feels like:

That you can love your child so deeply, so intensely so passionately so fully so gratefully and yet not love what as a new mother, motherhood takes away.

That you can love your child and hate the boredom of at home. That you can want to be home and yet want to be at a career you worked big hours to achieve — that you want enough hours for you, but not too much away from her.  That men can grapple this with zero societal reproach but when women grapple out loud they are selfish. 

Resolved ambivalence is having a secure foot in both doors, it is to acknowledge and finally shrug at ying and yang, dark and light, cold and warm. It is to admit to wanting it all and why you want it all. It is to know that one feeling can exist with another and yet you are still full and complete and good and enough.

I know this unharnessed emotion doesn’t sit well for most people because it asks for confessions that haven’t been reconciled and approved by others.

I know it’s why after my loved one died and I carefully with pause, emailed my family my feelings of ambivalence — that no one responded. Urgent and pressing matters trumped my ruminating about my mixed emotions. I genuinely understand that the unfinished business and feelings simmering behind “the one who died” will need to sit in escrow until/if, people are ready, that it is not for me to make someone else’s ambivalence come to light.

Ambivalence is “the problem with no name” until it is time to give it one.

Where does your ambivalence sit?

Photo credit: David Castillo Dominici

 

 

 

 

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