One of the Last Taboos

In reading Edward Marriott’s article When a Bough Breaks – Volcanic feelings of love and hate are part of being a parent: it’s dangerous to pretend otherwise, I finally found a word for the frustration I’ve been experiencing –  Ambivalence.

“What is distinctive of our times is how few parents — still, even in our post-Freudian age — will openly admit to feelings of ambivalence towards their children. In an age where very little — from sex to money — is left a mystery, parental ambivalence remains one of the last taboos.”

When the bough breaks

It is the unfamiliarity with ambivalence in relation to my kids that has surprised me more than anything.  I really didn’t know that the feelings of conflict inside of me were normal, common, and have always been so.

As Marriott contends in the article, ambivalence is more than just mixed feelings.  It’s the end-all-be-all of mixed feelings – nothing short of love AND hate. Loving is the easy part – it is the word “hate” that has caused the most distress for me. Actually more than distress.  Shame.  The “s” word.  

I am ashamed of the number of days that I have completely resented making dinner for my family.  If I am stuck in the negative sway of ambivalence I no longer want to be involved with people, much less care for them domestically. No laundry, dishes, cooking – I just want to quit.

I am ashamed of my thoughts of violence or abandonment of others – specifically my children. Left-brained rational thought says my feelings are dangerous and should be eradicated.  Right-brained emotional thought wants to rage and scream and get recognition for the depth of my feelings.

The shame compounds itself because I feel powerless, completely immobilized sometimes, to do anything but sit in negativity, for the simple fact that I don’t feel I should be having these horrible feelings in the first place! I hold onto a common human/parent lie (that we must love without interruption), so each incidence of anger and the resulting shame grows into a mountain.

I have felt this ambivalence when someone will say “What a cute little guy!” about one of my sons.  “Sure”, I say, “cute as the devil’s spawn!” Then I reply with something like “Yeah, but he’s cute so I keep feeding him!” I watch myself say these things knowing that I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. I could say something cute and cuddly, and deny the negativity, or I can make a negative comment that could get me into hot water. This culture seems unready for  wholly honest responses that are less than loving and attentive.  Responding to a stranger’s passing remark is probably not the best time to let the honest rage and anger out – best to keep the loving facade up – but finding ways to embody and acknowledge all of me is important.

Bradley Olson, Ph.D., also talks about ambivalence and its tendency to make us “supremely uncomfortable”. Many of us then turn that uncomfortable feeling into a soap box to lecture others what they’re doing wrong, or passive-aggressive games with family, or, blog posts about our kids that start out honest and raw and end up in a heap of hugs and love – but never giving full attention to the deep, inner feelings, other than socially acceptable positive ones. 

Our culture has created a command that we always look like we love our children. The heresy, to use Olson’s term, of not buying into that command is supremely uncomfortable, but also exhilarating. Exhilarating because as I see it, heresy is essential to growth. We must step outside of convention if we wish to grow.

As Marriott talks about, the repression of the ambivalence can be “risky to others”.  I agree, and I would point out that heresy of thought is not the same as heresy of action.  I can have thoughts about my children that are not loving, but the moment I act it out, I have crossed the line. And, as Marriott also mentions, no one wants to be put in the same group as the abusive parents that we read about in the headlines. If I repress the darker parts of our myself, I am much more likely to try to repress the darker parts of my children, others, and myself. We in effect transfer our own negativity outward, committing heresy of action. 

I have found myself transferring that negativity outside of myself more often than I like to admit. I have put my children, husband, and most often myself at risk, more than anyone else, when I haven’t acknowledge all of the feelings caught up in my ambivalence. I rage not only about the feelings I have today, but all of the ones from yesterday that I suppressed.

Now that I can recognize that I have ambivalence, the full spectrum of feelings, toward something or someone, I have a stopping place for my emotions and breathing room to figure out how my actions can be appropriate and my thinking and feeling might come from a deeper place than before. The idea of a stopping place reminds me of Using Mindfulness Practice to Deal with Negative Urges by Shinzen Young. In a quick nutshell, we are to divide the components of the negative urge up into manageable pieces. Uncomfortable body sensations, memories, plans, judgments, beliefs are all bound up in us, getting stuck if we let them. I find that loud music and dancing, or taking a walk are two physical things that I can do to dissipate the negativity.

A friend of mine wondered if we would have less ambivalence if we raised our kids in line with the “it takes a village” concept. I don’t know that we would have less ambivalence, but I know I sure could use more loving support when the pendulum swings toward the negative end of ambivalence, and that might soften my reactions. The strength of having a village support us while we stumble through parenting could be found in the ancestral knowledge, experience, and stories of ambivalence. We would come to understand that ambivalence exists inside all of us. We might just create a moral fabric for our village that includes the depths of our being, thereby negating the need to commit heresy against the old repressed ways, for the old repressed ways would leave us. 


10 Comments on “One of the Last Taboos”

  1. Tony Norris says:

    Indeed. The expanded family-village has been a life saver for us more than once when the air got brittle and a burlap bag and the pond out back seemed the best solution…..and sharing black humor prevents our weeping alone. A nice thoughtful piece Naima.


  2. George says:

    Wonderful expression of a deep and true phenomenon. Thank you, Naima, for putting this into words. It helps us all.


  3. Sven says:

    Beautiful post, Naima. I think it goes deeply into a broader issue in American society that puts so much emphasis on positivity and achievement that the pressure on people to look happy and agreeable on everything is almost unbearable, because nobody is learning how to deal with and constructively express our dark side, which is such an important part of our whole being and existence. My friend who works in Silicon Valley where people are being coaxed into working 13-14 hour days under the guise of how much fun it is to work for this greatly awesome Company XYZ, calls this phenomenon of making people enjoy their own misery “the happy juice.”

    I don’t have kids, but I can totally see how difficult this can be for a parent. All I see around me are parents having to hustle to secure a spot in preschool the day their baby is born. There’s so much pressure to succeed and do the very “best” for your child that it starts before they even come into this world. And everyone has to get the very best of everything for their kids, the clothing, the SUV stroller, the school, the toys, the friends, the after school program, the sports, and on and on. I think one problem is that parents spend too much time with their kids these days, probably because of this irrational and elusive fear of missing out or under-performing or neglect.

    When I grew up, at even a very young age me and my friends would just run off to the park on our own and play all afternoon, so by the time the evening came around we didn’t have the pent-up energy to get on our parents’ nerves. And our parents had no desire to be involved in every little homework exercise, they only intervened when there was a real problem and were generally just happy to see us run off into the woods so they could live their own lives. To me, happiness is being able to love someone wholeheartedly while they’re not in the room with us.

    I’m really fascinated by the “it takes a village” approach, but it’s a difficult one in this individuated society we live in. Just as there’s a lot of pressure on always being happy about your kids and only wanting the very best for them at all times, there’s also a lot of pressure to have your own children. I always get the feeling that people feel sorry for me for having missed out on this very very most awesomest thing that anyone could have produced in their life, as if it’s some sort of trophy they’ve won in the race for a complete life and I’m an emotional pauper to be pitied. It’s not conscious, but it’s an underlying vibe spilling out of almost every aspect of the American subconscious.

    I think it would be so cool if we had more of a tribal mentality where kids weren’t quite so proprietary and those without kids could be more involved the lives of the children in their community, giving the kids a different perspective and their parents some much needed rest, and themselves a chance to be involved in raising the next generation of humans without adding to the total numbers. As with everything else, whether it’s land, possessions, or spirituality, if we weren’t so individualistic and fearful of loss or disappointment about everything, I truly think we could not only rebuild this out-of-balance world we have created but our broken spirit.


    • Thank you so much for your comments, Sven.

      Yes, as soon as I realized the extent of my ambivalence around my kids, in the next moment, I realized it’s existence in many other areas of my life. The pressure, as you say, to be happy and agreeable, and I would add, grateful, IS immense. And while those things are valid in their own right, I know for myself that I can’t fully FEEL those things unless I also give voice to the darker feelings.

      I really hear you about the pressure to have your own children. I’ve never understood the mentality of shaming others because they don’t have children. Having children is NOT the end-all-be-all of human experience – just one option – and choosing to not have kids is a choice that I applaud because it requires conscious effort and maturity, neither of which are required to become a parent…sigh.

      I appreciate that you brought up the word individualistic. I think that idea, that we’re separate from one another, is the greatest fallacy in this world.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!


  4. melbaloha says:

    Naima, Spot on. Your literary expression about this is music to my ears, like the awesome hard Apocalypica edgy metal melodies.

    Thank you for putting your experience and feelings in these terms.


  5. I love the mention of dancing. Dancing is what keeps me balanced, connected to myself and with a means to express what I’m feeling in a safe way. I am blessed to have opportunities where I live to dance freely, expressing what I need to (I also continue to develop opportunities for others to move, including parents with children). In addition to helping with my own ambivalence, my own ever-changing emotional landscape, dancing with others also helps me to feel a little more connected with others. I, too, long for this idea of a village. Something I feel quite lacking in my busy urban setting where I live so close yet so far from my neighbours. May your sharing also help break down the barriers we find between one another and reconnect in real and honest ways.


    • I love knowing that Dancing is transformative and releasing in this way for you too! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – may deep connection become the norm rather than the exception for sure!


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