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?
Fourteen years ago my husband and I had a child. I wanted her more than anything in the world and was consumed with getting pregnant. After my daughter was born my husband and I felt filled, completed by the three of us and so we didn’t have any more kids.
Early on a few of my friends after hearing my motherhood horror stories decided the reason I wanted only one child was because I had postpartum depression, because I didn’t love being a stay at home mom despite being grateful that I had the choice in the first place, because my labor and delivery was long and off the charts painful, but that next time, they said – things would be different.
But hoping for different doesn’t feel like the best reason to have a child, does it?
The Duggar Family: What size is the right size?
When I think about the controversy with the Duggar family, (“19 and Counting”) I wonder, beyond the obvious issue of overpopulation why people feel so strongly about how many kids is the right amount?
Most people agree that bringing little ones into the world if parents can’t love and care for them to the highest level isn’t in a child’s best interest — but barring that, how many kids should someone have?
Is there some exact recipe like if you don’t add enough salt to your soup it’s missing something, add too much and you’ve ruined the whole batch?
When my daughter was around three, the age when people begin to ask when number two is coming, the questions about why we weren’t growing our family were for the most part few and far between. People nowadays generally assume a singleton family stays that way because a couple can’t have more kids — not because they choose to.
Women who have one child by choice don’t readily admit it although I have many times because it’s just simply part of who I am. I think it’s hard for some people to wrap their head around the idea that having one child can be just as motherly and nurturing and fulfilling as having two. Maybe it looks like we’ve left some unfinished business or that we’ve thumbed our noses at our biological imperative women have.
But with deeper inspection behind the argument that bringing more and more kids into a stable loving home is the mark of selflessness, I feel compelled to point out that having kids, biologically or adopting for the right reason is what gets my selfless vote, that is – having kids because you have an unquenchable desire to add the love of a child to your already stable and loving relationship.
Michelle Duggar keeps having kids, I’m happy with one.
Our extremes defy the norm for what some people think is best for kids which is seems like at least one sibling but not too many.
People assume an only child misses out on what only a sibling can give (it’s true they do) and that each subsequent Duggar is exponentially less likely to receive the same amount of parental attention (that’s true too).
But kids can get love and attention from the “village” that surrounds them whether they’re short on siblings or short on parent time.
I won’t debate why the Duggars shun birth control and insist on having so many kids, I understand it’s for religious reasons. Despite our very, very different points of view on who should orchestrate reproduction, the Duggar’s seem remarkably happy. Either they fake it well or the show’s editor is masterful at depicting a balanced family.
Admittedly the Duggars get proceeds from the show, and exploitation is a fair argument against having reality shows with kids, but from my sense this group is no more dysfunctional than the average family, and some might say, they seem even happier.
I prefer, which is not to say I’m right, having kids be mostly well thought-out, but I’d never suggest “surprise” kids aren’t loved as deeply as planned ones.
But what we mostly ignore when we say want want only the best for kids as a whole is that the best is first an issue of intention.
Intention is best for kids.
It’s the purpose behind having twenty children, one or none that honors kids. Do we have kids to fill ourselves, to mend a marriage to heal an emotional void? Or do we have kids to add exponential beauty to what is already healthy in our lives?
We’re still new at sorting out what having children means in this country. Our identity as women is still largely informed by our biological ability to have kids, to have one or to have six. Making babies has been hard-wired into our human survival so I understand it might take another half century or so to evolve to the point where we won’t feel our species is threatened if a percentage of the female population opts out entirely, or has one child.
But I have to think there’s no set formula for what makes a woman maternal enough. Women who want kids get their fill with different amounts of mothering– but there is a clear and painfully obvious formula for what makes an entirely bad mother.
One child or twenty
My husband and I started our family when I turned 31. I knew when I was 19 I’d need some form of infertility intervention, diagnosed at the time with a benign pituitary disorder called Empty Sella Syndrome. This meant Mother Nature would need a little kick in the pants (or in my case injections in the butt) with super hormones if I wanted to have kids. Not one to hail from the school of “if kids ares meant to be they will be” I decided, my child WOULD be — no matter what.
Carl and I went to my long time endocrinologist and after hormone injections and regular monitoring I got pregnant the first month — record time by infertility standards. In our first consultation I asked the doctor what my chances were of conceiving if I wanted one or two kids and he said it was as high or nearly as high as any woman’s on any given month.
Because I was adopted and never met my biological parents my craving to have a child of my own flesh was primal and ferocious. Whatever it took, for however long, for whatever amount of money in whatever country, I would do anything legal to have my own, and given my mindset at the time I probably would have skated on the legal fringes if it came down to it.
Failing wasn’t an option — while I totally supported adoption for other people, there was no plan B. There’s a kind of blind madness behind maternal drive, and yet women who don’t have this in my opinion, aren’t mad. Our conviction to opt out of having kids, to have one or twenty is equally irrepressible, equally non-negotiable.
Michelle Duggar and I: Two different moms, same love
The first time I watched the Duggars on their reality show “17 and Counting” (at the time) I remember wondering beyond the obvious head-scratcher why a woman would ever want to go through childbirth seventeen times and raise that many kids. I self-righteously assumed such an enormous group of kids from parents who clearly bred offspring like puppies had to be really messed up.
But to assume a family as big as the Duggars is seething with emotionally neglected kids and middle-child syndromes is as prejudicial as believing a family with one child is missing something.
Extreme family sizes make us want to re-calibrate to the middle, to adjust the dimensions of another parent’s life to come closer to ours, and so reinforce what we think to be right.
Years back a friend of mine was grocery shopping and saw a frantic mother trying to get her three kids who were running between the aisles to settle down. My friend remarked that she totally understood because she had three of her own at home, the woman said, “Yeah, it’s like those moms with one child aren’t really parents.”
Is it because of the discomfort of our mixed emotions, that squirrely motherhood ambivalence — that we adore our kids but hate the grind, that we sling arrows at a family that doesn’t match ours?
The number of children Michelle Duggar and I have are driven by the same intention — because of what defines us, because of what we feel kids deserve, both of us immune to the parameters society sets.
I’d guess Michelle and I both feel kids spring from a powerful power — mine from a spiritual place within that’s been quenched by my daughter, hers from a force above that perhaps wants more.
At first I was drawn to the Duggar family because I was fascinated with their bizarre world, and then because I liked watching them. What goes on in their lives when the camera’s aren’t watching, what level of function or dysfunction sits in their family compared to mine is impossible to say, but small family or enormous — the intention is the love that fills the household.
It’s natural for new parents to settle in at home with their baby, to “cocoon,” too exhausted to go out and too anxious to leave their child with a babysitter or even trusted parents and in-laws.
As priorities re-order couple time often gets pushed aside. Yet often putting the marriage on the back-burner becomes a permanent pattern in the family and over time, the relationship suffers, the kids notice.
Children can sense when their parents begin to seem emotionally distant. The unspoken hostility, (or spoken), the disconnect between the couple creates a family “climate” that can feel off-balance. This marital “gap” can start very gradually (see my post on divorces due to “low conflict” marriages) and over time widen into a great relationship chasm.
And it’s really no surprise.
New mothers rarely have the time, energy or interest to do much more than keep up with the growing demands of their baby and new demands. In addition a new mother’s body and biochemistry is often still re-adjusting which affects mood, stamina and sleep.
Sleep understandably becomes mom’s best friend, watching television the easiest and least expensive entertainment. Exhaustion and the added responsibilities of combing parenting with all other aspects of her life, particularly for a woman whose husband doesn’t share her load, can begin to create quiet, simmering disconnect in the marriage. The husband’s might begin to feel resentful that while he and his wife are deeply grateful, and the baby is the new love of his life, the baby also takes center stage, replacing the attention, intimacy and connection he once shared with his wife.
As a result, I suggest new parents begin re-connecting as soon as possible, starting small, but making a mindful effort to nurture their relationship from time to time.
What’s Good for the Parents is Good for the Children
“Kids whose parents’ relationship has cooled are more likely to have behavioral or academic problems than kids of happy couples,” says Philip Cowan, PhD, in the Parents.com article “Happy Parents, Happy Kids.
“Dr. Cowan and his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD. have studied families for decades “Even if you can’t see yourself going out on a date for yourselves, do it for your kids,” says Dr. Cowan.
And while there’s no timetable for when new parents should get their marriage back on track particularly because the physical and life transition can feel different for each woman, there are simple ways couples can gradually begin to re-ignite their pre-baby relationship.
Making an effort to make the marriage as important as parenting sets the priorities for the future of the relationship, particularly once the kids are out of the house and the couple faces an empty nest.
Dating Again: Bistro in a Bag for Nervous First Time Parents
While spit up and dirty diapers are hardly props for a romantic evening, even small sporadic moments can help couples re-connect. At home date nights, while not ideal when a child is young and in constant need of attention, can set the stage for couples to put their relationship as priority.
It doesn’t take much to create a spontaneous romantic setting if the baby is asleep. Parents can set up the following in a pleasant area of the home such as the front or back porch or on a blanket in the family room by the fire.
The at home date night might include:
- Table cloth
- Small blanket (for picnic style)
- Two elegant placemats and cloth napkins
- Candle in a protected candle holder (aromatherapy is ideal)
- Lighter Small FM radio or CD player
- Relaxing, upbeat or romantic CD
- Flowers from the garden, or inexpensive bouquet from the grocery store
- Soothing or energetic aromatherapy air spray.
A no-hassle delectable plate of finger foods can be an easy and fun dinner, raw veggies, frozen appetizers, cheese, salami, crackers, crusty breads with dips, olives, essentially an Italian antipasto platter that makes for a flavorful, interesting meal with easy clean up.
“Relationship re-entry” as I call it, is reason enough to pull out the good china, letting the dirty dishes soak overnight, taking a break from clean up. Even small efforts like these that put the focus back on couple time, while seeming impractical for parents trying to juggle a baby, send a message to the brain, “our relationship matters.”
No matter what the couple does for an at home or outside date night, the point is to put the focus back on the relationship on a regular basis. If going out for wine and a gourmet meal or setting an elegant table at home isn’t what feels right, then taquitos and takeout with some good conversation is fine. It’s not what the couple does, only that from time to time, they focus on each other.
Flexible Fondue for Home Date Night
Who doesn’t love food drenched in melted cheese or rich chocolate? Fondue offers a convenient way for parents to create an impromptu romantic dinner that can hold up to interruptions. Baby starts to cry? Turn off the pot and re-light later.
Inexpensive fondue pots are available online or at local discount retailers (sometimes these are only seasonal during the holidays). Dippers can be very inexpensive and include anything that tastes good covered in cheese or chocolate (almost everything), a loaf of crusty French bread broken it into bites, some cauliflower and broccoli florets, sliced carrots, pretzels, strawberries, mini brownies etc.
Pre-made cheese and chocolate fondue packages are available at most grocery stores and while the cheese packets can be pricey, it’s easier and more affordable than buying the assorted grated cheeses, wine, and Kirsch (often used in fondue) and trying to mix the perfect pot.
Regular Communication Keeps Parent Connected
Parents often move to autopilot, moving from day-to-day, joyful and appreciative for their child and each other, yet unaware of what they may be leaving behind, communication and couple time. One of the most important habits new parents can adopt for their family’s long-term emotional health is to regularly talk about how they feel.
Ideally couples might try sitting down once a week, putting on calm music and talking, disconnecting cell phones, letting the answering machine pick up, because while the world can wait, the relationship can’t. If parents get interrupted because the baby is awake or needs attention, the effort alone sends a positive message to the couple and over time, to the children. Kids who see their parents making their own relationship as important as the children’s', receive, in my personal opinion, powerful and positive messaging.
As the family grows and the demands exponentially increase, making couple time a regular priority becomes a juggling game and a matter of choice, but doing so is critical to maintain a healthy long-term marriage.
Couples should try to keep the conversation honest yet non-defensive and constructive, steering away from “You never, you always” and instead explain what he/she appreciates, then what they need. For example mom might say, ”I really appreciate that you do (x,y,z) and you’re a phenomenal dad, but when you come home from work and want to decompress and I’ve been with the baby all day I need you to either take over with her, make dinner or pick up dinner so that I can get some time to myself, go for a walk, whatever.”
Couples Benefit from Informal Climate Survey
One way to foster positive communication that’s a little more goal-oriented is to do an informal “climate survey” after the baby is about three to six months old, when the massive changes begin to settle into a “new normal.” A climate survey is a process companies use to measure employee satisfaction and to spot potential red flags. And while it sounds formal, the concept is something I use to simply describe couples making a habit of touching base with each other, with getting a feel for the overall tone in their family.
To begin, parents ask each other how they generally feel in their lives, then about their expectations and short and long-term goals, noting how these areas have changed since becoming parents. Some questions might include:
- “How do you feel physically and mentally?” (Mom needs to pay special attention to her physical and emotional health).”
- “What has surprised you about the changes that come with parenting? What are your unexpected joys and disappointments?”
- “What realistic changes can I/you/we make?”
Couples should strive to be non-defensive and completely honest. They should avoid statements like “You always, you never” and instead say “I feel that” and “I would really appreciate if.” The goal isn’t to sugarcoat, stuff feelings or to avoid conflict, but rather to foster communication in a non-defensive manner, to provide useful constructive feedback for the health of the marriage, and to build a solid family foundation based on regular communication.
While re-igniting the marriage after a new baby is inherently challenging as priorities dramatically shift, couples who take a gradual and realistic approach to reconnecting with each other as soon as possible, communicating regularly and creating date nights, are building a healthy dynamic and model for their relationship and for their children’s future relationships.
Children only know what they see and what they sense. Twenty years from now will your kids see a parents who were (for the most part), emotionally connected or parents who were living under the same roof but slowly drifting apart, parents who lived for the lives of their kids, but forgot about the life of their marriage?
Robinson, Holly. “Happy Parents, Happy Kids,” Parents.com (accessed March 2, 2010).
Photo credit: Photostock
Copyright Laura Owens. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
It’s not big explosive conflicts such as a spouse cheating or an addiction that finally comes to head that destroy most marriages.
Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Under-sexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules (Harper),says it’s “low conflict marriages,” the low simmering erosion of the relationship that leads to couples calling it quits.
In an article published by Tribune papers, “Till tedium do us part,” (September 1, 2011), Heidi Stevens writes:”Up to 60 percent of divorces in the United States, in fact, stem from “low-conflict” marriages, Haag writes in her book, citing a study by marriage researcher Paul Amato.
Marriages that aren’t marred by abuse, addiction, repeated infidelity or other “high-conflict” issues, in other words, actually account for the majority of divorces.” Edward M. Hallowell, director of the Massachusetts-based Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health and co-author of Married to Distraction: How to Restore Intimacy and Strengthen Your Partnership in an Age of Interruption (Ballantine Books) says there isn’t one tipping point that sends these low conflict marriages spiraling down, it’s a decline fueled, among other things, the perpetual noise, buzz and constant distraction couples face today.
“The ambient noise of life takes over,” Hallowell says. “There’s no big conflict; couples have just lost touch with each other, lost the fun, lost the moments of sustained attention because we live surrounded by this buzz.” Couples are so busy trying to keep up with their lives, bombarded by electronic, digital and day-to-day stimuli they hardly have the time or energy to notice their marital relationship is fading to the background.
The good news is that because these are low conflict issues the remedies aren’t complicated. Hallowell and his wife list 40 tips in their book, and reading over a few of the standouts Heidi Stevens listed in her article I’m reminded that the most useful solutions for resolving conflict seem to boil down to common sense and courtesy, that is once the issue comes to light.
Tips to tackle low simmering marital conflict
- Be attentive. Make an effort to tune in, ask your spouse how he/she is doing. Listening is caring and a sign of intimacy.
- Avoid eye-rolling and any sign of contempt as this fuels more of the same.
- Split labor into more “attractive” piles. If the wife doesn’t mind doing laundry (as much as her spouse hates it), but hates cleaning the kitchen to the nth degree, divide duties so she does more laundry and he does more kitchen duty.
- Take a half hour to talk about general things that don’t agitate. Leave out conversations about work, money, chores and conflicts. Connect with each other with light chatter that amuses or inspires, rather than agitates or stresses.
If you you have to ask, there might be a problem
Halwell recalls thinking after a woman asked him if it was bad that her spouse left his Blackberry next to them while they were having sex, “I don’t know which is odder. That he’s doing it or that you have to ask.” My list in life of “If you really have to ask that, you probably already know the answer” could go on for sometime, and this one clearly makes the cut.
When an electronic device is spooning you, you might need to unplug the device, and plug in yourself.
In truth I see signs I need to monitor in myself but nothing like having my Iphone perched on my pillow. My husband and I sit on the porch each weekend listening to music and drinking coffee and wine into the wee hours, yakking up life from A to Z. This is a ritual we’ve done for decades but without any hand-held devices to distract us from the music or our conversation.
Back B.E.D.D (Before Electronic Diversion Disorder) our entertainment on the porch was our chatter and cassettes, then it became CDs, then the radio, now our Ipod. Somewhere along the way, my Iphone and Ipad made it’s way onto our porch. NOW relaxing into the early part of the evening, we sometimes kick back in our chairs with our Iphones glued to our faces and get silent for up to an hour. I’m not sure how that’s connecting, except that we’re in the same room, listening to the same music, sharing the same air.
Fortunately if I get swept into email, websites or Facebook (which I’m more likely to do than my husband), he pulls me back, unphased that I was mentally disconnected, guilty of his own Iphone app diversion, pages of ESPN or Fantasy football. When I read a book in bed, an actual hand held paper book, he reads sports articles on his Iphone which is fine with us because neither is interested in talking to the other when we’re tired, so the distractions of choice don’t disrespect us.
A little mindless digital distraction soothes, too much and in lieu of connecting through personal conversation and I can see symptoms surface for a slow simmering spiral down for a marriage.