Palo Alto Weekly

- January 28, 2011

Mindful maternity

Local psychiatrist tackles tough issues for women

by Karla Kane "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood" Barbara Almond; University of California Press; 265 pp

After nearly 40 years of treating patients in her private psychiatry practice, Palo Alto psychotherapist Barbara Almond came to a realization.

"All my female patients, past and present, had been or were ... dealing with guilt or shame about the quality of their mothering or their avoidance of motherhood."

Almond, a mother of three sons and professor emeritus at Stanford, decided to write her book, "The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood," to examine the guilt and shame many women, author included, have felt about their perceived mothering inadequacies, as well as what can happen when such feelings become dangerous in the extreme.

In "The Monster Within," Almond probes the issue of maternal ambivalence (mixed feelings toward parenting, motherhood and one's children) and suggests that problems stem not so much from the existence of ambivalence but rather from trying to pretend such feelings are abnormal or should not exist in "good" mothers.

"It is my purpose to explore and understand the spectrum of maternal ambivalent feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and where possible to see them for the normal, inevitable, and ubiquitous phenomena they are," she states. Her secondary purpose is to encourage women to be able to discuss such feelings openly, such as in a therapy environment, safe from judgment.

As suggested in the title, she also argues that there is a connection between concepts of motherhood and monstrosity — be it in a pregnant woman's fears of delivering a "monster" child or in cultural stereotypes of cruel, evil mothers.

"We expect everything from mothers, and excuse little," Almond says. She discusses the incredible amount of pressure put on women to not only become mothers but to be perfect at it, causing many to feel inadequate. Some overcompensate, becoming "too good," smothering or controlling. Some become the stereotypical "stage mother," over-involved with their kids' lives, while some shy away from motherhood altogether. In the worst cases, some take their inability to cope out on their children, such as Andrea Yates, who famously drowned all five of her young kids.

Much of Almond's case studies comes from her own patients, their names changed to protect their identities. These women express their fears about pregnancy, birth and childrearing and, while their individual issues differ, they share a sense of dread that they won't be able to be perfect, or even good-enough mothers and are therefore unbearably flawed.

In her analysis, Almond often connects the women's issues over motherhood with problems in their own childhood and relationships with their parents.

She writes from the perspective of a classic psychoanalyst and those skeptical of Freudian theory may find themselves rolling their eyes at such assertions that a patient's "disruptions in her early relationship with her mother intensified her passionate Oedipal attachment to her father." However she also writes with clear compassion and concern for her patients, which shines through her writing.

Many mothers, she says, fear giving birth or creating a monster child (a literal "monster within"), whether it be a physical "monster" (deformed or unhealthy in someway) or a child with monstrous behavior or a "bad" personality.

Some of her most interesting insights come from the sections on monster figures in literature and popular culture. Cases of maternal ambivalence turn up often in literature, Almond argues, including in such monster classics as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." She analyzes the life of "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley, who grew up motherless.

Almond argues that Shelley's issues over her mother's death soon after childbirth and a complicated relationship with her father are reflected in her novel about a scientist creating a monstrous "child."

Maternal ambivalence is dealt with in more modern tales too, such as "Rosemary's Baby" (in which a mother unwittingly births the child of Satan) and "We Need to Talk About Kevin" (involving a mother's inability to love her troubled and dangerous son).

While authors can tackle such issues in works of fiction, in real life, most mothers feel too ashamed to even discuss the resentment they sometimes feel toward their children or role as mothers.

"What we love we can also lose. What we lose causes us pain ... it is amazing how much of a taboo the negative side of ambivalence carries in our culture," Almond says.

Her message, ultimately, is that women and society should not be ashamed of their ambivalent feelings but rather seek to understand, work through and accept them. If such feelings are recognized and women better supported, she argues, both mothers and children will benefit immensely.

Almond argues that to some degree negative feelings toward motherhood are not only universal but perfectly healthy, as they can promote creativity and necessary separation between mother and child. It is the attempts to marginalize such feelings as "forbidden" that have a negative impact on both mothers and their children, she says. If the aforementioned Andrea Yates, for instance, had received adequate support and therapy, could her children have been saved their gruesome fate?

"The Monster Within" is recommended reading for any woman struggling with motherhood and feeling they are alone in their plight. It's recommended, too, for anyone who might be quick to judge a mother for being less than perfect.

Editorial assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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