No, I don’t want to read Thomas the Tank Engine with you: owning my maternal ambivalence

This is a selfie of a woman who is in touch with her maternal ambivalence.

About halfway through the production, R. started screaming. I could tell from the start that he was uneasy with all the puppets and people and singing, but I was hoping he’d hold it together till the end. No such luck. I picked him up and dashed down the stairs, leaving behind the friend who had kindly treated us to the show and her toddler (who was very much enjoying the production and wasn’t overwhelmed). We got outside and I validated R. feelings- the usual reflecting back his upset and tears and offering affirmation and reassuring him that we didn’t need to go back inside. But I also felt it was important to do something quite taboo in our culture. I let him in on my own ‘maternal ambivalence’. I told him I was feeling a little embarrassed that we had to leave halfway through the show.

I have had to work quite hard to make ‘I’ statements like this. It takes allot of courage to own feelings that are not culturally sanctioned. Hatred, jealousy, rage and embarrassment are just a handful of the taboo feelings that parents are shamed for experiencing in relation to their children. It is more culturally acceptable to lapse into withdrawn, moody silence or harshly tell a child off than to admit to having a shadow self. It takes guts to say, ‘I would personally like to go back inside and stay for the show, although I know you feel differently about this situation.’ I have tried recently to make my own feelings and needs visible, to give them as much of a platform as I give my sons feelings. For so many reasons, some personal, some cultural, it can be really really hard to validate my experience, to be one other (discordant!) voice in the room. I know I am not alone in this struggle to be present, vulnerable and authentic in this way.

Parenting is one of the most intense emotional experiences of my life thus far. This vignette from the theatre is but one example of the daily brushes with my shadow self. Although I’m often not proud of these feelings, I wonder how much of my struggle to acknowledge my shadow self is a culturally sponsored projection? Perhaps my son can cope with, or even benefit from knowing his mother experiences and metabolises these ‘dark’ feelings. Perhaps they are not shameful in themselves, perhaps if I do the labour of compassionately, mindfully giving them space to buck and rear all they like in myself, they are not burdensome to my son. He is not implicated. He doesn’t need to fix me or cheer me up. (He’s not yet enmeshed and co dependent!) I’m the one doing the emotional labour.

In contrast, the other relational possibility, when I’m in the welter of these feelings, is moody, tight lipped absorption as I tell myself off in a fit of guilt induced repression, or maybe a sort of blaming R. for my feelings by telling him he shouldn’t make me feel embarrassed, or rolling my eyes as we walk down the stairs, dismissing his feelings with a shrug and ‘that’s not scary,’ or maybe a sort of enforced cheerfulness that flattens both of our misery.

All of these options force R. to take responsibility for my feelings. In terms of relational violence, I reckon passive aggressive communication, martyrdom or repressed emotion might be more destructive. Because then he is implicated. He has no choice but to do my emotional housekeeping for me. It becomes de facto his job to make sense of my mood if I don’t check in with myself. Anyone who has had to endure the confusion of a silent, moody parent knows the psychic scars this type of relating leads to. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a passive aggressive communication from a parent knows how confusion takes you hostage. It makes you reach out and ask, ‘what’s the matter?’ of the parent, makes you puzzle out the mood you’ve been saddled into dealing with, the mood that wasn’t yours to bear.

How much better for everyone if the kid is free to feel their own feelings and feel safe enough to let the parent feel and metabolise their own feelings.

Cultivating emotional ‘congruence’ in ourselves means our children do not have to be roped in to interpreting our feelings.

I don’t always feel the need to tell R. what I’m feeling. Sometimes it is enough for me to know. Sometimes all I need to do is name the feeling in myself and that puts a boundary around it. This is called emotional congruence, when we are in touch with what we are feeling, when we are aware enough to name and observe what Dan Siegel calls, ‘the sea inside.’ It’s harder than you think and it takes bravery.

Sometimes it is not enough to name the feelings for myself. If it impacts my actions, I tell R. my motives. I say shocking things. Like, I don’t want to read Thomas the tank engine with you because I don’t enjoy those stories, let’s find a book we both like and you can save those for story time with daddy who does enjoy reading Thomas with you. Or no, I don’t want to push you on the swing anymore, I’m getting bored and cold. Or I say, I don’t have much patience today so I’m going to interrupt your play and change your nappy now. This means sometimes R. is disappointed with me or frustrated and that I have to face the fact that I’m limited, not perfect, and I disappoint him sometimes and frustrate him and I have different capacities on different days. I’m a good enough mother, not a perfect one.

And I guess this exposes the bones of my value system. That I would rather raise a child who is comfortable with their authenticity in relationships, in experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion and who is comfortable shoring up against their own limits than raise a people- pleasing kid who thinks you have to mute certain feelings, that you’re not allowed to feel certain feelings, that some feelings are more valid than others and you must be all things for all people all the time. That was me as a child. I’ve spent allot of time and money unleashing my inner Wild Woman. I definitely prefer the limited-but-authentic version of me.

So. He learns this lesson when I validate his feelings, but he also learns this by watching me digest and feel my own difficult ‘shadow self’ feelings. And that means sometimes I say shocking things to him- so far he seems pretty unperturbed by my dreaded ‘maternal ambivalence.’ Maybe I’ll carry on eating my normal human emotion and indulging in the full spectrum of felt experience since nobody seems to be suffering.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

For more great insights about digesting female anger and shadow selves, check out Women who run with Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I am in the process of reading everything Dan Siegel has ever written, he’s a bit of a dude. But the quote about ‘seeing the sea inside’ is from his fabulous book, ‘Mindsight.’

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