The Emotional Struggle of being a Parent

Volcanic feelings of love and hate are part of being a parent: it's dangerous to pretend otherwise.

A playground on a winter’s day. A father pushes a toddler on a swing, a dead look in his eyes. On the climbing frame, twins jostle each other; their mother stands underneath, issuing warnings. I see only one adult smiling, but then she’s talking to her friend. There’s nothing revelatory about parents wishing they were anywhere but the playground. What is striking is how few will admit to feelings of ambivalence towards their children.

Parental ambivalence is one of the last taboos, yet is as old as mythology itself. Think how many fairytales begin with children cast out, such as Hansel and Gretel abandoned in a wood, or Snow White condemned to death by her stepmother. In modern usage, ambivalence often means having mixed feelings about someone; as developed by psychoanalysis, ambivalence refers to the fact that, in a single impulse, we can feel love and hate for the same person.

It’s a potent, unpalatable idea. Yet, as any honest parent will tell you, this is often how it feels. Speak of it, though – as Lionel Shriver did in We Need to Talk about Kevin, (2003) – and you face criticism from those who would rather not believe that parents can harbour such feelings. Part of the reason must be that we live in a society in which, according to the NSPCC, one in four young adults is ‘severely maltreated’ during childhood. If we acknowledge that we, too, have less than loving feelings towards our children, does this mean we could be abusers?

Societal pressure exacerbates the situation. ‘Congratulations!’ friends say, on learning news of pregnancy. We may be pleased, but also aware of the pressure to have an adoring relationship with our baby. Motherhood is credited, in the words of Rozsika Parker, author of Torn in Two, a study of maternal ambivalence, with being able to ‘satisfy a woman’s longing for union’. But what if, Parker writes, a mother doesn’t ‘experience a joyful sense of love and oneness’? ‘Some do but many don’t,’ she says. ‘The nineteenth-century tradition of presenting a new mother with a pin cushion bearing pins arranged to spell out the words “Welcome Little Stranger” was in many ways a more appropriate representation of the state of affairs.’ 

How much harder to admit ambivalence when you’ve been through IVF or spent years being grilled by an adoption agency. The high incidence of post-natal depression in the UK, where three in ten mothers are said to be afflicted, cannot be unrelated to the pressure on mothers to deny their ambivalence. Donald Winnicott, who spent a lifetime working with families, understood why the mother’s scales of ambivalence might tip towards hate. The baby, he wrote, ‘is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth’, he ‘is an interference with her private life’ and he ‘is ruthless, treats her as…a slave’ (Winnicott, 1949: 201).

Then there is the effect of the arrival of a third party on a couple’s relationship. Nora Ephron saw the birth of a baby as like ‘throwing a hand grenade into a marriage’. Lionel Shriver’s mother warned her that motherhood would ‘completely transform’ her relationship. ‘Though she did not spell it out,’ Shriver writes, ‘there was no question that she meant for the worse’ (Shriver, 2005). When mothers admit to ambivalence, as Rachel Cusk did in her memoir A Life’s Work, they are attacked as irresponsible. And so we enter parenthood oblivious to the demands ahead.

Estela Welldon, author of Mother, Madonna, Whore, says that the trend to have children later in life can trigger hostility. ‘For people these days, having children is a big investment. They often give up part of their careers. The parents are investing a lot, and they expect a lot in return.’ If the return is not forthcoming, hostility may not be far away. Hostility can also be triggered when we are made to face things we’d rather not. Before having children, it is possible to think of ourselves as patient and tolerant. Parenthood strips us of these illusions.

The problem is not that we feel ambivalent, but that we deny it. We soon cease to know what is appropriate anger and what is dangerous hostility. Through anxiety, we try to repress all negativity in ourselves and in our children. As Welldon cautions: ‘The important thing is that children of whatever age feel they have the right to express feelings of hostility and anger. The more they try to repress it, the more it will explode into action.’

What can psychoanalysis teach us? A hypothetical example; Sadie’s mother died giving birth, and she was raised by her father. To make him happy, Sadie repressed whatever negativity she felt. When her boyfriend left her with two young children, rather than express her rage, she made an attempt on her life. She found it difficult to tolerate negativity from her children and, during therapy, found it hard to express hostile feelings towards her counsellor, although she would routinely ‘forget’ to come to her session after a break. Gradually she became more overt in her hostility towards her counsellor. As she discovered that he could survive her antagonism, she became more assertive at home, and her children began to calm down.

As Estela Welldon puts it, ‘We are not therapists so that people can love us. People need to be able to not like us. People slam doors at me, they shout at me. I facilitate their expression of their anger.’ Once we have said how angry we are, we are less likely to do harm and more likely to draw appropriate boundaries with our children.

Donald Winnicott told how he and his wife looked after a nine-year-old boy with a history of violence and truancy. When the boy became violent, Winnicott said, he ‘engendered hate in me’. The fact that Winnicott allowed himself to acknowledge this meant that he was able to contain his own impulses to retaliate. ‘Did I hit him? The answer is no, I never hit. But I should have had to have done so if I had not known all about my hate and if I had not let him know about it too’ (Winnicott, 1949: 200).

Winnicott claims that the analyst, like the mother, must be able to hate as well as love his patients: ‘However much he loves his patients he cannot avoid hating them and fearing them, and the better he knows this the less will hate and fear be the motives determining what he does to his patients’ (Winnicott, 1949: 195). If we deny our hate, we become risky to others. Becoming aware of our destructive impulses can bring on guilt-driven depression, but guilt can spur us to do better. In the end, our children will survive our hate, just as they will survive our love.

In the Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Three Languages’, the father, enraged by his son’s refusal to obey, orders his servants to kill the boy. The servants disobey, and the son survives. This may be the Grimm way of saying that we are not as destructive as we fear. If that’s the case, perhaps we need be less afraid of admitting our ambivalence.


Cusk, R (2001). A Life’s Work. London: Fourth Estate

Parker, R (1995). Torn in Two. London: Virago

Shriver, L (2003). We Need to Talk about Kevin. London: Serpent’s Tail

Shriver, L (2005). ‘Why ruin your life?’ The Guardian, 18 February 2005

Welldon, E (1988). Mother, Madonna, Whore. London: Free Association Books

Winnicott, D (1949). ‘Hate in the Countertransference’. Chapter XV in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (1958). London: The Hogarth Press

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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