Many mothers long to be the perfect mother who meets all her baby’s needs perfectly. Is this realistic? Is it healthy? This article suggests that ambivalent (love and hate) feelings towards infants is healthy and is an inevitable part of mothering. Ordinary mothers at times feel negative feelings towards their babies. Freud believed that mixed feelings are an inevitable part of all intimate, durable human relationships.
I want to quote Joan Raphael-Leff: “I want to stress that all primary carers of whatever sex and age find parenting difficult, especially in societies-in-transition where extended families are dispersed and child rearing traditions eroded. Being constantly attentive and attuned to the needs of someone else for whom one has total responsibility at all times is a daunting task. In addition to broken nights, dream deprivation and exhaustion, a biological mother also contends with hormonal fluctuations, recovery from labour exertions and possible birth damage.” It is normal for mothers to sometimes feel negative feelings of irritation and frustration.
Some women long very much to be the perfect mother to their perfect babies. This can be understood when the mother’s own childhood and experiences of mothering (when the mother was a baby) was very disappointing. The mother now unconsciously identifies with her baby (she puts herself in the baby’s position) and tries to meet the baby’s every need – unconsciously trying to compensate for what she (the mother) missed out on. She devotes herself to the baby gratifying every wish of the baby. The mother gains satisfaction by identifying with the baby to whom she now tries to give perfect care. The risk for these mothers is that they feel incredible guilt and despair about minor imperfections and lapses in the care they give their babies. This can cause the mother to be anxious, depressed and feel excessive guilt. These mothers may easily feel as if they are bad mothers. They want to give their babies all the care, devotion and love they did not receive adequately. By trying to meet their babies’ needs perfectly they indirectly meet their own needs. It is healthy for a mother to long to be a good mother, but when this longing becomes extreme and is unconsciously driven to meet the mother’s own unmet needs (and not necessarily the baby’s needs) it become unhealthy. The mother struggles to own her normal mixed feelings toward her child and tends to deny her anger, frustration and irritation. This can cause anxiety and depression in the mother and as the child grows he/she is protected from normal angry reactions from his/her mother. When mothers try to be so perfect they may also hope that their children will be perfect and feel excessive guilt when their children experience struggles or failures.
The opposite reaction to mothering is when mothers experience their babies as exploiting them. They may experience their babies as inexplicably demanding and critical. These mothers may try to regulate their babies with strict routines. In extreme situations these mothers are at risk of experiencing their babies in such a negative way that they think of harming their infant. These mothers may not be ready to take on the task of mothering a baby. The mother’s own needs may not have been met well when she was a baby and she may now experience the baby as too demanding and overwhelming her own resources. When women hate themselves they may hate their babies who are seen as an extension of themselves.
Some mothers fluctuate between trying to be the perfect mother and rebelling against the demands of having a baby. This can cause very inconsistent “hot and cold” parenting that can do great damage when extreme. At times the young child is very loved and experienced as perfect and at other times, particularly when something goes wrong, the parent swings to the opposite emotions of total hated, extreme disappointment or rejection. Basic trust and a sense of security and consistency do not develop in the infant.
It is most helpful to the mother and the baby if a mother can tolerate her own negative feelings (without excessive guilt) as well as the negative feelings of the baby (without excessive negativity toward the baby). Understanding your baby, your own parents and the difficulties of parenting helps with this attitude. These mothers do not over-identify with their babies (thus trying to meet their own unmet needs through their babies). The attitude of the mother is one of empathy for her baby. The mother has compassion for her baby’s needs, but can distinguish between her own needs and that of the baby. She is aware of the baby being separate and different from her. This attitude is hard work and often mothers need to first understand themselves, their own mothers and their own unmet needs before they can succeed with this attitude.
(This article is based on the research of Professor Joan Raphael-Leff, a psychoanalyst and an academic. She is Visiting Professor at the University of Stellenbosch.)