Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mama Lit Review - The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood

Almond, Barbara. The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2010.

I purchased the brand spankin' new, only-available-in-hardcover release of The Monster Within by Barbara Almond with great anticipation. I have been rather preoccupied with social messaging regarding concepts of 'good' and 'bad' mothers lately, and greatly hoped that Almonds' work would do a good job of delving into the idea of the darker side of motherhood in a non-shaming, enlightening sort of way.  Almond both does and does not manage this task.

I should begin by explaining from the outset that Almond is a psychiatrist, and accordingly, this book is steeped in a psychoanalytic language and perspective which tends to speak of people and their experiences in terms of orderedness and disorderness, and which I personally find quite dehumanizing. This may very well not be an issue for other readers, but definitely was a detractor to fully engaging with this book for me.

Almond found that within her psychiatric practice, a recurring and powerful theme for female clients was profound senses of ambivalence about issues relating to mothering: whether or not to become mothers, fears surrounding pregnancy, and women with children wrestling with feelings of ambivalence towards their children, and about their roles as mothers. She contends that while maternal ambivalence towards their offspring is a normal, even inevitable occurence, social expectations around the achievement of perfection for mothers become more stringent all of the time, making coming to terms with maternal ambivalence a nearly impossible feat. She argues:
That mothers have mixed feelings about their children should come as no surprise to anybody, but it is amazing how much of a taboo the negative side of ambivalence carries in our culture, especially at this time. I believe that today's expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time become more unacceptable in society as a whole. (xiii)
Almond uses case studies from her practice and literary analysis to take on the considerable task of tracing maternal ambivalence from its most benign, common occurences through to its most serious and destructive forms, culminating with child murder and infanticide. Be forewarned, this makes the reading process somewhat discomfitting for mothers, in large part because due to the ubiquity of the experience of maternal ambivalence, it is impossible not to relate in some ways to the women on the more destructive and abusive ends of the mothering spectrum. Making these women's experiences reachable and accesible is one of the places where Almond's writing and perspective really tends to stand out.  But this particular strength doesn't necessarily make you feel like less of a 'monster.'

Unfortunately, it seems to be an enormously difficult task to write a book about mothering, even one that sets out to explore the more difficult and less palatable parts of mothering, without actually judging mothering and mothers. The judgements are subtle, but you can certainly tell where Almond's parenting beliefs lie.  She takes aim at attachment parenting in one chapter (using the most extreme example of attachment parenting ("...She pushed her beliefs too far" (41), and describes a mother going back to work 'too soon' in another (99).  In another case, examining a mother who experienced a traumatic, as well an an early return back to work post-birth,  Almond has this to say: "Both Hannah's grief and her absence at work represented a disruption in an otherwise loving mother-child relationship" (95, emphasis mine).  Too attached? Too detached? Too sad?  Back to work too soon?  What's a mama to do?!

There were also some moments here and there that I found to be quite jarring. In one such example, about a client who believed herself fat and ugly, Almond proclaims: "True, she was somewhat overweight and beautiful by conventional standards, but she was neither obese nor repellant in her appearence" (155, emphasis mine). And reference to how some women's frigidity is cured after childbirth (42), shocked me out of my read: are we really still using that one?

Moreover, though certainly a discussion of social and cultural barriers experienced by mothers, such a sexism, racism, class, sexual identity, ability, and so on, was not the purpose of Almond's exploration, it would have been refreshing to have some inclusion of how social power dynamics can impact people's experiences of mothering and ambivalence. Other than to acknowledge that this book relies mainly upon case studies involving middle-upper class women (because they are who comprise Almond's client base), in large part, this book treats mothers as a fairly homogenous group with similar experiences, focussing on difference mainly in terms of family of origin issues. And although she discusses women's ambivalence about having children, there is virtually no discussion about the immense pressure on women to have children whether or not they want to.

Despite not being all I'd hoped for, The Monster Within isn't without its good points. Her overarching discussion of maternal ambivalence as something that is present in all women (I'm going to qualify that with all women who choose to parent, even though Almond doesn't choose to make this distinction) helps to give voice to an issue that is still incredibly taboo. She relays her hopes that doing so will allow for a collective achievement of greater understanding, and of healthier overall ways of coping with our ambivalence. She does not exaggerate the pressures of maternal perfectionism, and I believe that any discussion of the more discomfitting side of motherhood that happens in a compassionate way is pretty darned important. 

(Okay - so it wasn't my favourite mama-read.  But don't let that stop you.  Give it a read and tell me what you think!  Maybe my expectations were too high going in...)


  1. Have your read We Need To Talk About Kevin?

  2. No - should I check it out?