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"The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood," by Barbara Almond

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By Carolyn See
Friday, October 22, 2010

THE MONSTER WITHIN

The Hidden Side of Motherhood

by Barbara Almond

Univ. of California. 265 pp. $27.50

First, let me recommend this engrossing study to every new mother, old mother, good mother and bad mother. Sons, husbands, dads and lovers might profit from reading this, too. "The Monster Within" addresses what everybody knows, but almost nobody talks about: Even the best mothers among us will be or have been tormented from time to time by strong feelings of dread, fear, hatred and even revulsion at the whole process of motherhood, as well as experiencing downright murderous feelings toward our children.

Right now, in life as we know it, in America, in the early part of the 21st century, this really is one of the last taboos. There is a consensus that at last we have figured out how to parent perfectly, and the corollary to this belief is that people who don't parent perfectly -- especially moms -- are morally just one shade away from being serial killers. The worst thing you can call a woman who has given birth to a child is a bad mother. Those are fighting words. The very worst.

To be a bad mother these days you don't need to feed your child refined sugar, go back to work too soon or talk on the phone when the kid is crying. Like President Carter lusting in his heart, all you have to do is think, however fleetingly, that your baby will hurt you, that you could die in childbirth, that children will keep you from advancing in your profession, that your husband will get bored with you, that your child will grow up to be unloved and unpopular or, at the very least, that he will never stop nursing, never stop crying, never stop making demands. Once you've entertained any of those thoughts, or any one of a thousand others, you're living over there on the dark side, in the country of the damned. You've become inhuman, unnatural, unworthy, disgusting to the core.

But in "The Monster Within," Barbara Almond tells us that such maternal ambivalence is common in every culture. Perhaps only in this one (again, America, at this point in time, among upper- and upper-middle-class women) is the stigma of negative thoughts about parenting so heinous.

Of course, women have perfectly good reasons for being skittish about the burdens of motherhood. Almond quotes the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: "The baby is a danger to [the mother's] body in pregnancy and at birth. He is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave. He is suspicious, refuses her good food, and makes her doubt herself, but eats well with his aunt. After an awful morning with him she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: 'isn't he sweet!' "

Almond is a psychoanalyst, that is to say, a traditional Freudian. To illustrate her theses, Almond uses examples from literature (Euripides, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, etc.), as well as anonymized case histories from among her own clients, who turn out to be a self-selected and specific cohort with a marked Freudian twist: well-educated women who want to find out the secrets of their unconscious minds and have enough money to afford traditional psychoanalysis, which often demands four or more appointments a week, appointments not usually covered by insurance. Almond offers good reasons for this extensive treatment, but still, by its very nature, it's not for all of us. And many readers will object to much of the old-time Freudian doctrine, with its relentless emphasis on penis envy and Oedipal moments. Despite these caveats, Almond comes across as a sensible healer, a woman not at all hung up on ideology.

She does subscribe to three Freudian precepts, however: that unhappiness stems first from problematic events in our childhood, then from other traumatic events that occur later in life, and finally because of our imperfect memories and our strong wish to forget. We fall prey, she writes, to "the paradoxical capacity of the human mind to not know -- to keep unpleasant or frightening thoughts and fantasies out of consciousness." In this way, Almond suggests, what we don't know can hurt us, and it's the task of the analyst to help us find all that out.

From her own files, for instance, Almond recounts the story of a mother driven to distraction by the incivility and ungraciousness of her beautiful teenage daughter, who treated her mother's serious illness with scorn. It turned out the daughter was just acting in what she thought were her own best interests, and the mother was suffering from a moderate case of unconscious envy. Almond found a way to accommodate both women and both points of view, allowing them to keep their dignity. In another chapter, Almond uses "Anywhere but Here," Mona Simpson's tortured but insightful account of a daughter pushed to her wits' end by her mother's smothering behavior, to show us that we're not the only ones to be laid low by dazzlingly irrational behavior.


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