READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

There is no room in our contemporary ideal for ambivalence or emotional discomfort; our insistence on the breadth and depth of absolute mother love is itself absolute, except perhaps in the contemporary chat rooms of the Internet where the mothers of newborns and small children, cloaked in anonymity, express their frustrations to total strangers. Even loving mothers sometimes find themselves hobbled by the burden unconditional love imposes. As Lila confided, speaking of her sixteen-year-old daughter," I feel guilty when Sarah disappoints or angers me because, at those moments – and just for the briefest moment – I do love her less and it makes me feel awful." The vocabulary of mother love in our culture is supposed to be absolute.

It's been suggested, in fact, that our cultural enthronement of idealized mothering combined with an intolerance for any maternal ambivalence becomes a problem for every mother, whether she is loving or not. In fact, Rozsika Parker has suggested that in denying those experiences in motherhood which inevitably evoke maternal ambivalence, we also miss the possibility that feelings of ambivalence can be a creative source for the mother to attain new understanding of her child. It is, as she writes, " the troubling co-existence of love and hate that propels a mother into thinking what goes on between herself and her child." It's probably not an accident that Adrienne Rich's groundbreaking book, Of Woman Born, begins with a reflection of that ambivalence which every woman feels at one point or another in her life as a mother but is forced to deny, because of guilt or anxiety: "My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness." As Anne Roiphe writes in Fruitful, "Every mother knows, even if she cannot consciously admit it, that she doesn't always love her child and the desire to be free of the baby rises, hardly acknowledged, there at the edge of the mind, in the bad dream, the excessive anxiety, the overprotectiveness that disguises angry wishes."

Mother love is also assumed to arc seamlessly through all the stages of life the child and the mother experience—denying that the parenting skills required for a toddler and a teenager are indeed very different. Our dependence on "the instinct" of mother love refuses to take into account communication skills or personality even though what experts call "goodness of fit" is a component in every mother-child relationship (and every father-child relationship as well.)

There's no room in this view for conflict. Yet, as Laurence Steinberg has written, the coincidence of certain life stages – a daughter's adolescence and her mother's entry into midlife, for example – can often provoke a crisis for the mother, one with deep and far-reaching implications. Similarly, the potential conflict between an adult daughter's choices and those her mother made is rarely addressed. Our ideal of motherhood steadfastly denies competition or jealousy, despite evidence to the contrary.

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