Sitting on the Fence: Ambivalence and Motherhood

By Jessica Knippel


I’ve always been ambivalent about motherhood. Not in a militant, anti-patriarchal power dynamics sense, but in a much more subtle—and more personal—way.


As a child I was raised with dolls and dreams of marriage, yet in spite of all the “babies” I didn’t really play at motherhood. More often my play was about creating things or partnered relationships, or subtle subversion and explorations of queerness and aspects of the unknown adult landscapes of life. I think I played “prostitutes” more than mommy—which is a great story for another essay, on how a “good little Christian girl” and several different friends who were equally sheltered came up with a game about being sex workers.


But back to my tenuous relationship to motherhood.


Entering into my pre-teen years, my desire was fixated being partnered in someway—with motherhood being an afterthought. From that early age my core knew that it was partnership that I craved as a human being, not motherhood. I can remember being as young as 12,  with a deep acute ache to have a creative and life partner. So strong was this desire that it often became part of the problematic mental cocktail that fueled my teenage angst and undiagnosed major depressive disorder into dangerous spaces. And in turn, the constant battle with mental illness bread a strong ambivalence toward having a child.


Or maybe the origins are deeper, rooted in my complicated relationship with my parents, which I see now, through the lens of heavy therapy, as the log in the fire of my insecurity that it was. Or the insecurity of generations of women on my maternal side who, if given the options I had in life, might have chosen a different path, thereby eliminating me from the equation all together.


Or maybe it was because everyone seemed to think that I would make such a great mother, even before it occurred to me to ever want it myself. From the first time it first happened around 11 or 12, when a older woman at a restaurant thought I was my baby brother’s mom, my identity and desirability was attached not to my creative endeavors or personal abilities but to my relationship or potential relationship to dependent human beings.


This fact was compounded when in my early twenties “caregiving” specifically in the realm of childcare became my sustaining profession. This wasn’t because “I had always loved kids and wanted to be around them as much as possible” (not that I don’t enjoy children, when I get to give them back and walk away) but rather because caretaking was easy, I was good with children, and out of all my options coming out of college with a B.A. in theater and religious studies, nannying paid the best of any position I could acquire. Believe me I tried, time and time again, to escape into something else, but for those of us who can’t abide being in the same room all day staring at a computer screen or are unable to make the perfect latte, childcare can be a space that allows for other things in one’s life, such as multiple graduate degrees.


Additionally, as I was on the cusp of adulthood, 19 ½ to be exact, I lost my mother in a mountain pass with unexpected rapid snowfall in an almost fatal car accident. With the shattering of her body and being went all the things I had taken for granted and assumed, consciously or unconsciously, would happen in my life. (She remained alive, but the woman who mothered me for those previous years had been lost behind a totally different person, a specter of my mom.) And along with this difficult and life-altering experience swiftly rose my fears and irrational concerns about many things of life, with having children occupying center stage.


These fears were greater compounded as I journeyed with and watched friends enter into unexpected and expected pregnancies, and the struggles to have a child, biological or not. While rarely spoken of in the general public, I have seen close up, the cost of motherhood and one’s desire for it. I spent, with my housemates, a needle edge summer wondering if my dearest friend AJ would survive the freak infection she caught by donating eggs to her mother’s best friend who wasn’t able to conceive a child. Eight months after her recovery from this near-fatal encounter, AJ was given the gift of a surprise pregnancy, transforming her life and fulfilling her deep-seated desire to be a mom. As she entered into the hardy glow of motherhood I become strikingly aware of my own selfishness—a selfishness that still sits in the corners of my mind.


I am not ready to give myself wholly over to a dependent from whom I can expect nothing and to whom I am expected to give everything.


Even now, almost a decade removed from that moment, well-partnered and feeling the pressure of biology, I still find that my ambivalence towards having children keeps me at the edge of this sphere of life. There are certainly more times these days where I feel pulled towards the idea of being someone’s mom, especially as friends’ Facebook and Instagram accounts fill with their swelling bellies and sweet idealized newborns. And there are my two sister-in-laws, both of them expecting new ones to add to our family, both of them younger and braver than me.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I love playing Aunt J to my nieces and godchildren. There is a unique wonder in being the favorite non-parent person to a small human. Yet just as I begin to feel enough stability to actively pursue the adventure of parenthood with my partner, I hear Elizabeth Fitzsimons’ essay “My First Lesson in Motherhood” on The Modern Love Podcast, and burst into a torrent of tears as I drive west on the 134 freeway from Burbank to Westwood.


I know while I may be closer, I am not ready to move into the realm of parenthood. There is still too large a stockpile of ambivalence and fears that surround that kind of unconditional love.


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Original art by Jessica Knippel


Jessica Knippel is a academic, writer, artist who lives in the promised land of Southern California with her husband and several roommates. A muralist at heart, she pieces together projects, events, thoughts and people in her work and non-work life. You can see her various work on Instagram,, Reel Spirituality,, and as one of the hosts of The Medium and The Message podcast.

  1 comment for “Sitting on the Fence: Ambivalence and Motherhood

  1. Melody
    August 1, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    I love this: how you capture your fears and feelings. Lately, I’ve been wondering about motherhood myself and I too am ambivalent about it. As a child I really wanted to be a mother, then for a long time I didn’t, and now I’m not sure anymore.

    The responsibilities of having a child are just overwhelming to me. I like peace and quiet and a child will have a huge impact on that. My own childhood had its issues too which make me hesitant to want children.

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