law; parenting; family law


There are certain landmarks on the road to parenthood that together comprise a cultural narrative about becoming a parent, a narrative that many aspire to emulate and that some achieve: celebrating a (heterosexual) marriage with a big wedding; a positive pregnancy test leading to overjoyed reactions; first ultrasound pictures hung on the fridge (and shared on social media); a healthy pregnancy with baby showers and nesting to prepare for the new arrival; maternity photo shoots and babymoons to celebrate the final moments before life changes; and finally, an uncomplicated labor and delivery that, in an instant, transform the couple into parents. These rituals and experiences are culturally salient, confirming that the participants are conforming to societal expectations about preparation and fitness for parenthood.But the transition from not being a parent to being a parent can take many different forms and embody different types of social meaning for the people involved. For some women, becoming a parent is much more fraught than the cultural narrative outlined here because they feel ambivalent about being a parent or about adding an additional child to their families. Maternal ambivalence has important, usually negative, social meaning and, increasingly, also legal significance for the mothers, children, and families involved. But the experience of ambivalence is usually invisible— something individual women feel privately and will perhaps share with trusted friends or a therapist, but which is not considered appropriate to discuss more publicly. The cloak of silence shielding these feelings from public awareness reflects the social stigma that attaches to maternal ambivalence, leading to emotional and psychological harm for some women who feel ambivalent about their pregnancies. The strength of this stigma enables feelings of ambivalence to be weaponized against pregnant and parenting women, sanctioning them for their deviance from social stereotypes regarding who is a “good” mother. This Essay explores the punishment of maternal ambivalence, drawing on three case studies to illustrate the strength of the stigma that attaches to such feelings. In these cases, the stigma of ambivalence turns such feelings into a weapon for disciplining women who fall short of societal expectations for mothers. These women (and others like them) are marked by social disadvantage, either because they are women of color in a racist society or because they are economically marginal, relying on low-wage jobs or an abusive husband in order to survive. Their race and class status may contribute to their ambivalence, making them reluctant to have a child whose basic needs they may not be able to satisfy. Such statuses also mark them for scrutiny and criminal sanction in a way that reflects not only gendered stereotypes but also racialized and class-based stereotypes about parental fitness and about who is deserving of society’s compassion and empathy.

Included in

Family Law Commons