Ambivalence. By Keith White

During the 1970s a colleague of mine in the Edinburgh Social Work Department applied for a job as a specialist social worker with children in care.  These were the heady days when the likes of psychotherapy, Maxwell-Jones, Dingleton Hospital and R.D Laing were forces to be reckoned with north of the boarder, and so, believe it or not, my friend was given an intensive two-day interview.  During this process he was shadowed, and according to his version of events, was observed making a telephone call to a client or colleague.  He was subsequently asked by two trained psychotherapists whether they were correct in detecting some ambivalence in him as he made the call.  Being a Glaswegian, he responded with typical ready wit: “Well, yes and no”.  His sense of humour, which in the view of his colleagues in our team was one of his strongest suits, was not appreciated and so he did not get the job.

This is a way in to sharing with you a recent discovery that I made about ambivalence very, very close to home. It was Ruth, my wife, who proffered the word, ambivalence, to describe what I was wrestling with when trying to interpret something of the meaning of what was going on during yet another of those visits from someone who had lived at Mill Grove during their childhood, returning as adults years later. Just in case a ready definition of ambivalence might be helpful here is one from the Cambridge English Dictionary: “Having two opposing feelings at the same time, or being uncertain about how you feel”.  It was like a shaft of light. Immediately and instinctively I knew that she was right.  But for some reason I had missed it completely for over fifty years.

Children waving at a passing steam locoFinding such an insight in a single word meant that before I even began to employ it as a way of understanding better what might have been going on in relationships, situations and conversations at Mill Grove, I started musing on how it had been possible to fail to see something so basic and simple.  My conclusion was that I had missed it because, like a bird in the air or a fish in water, I had always been living in this world or if you like, this medium. Which led me to reflect how regularly I had realised that a person interviewed or consulted because they were a specialist or expert, was not actually the one best placed to provide an analysis or answer.  It regularly happens on radio and television news, and within all professions and disciplines.  One of the problems is that such people (that’s you and me in some situations) are often unable to see the wood for the trees.  They are overfamiliar with, possibly immersed in, the issues in hand, and so can miss patterns and evidence that is all around them if they were but able to think themselves outside their specific part of the world or perspective.  However hard we may try to do this, it is an inherently difficult feat for human beings, however intelligent or willing.

With that out of the way, to my initial satisfaction at least, I started to reflect on people, events and dynamics from my life-long experience of Mill Grove. Given that I was born here, I have always been living with children who had come to stay because something had gone awry in their own families and homes at some stage and in some way.

I had often wondered (and sometimes enquired) why was it that those who had been children often left it so long before coming back?  And why, when some had taken the trouble to drive a considerable distance to the street, had they not come in?  Why such difficulty accepting some of the givens in their lives: such as the fact that there had been chaotic relationships in biological families, but a safe space or security at Mill Grove?  Why recurrent challenges in engaging with learning at school? And so on.

In a flash it dawned on me, that the obvious and persuasive answer is that their whole experience had been one of mixed feelings and emotions.  They didn’t want to be here (or at school) in the first place, and their coming to Mill Grove was traumatic irrespective of however well it was handled.  They had been wrenched from the familiar, from kith as well as kin.  If, and when, they experienced acceptance and kindness, they would have preferred it had it not been offered by strangers.  Every act of kindness was an unwelcome reminder of the absence of their own families, relatives and friends.  However positive life was at Mill Grove, it engendered a sadness because of a deep longing for home, and recurring dreams that it might be better back at home now than it had before they had been taken away.

Seen in this light the whole place and experience was inevitably a source of, and setting for, ambivalent feelings and emotions.  In this respect it represents the double-bind facing every step-parent: there is no wholly acceptable or appropriate way of responding to and caring for children who are not your own. They instinctively long for their own lost parent or the dreams that they had of them (however ordinary or even difficult they had been in reality).  The novel that brought this home to me was Other People’s Children by Joanna Trollope.  But even though it opened my eyes to this dynamic, I had still missed in it my own case.

So it was that, without realising it, I grew up among those who were ambivalent (that is, had mixed feelings) about the very stuff of life, as well as its variations and particulars.  Clearly a lot more was going on, and ambivalence does not begin to explain everything, but it was a vital clue in piecing together the memories and incidents that had puzzled me (not at the time when I was a child growing up here, but on mature reflection).

Did the children here want to succeed in things such as school, sport or other hobbies and activities?  Some did, but often they were ambivalent.  To succeed when in a situation and setting not of your own choosing was often unattractive, and strangely self-defeating.

What was their self-image?  Always tinged or filtered by a lingering sense of regret that the natural or ideal setting for childhood had been taken away from them, and they were labelled, or labelled themselves as in some way “other” or “inferior”.  And it took a lot of time and thought to realise that this low self-esteem set in train an unconscious presentation of self as assured, confident and independent.

How did they relate to others who were in the same situation?  This is interesting and important.  As always in human affairs, there was a range of responses and attitudes, from the caring and accepting, to despising, scapegoating and bullying.  But I think I now see that in all this there was a layer or seed of ambivalence.

Adults and children playing on a beachLooking back on childhood in Mill Grove from the vantage point of marriage, parenthood, and sometimes grandparenthood, those who lived here expressed a constant mixture of gratitude from those who experienced security, boundaries, community, creativity and love in whatever combinations or intensities, with a sense that it was not like a real family or home.

I hope that this gives enough for the reader to go on, and I am indebted to those readers who will forgive me for missing something so obvious for so long.  But what difference does it make?  It has already coloured my conversations, my approaches to people and situations: hopefully meaning that I am a little more sensitive and even understanding.  I realise why my wife, who did not grow up here, saw this so clearly, and why she has acted and reacted differently to me, not just because we have different personalities, but because she was so much more aware of the subtleties of what was being experienced, felt, and sometimes of what was being said.

And of course, without venturing unduly into the world of psychotherapy, I am slowly beginning to realise that not only did I not read others with the insight that this understanding of ambivalence brings, but also that I need to re-evaluate my own memories.  It is unlikely that I never once wished that I had been brought up in a normal home too.  Which is, of course, yet another very good reason why I had missed the whole thing.

It is now pretty obvious to me that in all settings and groups where there is some form of substitute care, intervention or support going on for children, there is ambivalence, conscious and unconscious at work, probably, I would now venture to guess in both them and those trying to help.  And if so, an awareness of ambivalence, should be developed as one of the first principles of intervention: hopefully, not excluding the possibility of humour being seen as a welcome resource, even for those of us not privileged to have been born and bred in Glasgow.

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