Mothers are supposed to be patient martyrs, so our rage festers beneath our shame.
“[My son] can provoke me into a state of something similar to road rage. I have felt many times over the years that I was capable of hurting him … [T]he myth of maternal bliss is so sacrosanct that we can’t even admit these feelings to ourselves.” Anne Lamott, “Mother rage: theory and practice,” Salon.com
The rage lives in my hands, rolls down my fingers clenching to fists. I want to hurt someone. I am tears and fury and violence. I want to scream and rip open pillows, toss chairs and punch walls. I want to see my destruction — feathers floating, overturned furniture, ragged holes in drywall.
When I get mad like this around my 3-year-old son, I have to say to myself, like a mantra, “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him, don’t touch him.” Touching him with this rage coursing through me only ends in my shame, and my son’s shock, and what else I do not know; only time will reveal that. I have never hit him, but the line between “hitting” and “not hitting” is porous. In this “not hitting” gray area there are soft arms squeezed too tight, a red superhero cape (Velcro-clasped around his neck) forcefully yanked off, a child picked up and thrown into his crib. For me it is better not to touch at all. Only a few years ago, I remember judging a mother on the bus for smacking her child. Now I have only empathy for her. Mother rage can change you, providing access to parts of yourself you didn’t even know you had.
Mother rage is not “appropriate.” Mothers are supposed to be martyr-like in our patience. We are not supposed to want to hit our kids or to tear out our hair. We hide these urges, because we are afraid to be labeled “bad moms.” We feel the need to qualify our frustration with “I love my child to the moon and back, but….” As if mother rage equals a lack of love. As if rage has never shared a border with love. Fearing judgment, we say nothing. The rage festers and we are left under a pile of loneliness and debilitating shame.
The shame is as bad as the rage and just as damaging. I am afraid of my actions. Of myself. I know — know — in the deepest part of myself that this yelling, this terrifying anger is not O.K. My little boy is unfolding, blossoming more into his glorious self with each passing day. I am afraid I am destroying his bloom with my rage.
I get furious with my son for all kinds of reasons: for running away from me down the sidewalk; for not getting in the car; for not letting me brush his teeth; for spitting at, hitting and biting other children at school; for ignoring me; for eating only five monochromatic foods. In my calmer moments, I can access the wisdom of distance. I remember that his behavior is age-appropriate, that all kids test limits. But in the moment, I’m consumed by what a brat he is being. Fury does not welcome wisdom.
In this red place, I yell at my son so hard my voice becomes a growl. I want him to react. To cry or look scared. To feel my fury. I turn into a tantruming child, stomping along with each word. I slam doors, smack my hand on the counter. “Goddamn it! Jesus Christ! You’re making me insane!” I threaten forever-timeouts, no supper. I take away videos, treats, toys, privileges. When I get through with him the house will be barren, the dusty outlines where the furniture used to be the only indication that a nice family once lived there.[How to discipline your child without yelling or spanking]
One evening, my partner, working late, calls me after a particularly rage-filled day. I am watching a movie on our bed, while finishing off all the sweet things in the house. “How was the day?” he asks. My voice is tired and small. “It was hard,” I say, trying not to cry, and I detect an edge in his voice when he asks me what happened. He knows, I think. I can’t tell him everything. He will hate me. He won’t trust me. Our son is his baby, too. I wouldn’t trust me either.
Mostly, I keep my rage between my son and me. My partner’s presence mitigates my outbursts, but sometimes my fury bubbles over and he witnesses it. He’s an even-keeled guy, so when he says, “You need to figure this out now,” I know I need to get help beyond ice cream and deep breathing.
I start working with a life coach. He assigns me a section of Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman cites the work of University of Alabama psychologist Dolf Zillmann, who discovered that the physiological effects of rage can last for days, and that rage builds on rage. Repeated aggravations — “a sequence of provocations” — can dramatically increase anger, so that by the third or fourth rage trigger, the person is reacting on a level 10 in response to a misplaced key or a dropped spoon.
The example Goleman uses is (wait for it!) a mother in a grocery store with a 3-year-old and a baby. The 3-year-old is begging his mother to buy things, pulling food off shelves and not listening when she orders him to put it back. Then the baby drops a jam jar, which shatters on the floor. The mother explodes: yells, slaps the baby, slams the cereal box down and angrily zigzags the cart toward the exit.
Of course Goleman chose this story to illustrate Zillmann’s “sequence of provocations.” Motherhood is relentless provocation! And yet we are expected to be saintly and patient, to lovingly hold and care for our babies, even at their most challenging. To dwell so serenely in the state Anne Lamott calls “the myth of maternal bliss,” that we don’t yell or curse, and we certainly don’t become enraged or violent.
Looking for help, I join a 12-week anger-management group for mothers. The facilitator encourages us to add “tools” to our “toolboxes.” We practice deep breathing through one nostril at a time, and we read about “happy parenting.” The most important part, for me, is the mirror provided by the circle of tired, sad mothers. One woman is divorced. One has a toddler at home and a 3-month-old on her breast. Only one participant is a dad; apparently, there is no class for dads who rage. Another mom admits that she wants to throw her child across the room, and the rest of us have forgiven her before she has finished her sentence. We all nod, as our bodies flood with relief that the rage has not singled us out.
Couples therapy, individualized therapy, life coaching, anger management for mothers — I have been working on my mother rage. I have not yet found the golden ticket to serenity, but I have noticed that when I manage to exercise, make art and eat healthy food, I have a longer fuse. In toolbox lingo: These things fill up my patience cup. Unfortunately, as a working mom with a small child I am not swimming in spare time, and cooking, running and unpaid hobbies often fall to the bottom of the to-do list.
I am trying, though. And failing. And sometimes succeeding. I count every small win — today I got mad and clenched my fists but kept my voice really calm! Each day I begin again: breathing in his sweet little-boy smell when he crawls into our bed and I wrap my arms around him, enveloping his body in mine; and by the end of the day, whispering to myself, “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him, don’t touch him.”
Minna Dubin, a writer, public artist and performer in the Bay Area, is working on a collection of essays about motherhood.
Kin Leung is a Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT practicing in the San Francisco Bay area. Kin specializes in helping couples overcome struggles related to infidelity, intimacy, miscommunication, mistrust, and parenting. Kin’s kind, thoughtful and compassionate approach to marriage counseling San Francisco helps guide couples to a calmer and safer space to explore issues and move forward in a more productive manner.