(This post was written for and originally published on WhatToExpect.com with the title “The Part of Parenting We’re Too Embarrassed to Talk About.”)
Occasionally a post circulates the Internet in which the author describes witnessing a mother in the midst of a public tirade against her child or children. The mother may have screamed in a way that could only be an overreaction to a small child’s mistake or incessant crying. Maybe it was in the checkout line. Or a parking lot. Or at a coffee shop or on a bus. Maybe she grabbed an arm too hard and in anger, or slapped her child’s face. She embarrassed him. She may have threatened to hurt him.
Everyone watched her lose it. The scene is over the top. Someone should have come to that child’s rescue. Everyone reading the story agrees. The comments to these posts are unanimous in their condemnation of the parent. She doesn’t deserve children. There are so many good people who can’t have children, what a shame this woman has a child.
I don’t personally know any mother I’ve read about in these posts. I don’t know her story. I don’t know what happens at her home. And I too have been sad and horrified seeing parents scream at their small kids over what seems like nothing.
But I’ve also been that mother in public. I have shrieked at my three children in a voice that doesn’t sound like my own. I have scared them, and attracted the unmerciful attention of strangers. I have dragged my four-year-old son across our lobby floor — screaming at him — into the elevator while crying so that his sister could get upstairs to the bathroom. Old ladies opened their doors to stare at us, at me. The woman losing control with her children.
I have gripped little arms forcefully to get them to cross a busy street in the middle of a meltdown. Someone screamed at me to “calm down,” when this happened. And as I tried to keep my three small children from being hit by cars on a busy avenue, I screeched back, “Fuck off!” None of this came from nothing. We don’t, however, see the intricate movements behind the scenes we witness.
Rage in parenting is not something we talk about. It does not garner the empathy that sadness or apathy does. It is not passive, and it has innocent targets. There are bad parents and there are good parents, along a spectrum. The good ones have bad moments, but those don’t move outside what we can accept as “normal.” No one is perfect. We all lose it sometimes. But what happens when losing it crosses the line from frustration to rage?
I am not talking about abusing and hurting children — when we know a child is being hurt, we must act without hesitation. What I am describing is the build up of resentment and a loss of control that many “normal” mothers experience but can never safely discuss. It’s too ugly, and the risks are enormous. What will my friends think if they know what I’m really like when I’m angry? If I talk to someone, they may take my kids away.
So many of us, with tremendous pressures of caring for family, work, households — often without consistent help — hold on tentatively to the place where all is calm and manageable. Some of us have run from our own chaotic pasts. And when we slip from that place, we fall quickly to where we hardly recognize our own responses. We hate ourselves for being so far less than perfect, less than what our friends are like, that we never even hear of other mothers like us.
And we cope by drinking more, eating more, and sleeping less. There are few acceptable outlets for this honesty that doesn’t fit in. We may put on a show for the world, but we deal with it alone. I spent countless evenings having screamed at bedtime, once the children were asleep, torturing myself for my lack of control, promising I’d get it together tomorrow. I felt unworthy of my children and my life.
My experience with rage began when my first child was born. My irrational anger toward this baby I loved more than I could have imagined stunted me. It took my breath away and planted the seed in my consciousness that I was a bad mother. And when we had twins 19 months later, I truly felt I was an island unto myself.
Although I had known depression before and after children, its manifestation as anger continued to confuse and shame me. My quickly tightening jaw and clenched fists in response to the crying, whining, and never-ending demands of three babies shocked and terrified me. I listened to friends describe their difficult moments with their kids, hoping something would sound familiar to mine, but the disgusting fear that I was unique balled in my stomach.
As my two daughters and son are getting older, are in school now, I am enthusiastically, oddly willing to talk about parenting rage. Where it comes from and how prevalent it is in mothering young children. Mine is not the face of a wickedness, nor are the faces of any of the mothers I speak with. I want to be a better mother. Not the best mother. Not even a mother who never curses. But I seek to understand the cycle of nurturing — what we give ourselves, we also give our children.
When I describe writing about rage, depression, and parenting, I sometimes get blank or uncomfortable faces looking back at me. But more often, I see the eyes soften, and I hear from a similarly evolving soul “Oh, yes, I’d read that.”