(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.”
It’s really interesting to read your article from a mother’s perspective. I personally have a mother like the one you describe, and found it difficult to cope personally, with her rage issues affecting and being passed on to me as well. I now run a blog about ways to cope and make lifestyle choices/changes that have helped me get out of that cycle – it would be great if you could check it out! Cheers, Caroline (Tame the Temper)
Thank you so much for sharing — and for taking the time to read and comment!
Thanks for your honesty in this piece. I suspect every mom has fallen prey to rage at some point – I know I certainly did. But until I read your words I thought I was alone. I know I’m a good mom. My “great mom” moments have far outweighed the “monster mom” times. But it’s those moments of rage that still have the power to keep me awake at night, many years later. Again, thank you for sharing. -Amy at http://www.momgoeson.wordpress.com
I appreciate so much your sharing that here. Thank you for your response.
I found this post typical of your usual honesty, but somewhat troubling. Yes, I have seen mothers behaving the way you describe. But I have also seen the looks on their kids’ faces.
and that is exactly the point of my writing about this–this scary rage happens and it happens more than most of us are talking about. You would see my kids’ faces looking terrified when I scream at them. We’re very quick to condemn mothers in public without knowing anything about their struggles. We need to talk about mom rage and why it’s happening, and how to support mothers and families so that this isn’t a part of anyone’s household.
Thanks for having the courage to share. I think this is something most moms experience once or more than once. Struggling to get a child out of danger when they don’t listen, trying to usher one inside to get another one to the bathroom, get another in the car so your don’t have to freeze in the cold temps as they refuse to get in a car seat. It can be very hard managing everyone’s needs and when a mom has some basic needs likes using a bathroom or needing to eat too and they don’t cooperate it is challenging. I also have felt that the judgement that strangers offer doesn’t help. Calm down doesn’t make anything better. But maybe hearing, we all need to get out of the street, the cars are coming. Thanks again for your honesty and bravery to write what others pretend they don’t do!
thank you so much for your support, Melissa! Best wishes to you–
This post was very meaningful to me. Thank you for breaking this ice on this subject and admitting that rage is an issue all mother face. Makes me feel not quite so alone.
Yes, I think so many of us are struggling and not feeling safe enough to discuss this. Thank you for commenting!
I’ve also been that mother. Losing my temper and yelling at the wrong time, for the wrong reason (like feet still being bare after I’ve asked 3 times to put on socks so we can finish dressing and leave the house), all because I was feeling overwhelmed and misdirected that anger. You hit the nail on the head with beating yourself up after the kids have gone to bed and promising to be better. Dialogue is key and not hiding in shame is therapeutic. As parents we’ve all been there in some form. We are human. I think it becomes a problem when that reaction is the norm rather than the exception. And when it spirals out of control from yelling to full on verbal abuse to physical abuse. I didn’t read that this is a normal reaction for you every day but I can hear the fear in your words that that could be a possibility. Stay open and honest and keep being true to yourself and your readers.
(I’m a new fan!)
thank you so much for you comments and your support!
I had depression after my baby was born. It was difficult to go through and it did border along with the anger. After 2 months, my hormones and emotions got back on track. But your post… it worries me that this will happen with me. I know it will. I know it’s normal. I just pray to have the support when it’s needed.
thank you for sharing and for commenting. take good care and keep your allies around you.
I am really glad you wrote this. I relate to every word. I remember once reading about spanking, and the book said something about how it was especially awful to spank in anger. I looked up in bewilderment. Who spanks NOT in anger? Seriously? Doesn’t that sound like a sociopath? I have a lot more empathy and time for people who grip arms too hard or yell or spank or any of those behaviors when overcome with the sometimes-irrational anger with which I’m familiar. I know that rage you’re writing about, and also the powerful self-loathing and doubt that floods in its wake. I’d definitely read more on this topic! xox
Thank you so much Lindsey for your honesty. It is exactly that–the irrational anger and rage, and then the self-loathing, despair, and doubt that follow–these motivate me to want to be a better mom. And talking and writing about these things seems to be a good place to start.
You’re right. It’s hard to talk about. We’re scared and ashamed. We’re angry and loathsome. If I lose it at bedtime (or earlier), then after they’re asleep I spend the rest of the evening with a glob of pain in my throat. Like a tumor made by love colliding with guilt and regret. I hate this side of myself. I call she my evil twin. She makes my daughter cry and she frightens my stepson. She is me, but she is not me.
you put all that so well. So well that I am re-reading it several times. Thank you for sharing this. I hope tonight was a good one for you (it was a rough one for me! But tomorrow begins anew.).
I just came across this article republished on HuffParents tonight, and oh man, I am SO grateful that somebody has written so honestly and SO perceptively about it. Oh my god. I have two kids, 5 & 2yo. I first started experiencing panicked ‘anger attacks’ about 4-6 wks after my first child. It would cycle around for me about once or twice a month. The first time it happened, an irrational physical frustration at my daughter’s crying and my inability to soothe her in any way, lead to me punching a wall (in another room from my baby) so hard I left an indentation in it. The shame and remorse was gut-wrenching and my immediate response was terror at my utter lack of self control. I have always, otherwise, been an extremely placid, confrontation-averse person. After that first incident, I would walk to another room and punch my own head about 3-7 times so hard it would leave painful bruises that would take about three/four days to heal from. After an episode such as this, I would sink into an awful depression that lasted two-four days until I could ‘recalibrate’ my brain chemistry by doing whatever I could to keep my baby happy and stress-free. Therefore, I was extremely routine-bound to try to ensure some sense of predictability in my day to day life. Sometimes, things would be good for even two months before another episode, during which time I functioned well I regards to socializing with friends and family, maintaining household etc. This went on until my daughter was fourteen months old until I finally took myself to see my GP to be diagnosed with PND, and prescribed SSRI anti-depressants. Which fortunately, worked brilliantly for me. Thank God. I was suddenly able to endure tantrums and general upset with a calmness I had long craved, but didn’t feel too detached, that some people report on antidepressants.
I have since researched on the net and found that there are quite a few different presentations of depression. One form is characterised by these so-called ‘anger attacks’. I was never the non-washing, non-functioning kind of depressive, so I guess it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept of what was happening. Any time I was operating with a sleep debt, it would be worse. I was/am more prone.
I went off the antidepressants just before falling pregnant with my second. I recognized the symptoms very quickly second time round and went back to the doctor when my son was twelve weeks old. Almost immediate relief again, thankfully.
I will always remember my first prescribing doctor telling me that statistically you have the best chance of not relapsing if you stay on the antidepressants for at least two years. I’ve been on them now for this second stint for about two and a half years but I know in myself I’m not ready yet. Maybe once my youngest starts school, haha! For now, I do yell and rant sometimes but no more than other frazzled Mum. I do not go past that point where I feel an irrational need to self-harm or feel crushing shame.
I’m not saying my path to managing this is suitable for everyone, but I’m just so grateful that I found a way to calm the internal dragon. I love my kids to bits even though they can be so utterly infuriating, like all kids. I am so, so, so, so relieved to have come across your searingly honest blog. I’m a new follower. This is a topic that I think a significant percentage of mums relate to. Not all. I envy those women who get the blank look you describe. But….anyway, thank you….just thank you xo
Thank YOU so much for commenting and for reading– You story resonates so profoundly with me as you may imagine, even the smallest details. I wish you tons of luck and peace, and I hope to hear from you again.
As a mother of three, with an almost identical situation to yours (our son is three and just twenty months older than our two year old twin girls) I, too, have had my share of white knuckle and screeching like a banshee through clenched jaw moments. While I may later use those situations of epic hair pulling insanity as a fuel for humour filled blog posts, I fully admit that I’ve had that feeling of immense shame and self loathing for ever having “allowed” myself to succumb to the she-devil that sometimes lurks within. It certainly helps to know that I’m not alone and that, in the grand spectrum of things, I’m a pretty more than okayish mom. After all, there’s no true shame in being human every once in a while.Thanks so much for sharing; will be a future follower of MOTT, for sure.
Thank you so much for this article and thank you to the commenters for their input. I am currently hoarse from screaming to myself in my car while driving to work 2 days ago. I was enraged because my baby was crying most of the morning after being up most of the night. I’ve been in a guilt cycle since this episode and was seriously questioning my sanity. I rarely lose it and yell at the baby (14 months old) but live in fear of turning in to that monster version of myself and seeing her see the “real” me that hides behind the nice voice, smiles, and “please go to sleep,” or “please stop throwing your food,” etc. I feel such a relief knowing I’m not alone in this. I also feel sadness that we all feel so bottled up and pressured by life that this problem is so rampant. I’m grateful for everyone’s honestly and hope that as more people confess their true emotions then we can support each other in healthfully dealing with them.
Thank you so much for sharing here. The self-loathing and shame are the hardest to live with and the hardest to describe to other people, including husbands. Thank you for reading and following! Peace,
I came across this post today via Huffington Post – thank you. Thank you for taking the time to write this with such candour. You are very brave to open up like this and I hope that more do the same. We can all learn and seek refuge in the universality of our experiences and emotion. It’s not to say that we all go through the same things or that rage should be tolerated. But you’re right that anger like this is rarely talked about and quickly judged and yes, we need to have so much more conversation around this, on an ongoing basis. Which is why I find it wonderful to see bloggers and articles on topics as dark as this …and be able to reach out to you as a community and talk and share.
I am a mom of three now – a son, 8, a daughter, 4 and another son, 7 months. Sleep deprivation, nursing on demand, managing three kids under the age of 10, running my own business, being a very actively involved parent and a perfectionist – I so understand and relate to the demands that result from the above. And I too have battled anger and rage. The battle to do the right thing, the struggle and despair when you lose it, the continual shift to try to become a better version of myself – these are the things that keep me awake at night. I move on hope.
I completely agree–it’s refreshing to see writers dealing with the dark stuff of parenting and living. I am writing a book on this topic (and others), and I hope that it resonates with other parents. Thank you so much for your support and for sharing here. Good luck to you!
I am coming back to this article again months later, as it resonated so much with me. I am using it as a touchstone to give myself some forgiveness and as a place to find confidence that I am not the only one this happens to. I too am the mother of a 4 yr. old and two year old twins, and when I first read your blog it meant so much to see a person in the same spot as me. Even though it was about rage, it helped me launch an effort to change. It’s been super encouraging, but in a low moment like today, I’m coming back to this writing for support.
Thanks so much for being the brave one to open this up and shake out the shame for us.
I’m so glad you wrote, Lisa. Your sharing means very much to me. Please keep coming back and sharing your story! cheers,
Thanks for writing this post. It really speaks to me. When I have moments when I get so angry that I scream so loud, I really don’t know myself. But is this a normal part of parenting? Does everyone experience this? Is it depression? poor coping mechanisms? Not great at dealing with stress? How can I fix this? by attending to our daily routines? Is this anger really depression? or is it something different…very confused.
I agree–it’s very confusing to me too. It has helped me enormously to see professionals–therapists–to figure out what is going on, and how I can handle it. There are so many things to factor in–stress depression, family history, hormones, etc.–it was impossible for me to deal with everything on my own. And I only ended up feeling ashamed. Also meditation and self-care are important–but really, I recommend speaking with someone in a safe environment. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I wish you a lot of luck and happiness.
I love this! Your honesty is refreshing and your topic is one that most moms can relate too. I know I can. I too am a mother of 3. Rage. Happens. All we can do, is our best but sometimes it can all be too much and we slip… We can try harder next time and most importantly we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much, when it happens. Easier said than done.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Your words are magical. Within a few moments of reading your blog, you helped erase my feelings of isolation and help create room for forgiveness. My rage at my daughter overwhelms me. I know I am a good mother, but those days I rage at her sap all relationality. My guilt overwhelms me for weeks. I replay the rage scene on a constant loop, beating myself up with the “should haves” and “could haves”. The irony is I’m a therapist. I get paid good money to advise other people how to handle their relationships and conflicts in a “healthy way.” And I’m really good at what I do, but all my advance degrees (yes, plural) and decades ( yes, plural) of training seem to fly out the window on those days that I feel overwhelmed by everyone’s needs and frustrated that my child isn’t doing what I want in the manner and time frame I want her to do it in. It builds and builds and builds until I yell and scream at the most precious person in my life. When her face startles in fear or deflates in such heart renching sadness, I want to physically punish myself. How could I do that to her? With all my knowlege and training, I should be a better mother. But….I’m still human. I have my limits. All I can do is try to give myself some latitude and try to identify ways to make things a little better so I don’t lose my cool so often. But it is hard and a constant struggle. Having brave women, like yourself, share your struggles helps those of us in similar perdicaments feel more within the range of “normal” and, thus, better able to forgive ourselves and redirect that guilt energy into being “good enough” mothers (because perfection or the “the best” is unatainable). So, thank you for sharing your honest truth.
Thank *you* so much for writing. We end up in destructive cycles, like you said, with anger and guilt when a self-forgiveness, self-compassion (and help when needed) would be so much more productive. Yes, identifying triggers is so huge in all this healing! When I hear from other mothers like yourself, I am given the courage to keep writing my truths. My shame almost convinced me my kids would be better off without me. Shame tells us we’re not worth being better. I want to work hard to become more gentle with myself and with my children, for them and for me, but also for future generations in my family. The cycle can stop. Again, thank you for your honesty and courage and for being on this path with me. We can be hopeful when we start with honesty and support.
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