Mother rage: theory and practice

All mothers have it. No one talks about it. That only makes it worse

Published October 29, 1998 8:06PM (EST)

I need to put in a quick disclaimer so when I say what I'm about to, you
will know that the truest thing in the world is that I love my son literally
more than life itself. I would rather be with him, talk to him and watch him
grow than anything else on earth. OK?

So: I woke up one recent morning and lay in bed trying to remember if
the night before I had actually threatened to have my son's pets put to
sleep, or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to
keep them alive when, due to his neglect, they began starving to death.

I'm pretty sure I only threatened to not intercede. But there have been
other nights when I've made worse threats, thrown toys off the deck into the
street and slammed the door to his room so hard things fell off his
bookshelf. I have screamed at him with such rage for ignoring me that you
would have thought he'd tried to set my bed on fire. And the list goes on.

He is an unusually good boy at other people's houses. He is the one the
other mothers want to come play with their children. At other people's homes,
my child does not suck the energy and air out of the room. He does not do the
same annoying thing over and over and over until his friends' parents need to
ask him through clenched teeth to stop doing this.

But at our house, he -- comment se dit? -- fucks with me. He 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.
I have not done this yet. Or at any rate, I have only hurt him a little -- I
have spanked him a few times, yanked him and grabbed him too hard. I have managed to stay on this side of the line, but if you've gone over the line and hurt your child, you need to get help, obviously, soon -- and if you don't have the money or anywhere else to turn, please write to me care of Salon
and I'll do whatever I can to help you. But for now, we know how you must have felt right before it happened.

When Sam was a colicky baby, it was one thing. I felt free to discuss
my terrible Caliban feelings because I was so exhausted and hormonal and
without a clue as to how to be a real mother that I believed anyone would
understand my feelings. I felt confused, though, that no one tells you when
you're pregnant how insane you're going to feel after the baby comes, how
pathological, how inept and out of control. Or how, when they get older,
you'll still sometimes feel exhausted, hormonal, without a clue. You'll still
find your child infuriating. Also -- I am just going to go ahead and blurt this
out -- dull.

A few mothers seem happy with their children all the time, as if
they're sailing through motherhood, entranced. However, up close and
personal, you find that these moms tend to have tiny little unresolved issues:
They exercise three hours a day or check their husband's pockets every night
looking for motel receipts. Because moms get very mad; and they also get
bored. This is a closely guarded secret, as if the myth of maternal
bliss is so sacrosanct that we can't even admit these feelings to ourselves.
But when you mention these feelings to other mothers, they all say, "Yes,
yes!" You ask, "Are you ever mean to your children?" "Yes!" "Do you ever
yell so that it scares you?" "Yes, yes!" "Do you ever want to throw yourself
down the back stairs because you're so bored with your child that you can
hardly see straight?" "Yes, Lord, yes, thank you, thank you ..."

So, let's talk about this.

One reason I think we get so angry mad at our children is because we can.
Who else can you talk to like this? Can you imagine hissing at your partner,
"You get off the phone NOW! No, NOT in five minutes ..."? Or saying to a
friend, "You get over here right this second! And the longer you make me
wait, the worse it's going to be for you." Or, while talking to a salesman at
Sear's who happens to pick up the ringing phone, grabbing his arm too hard and
shouting, "Don't you DARE answer the phone when I'm talking to you."

No, you can't. If regular people saw your secret angry inside self,
they'd draw back when they saw you coming. They would see you for what you
are -- human, flawed, more nuts than had been hoped -- and they would probably not want to hire or date you. Of course, most people have such bit parts in your life that they're not around to see the whole erratic panoply that is you. Or they actually pay for the privilege of torturing you. But children -- God, attending to all their needs is so exhausting that our blowups may be
like working out cramps in our legs. You feel sometimes like male emperor
penguins after the eggs are laid, standing there in the cold holding the eggs
on their fuzzy feather-warm feet. They have to stand there, because to lay the
eggs down on the snow would mean death. And maybe in the deep freeze,
emotions don't run so hot, because otherwise, I tell you, I would last
about 20 minutes as a penguin.

The tyranny of waking up a sleepy child at 7 a.m. and hassling him to get him
clothed and fed in preparation for school means you're chronically tired,
resentful and resented. Then, in this condition, while begging him to put on
socks, you are inevitably treated to an endless and intricate precis of
"Rugrats." It's like having Paulie Shore administer the Chinese water

- - - - - - - - - -

This is how Sam told me about his school day while I was trying to watch
the news last night: "So David says she didn't draw it and then she goes like,
she did draw the picture herself, and then he goes like, 'Oh yeah,' and then
she goes like, 'Yeah, I asked her to but she said I had to,' and then she goes
like, 'Oh, yeah, riiiight,' then I go ..."

I am not an ageist: If Jesus wanted to tell me in great detail how he runs
the 50-yard dash while I was watching the news, I'd be annoyed with Him too:
"See, most kids start out like this -- the first step is a big one, like
this -- no, watch -- and then the second is smaller, like this, and the next -- NO, WATCH, I'm almost done -- so see, what I do is, I start like everyone
else -- WATCH -- but then my third step is like small, and the next one is bigger, so like, this P.E. teacher who sees me do it goes, 'Whoa, Lord, cool,' and then she goes ..."

Before we go on, I want to say that people who didn't want children
just roll their eyes when you complain, because they think you brought this on
yourself. Comedian Rita Rudner once said that she and her husband were trying to
decide whether to buy a dog or have a child -- whether to ruin their carpets, or their lives. So people without children tend not to feel very sympathetic.
But some of us wanted children -- and what they give is so rich, you can hardly
bear it.

At the same time, if you need to yell, children are going to give
you something to yell about. There's no reasoning with them. If you get
into a disagreement with a regular person, you slog through it; listen to the
other person's position, needs, problems; and somehow you arrive at something
that is maybe not perfect, but you don't actually feel like smacking them.
But because we are so tired sometimes, when a disagreement starts with our
child, we can only flail miserably through time and space and the
holes in between; and then we blow our top. Say, for instance, that your child
is 4 and going through the stage when he will only wear the T-shirt with
the tiger on it. With a colleague who was hoping you'd come through with the
professional equivalent of washing their tiger T-shirt every night, you might
be able to explain to them that you were up until dawn on deadline, or you've
got a fever, and so did not get to the laundry. And the colleague might cut
you some slack and try to understand that you simply hadn't had time to wash
the tiger shirt, and besides, they've worn it now four days in a row. But
your child is apt to -- well, let's say, apt to not.

They can be like rats. I mean this in the nicest possible way. But they
may still be drooling, covered with effluvia, trying to wrestle underpants on
over their heads because they think they're shirts, but in the miniature war room
of their heads, they still know where your nuclear button is. They may ignore
you, or seem troubled by hearing loss, or erupt in fury at you or weep, but
in any case, they're so unreasonable and capable of such meanness that
you're stunned and grief-stricken about how much harder it is than you could
have imagined. All you're aware of is the big windy gap between you, your
lack of anything left to give, any solution whatsoever.

Friends without children point out the good news: that kids haven't, thank God, taken all their impulses and learned to disguise them subtly. Maybe what kids want and when they want it is in your face, they'll say, but still, it's wonderful for people to be who they really are. And you can only say, "Thank you so much for sharing." Because it's not wonderful when kids ignore you, or are being sassy and oppositional. It's not wonderful when you're coping well enough, feeding them, helping them get ready, trying to get them to do something in their best interests -- like "Zip up the pants, honey, that's not a great look
for you" -- and then, under the rubric of What Fresh Hell Is This?, the play date
for the afternoon calls and cancels, and then there's total despair and
hysteria because your child is going to have to hang out here alone with YOU,
horrible you, and he's sobbing like the dog has died, and you're thinking,
"What about all those times this week when I DID arrange play dates? Do I get
any FUCKING credit for that?" And it happens. KABOOOOM.

It's so ugly and scary for everyone concerned that -- well. One of my best
friends, the gentlest person I know, once tore the head off his daughter's
doll. And then threw it to her, like a baseball pitch. And I love that in a
guy, or at least I love that he told me about it when I was in despair about a
recent rage at Sam. Because, while I'm not sure what the solution is, I know
that what doesn't help is the terrible feeling of isolation, the fear that everyone
else is doing better.

Of course, it helps if you can catch yourself before you blow up, if you
give one of you a timeout. I'm sure it helps to have a spouse, and it also
helps when people tell you their own terrible stories of blowing up, so you
can laugh about it: At one of my lowest points, a friend -- a teacher -- told
me that she looks at her child and thinks, "I gave you life. So if I kill
you, it's a wash."

What has helped recently was figuring out that when we blow up at
our kids, we only think we're going from 0 to 60 in one second. Our
surface and persona is so calm that when the problem first begins, we sound in control when we say, "Now, honey, stop that," or "That's enough." But
it's only an illusion. Because actually, all day we've been nursing anger
toward the boss or boyfriend or mother, but because we can't get mad at nonkid people, we stuff it down; we keep going without blowing up because we
don't want to lose our jobs or partners or reputations. So when the problem
with your kid starts up, you're actually starting at 59, only you're not
moving. You're at high idle already, but you are not even aware of how
vulnerable and disrespected you already feel. It's your child's bedtime
and all you want from Jesus or Baruch Hashem is for He/She/It to help your
children go to sleep so you can lie down and stare at the TV -- and it starts
up. "Mama, I need to talk to you. It's important." So you go in and you
muster patience, and you help them with their fears or their thirst, and you
go back to the living room and sink down into your couch, and then you hear,
"Mama? Please come here one more time." You lumber in like you're dragging a
big dinosaur tail behind you and you rub their back for a minute, their sharp
angel shoulder blades. But the third time they call for you, you try to
talk them out of needing you, only they seem to have this tiny problem
with self-absorption, and they can't hear that you can't be there for them.
And you become wordless with rage. You try to breathe, you try everything, and then you blow. You scream, "God fucking damnit! WHAT! WHAT? Can't you
leave me alone for FOUR seconds?"

Now your child feels much safer, more likely to drift off to sleep.

Good therapy helps. Good friends help. Pretending that we are doing
better than we are doesn't. Shame doesn't. Being heard does.

When I talk about it, I don't feel so afraid. The fear is the worst
part, the fear about who you secretly think you are, the fear you see in your
child's eyes. But underneath the fear I keep finding resiliency,
forgiveness, even grace. The third time Sam called for me the other night,
and I finally blew up in the living room, there was a great silence in the
house, silence like suspended animation: Here I'd been praying for silence,
and then it turns out to be so charged and toxic. I lay on the couch with my
hands over my face, just shocked by how hard it is to be a parent. And after
a minute Sam sidled out into the living room because he still needed to see
me, he needed to snuggle with me, with mean me, he needed to find me -- like the baby spider pushing in through the furry black legs of the mother tarantula, knowing she's in there somewhere.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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