Sunday, June 12, 2011

The white heat of mama anger

Good mamas are supposed to be nice, gentle, calm, loving, quiet.... so goes the myth.

Bad mothers are angry, violent....

We aspire to be gentle parents. Peaceful parents. Natural parents. So we should know better, do better...right? 


Some scenes from this week...My child keeps pulling out my hair by standing on it repeatedly, the "baby" pressing the delete key on my computer with glee shrieks of delight, the three year old kicking her baby sister in the face on purpose, sitting on her, stamping on her, strangling her, having a half hour long tantrum because her toast was cut the wrong way, he hates school and doesn't want to put his clothes on and we're already twenty minutes late, she draws on the wall knowing she's not allowed, he calls his sister stupid idiot and stinky yoni, she wakes up the baby on purpose, screams "I'm not going to sleep" for an hour or more every night. Every request I make, every meal I produce is met with screams and whines and complaints...

Day after day after day...

These days would challenge the combined sainthood of the Dalai Lama, The Pope, Mother Theresa... (are you just a little suspicious that they cultivate such spiritual calm - none have been parents!)

Parenting shows up your yuckiest sides. The sides that, in any other circumstances you can deny. That until you are up to your eyes in exhaustion, frustration and pain, you do deny...

You see, I'm afraid I don't subscribe to the belief that children are born as perfect little angels who should be allowed to express everyone of their god given emotions, whereas all MY adult emotions are bad, wrong and to be supressed. I am supposed to jump with joy when my daughter expresses her anger. But I have to bottle mine. According to these philosophies I have to be kind and gentle and understanding - despite being screamed at whinged at, pulled and kicked and demanded of on very little sleep.

Sorry - no can do... no will do ... it's not right, normal or fair...

I respect I am bigger and scarier.
I respect I am stronger.
I respect that they are still little and learning.
I respect that I need to teach them how to handle their emotions and positive ways of dealing with conflict.
I respect that I will not hurt them in uncontrolled anger or for premeditiated punishment.
I was smacked as a child and don't agree with it.

And yet...

There are times when I have been nice, I have been firm, I have distracted and explained, cajoled and negotiated, shown other ways forward, in gentleness, kindness, giving the benefit of the doubt for tiredness, hunger, age.... I have taken deep breaths and tried to remove myself from the situation, but the child is beating on the door or hanging onto my leg.... and actually, you know what....

Somewhere, surely there is a place for my expression of physical and vocal frustration, of tit for tat in physical language, look, pinching hurts - demo- so that's why we don't do it. A firm shaking hold - "I feel "this" cross right now. Do you understand me?" So that they can see that actually I am not a door mat, a slave, a kicking post. I am a human with feelings, just like them.

At this moment very little differentiates me from the mama bear who swats her baby away in frustration - her swat is not meant to damage or injure and nor is mine. It is a warning shot, a physical boundary being drawn. This far and no further, little one, it says. No means no. I said no, I said no again and again, and I mean NO! Now back off....
Periyachi - fierce Hindu goddess mother 
So when my child screams and screams at me and I have exhausted all other options, I scream back. The pure scream from my belly. The scream of frustration. And it feels right. Better. It changes the tone, for us all.

You can keep your pillow pummeling and deep breathing - at this point I need instant physical relief. It is not just my children who have this need. Or this right.

Why is mama anger not OK? And dada anger for that matter? We are scared of it. We are scared of strangers judging us or reporting us to social services. We see stories on the news of hideous child abuse and it puts the fear of our own anger in us. Could that be me? Could someone think that might be me?

The feeling of anger and overwhelm is scary. Parenting books tell us to be calm and patient. These are written by people away from the coal face of parenting, sitting at quiet desks, at professional remove from the simmer cauldron of emotions that real-life parenting brings. Self-help books tell us to express our anger. But not HOW to do this when we are parents.

Anger is a primal emotion - it comes from the reptilian, primitive brain - the part of the brain that does not work with language - so trying to tell our children calmly that we are experiencing anger is both unreal and unrealistic.

I think we must, as parents, show our children what anger really is, how it looks, and how it can burn, though not too deep - the scars of the white heat of anger last a lifetime. I still remember my mother's anger. The physical pain, the terror of this unknown storm, the unpredictability. 

And now I am the mother storm. I dig my fingernails in, my voice rises to a screech, the tears of frustration rain down, my lightning temper flashes... and then the storm abates. We make our peace, the sun breaks through. We are all still here. Survivors. None of us blameless, all a little shaken.

We live to fight another day.

A couple of other great links on mama anger on the blogosphere this week
Apron Stringz: Mama Rage
Code Name Mama: Forgetting Connection

And some of my own...
I am your mama bear
Happy Candles
Dealing with Overwhelm

Is the silencing of mama anger a feminist issue?


  1. How well you describe those emotions! I completely agree that kids need to know that parents have all of the same emotions. There have to be healthy ways we can show children our anger, our frustration, our own fear and helplessness, without it being painful or harmful. And you're right - sometimes when I growl out my frustration in the middle of Kieran's tirade, it does make him stop and reassess. Hey - mama's human too! Thank you for your honesty, Lucy.

  2. You have no idea how much I needed to read this & code name mama's post today. I have 2 little ones...4 and house seems to be utter chaos lately...the actual physical toles that we go through...eye pokes, kicks, watching big brother tackle and pull little brother, throwing freshly folded clothes, peeing on the floor, freaking out because I opened the fridge before N did...ETC! I yell, threaten and have to physically pull on the kids at times to resume safety and STOP the craziness. It doesn't feel ZEN at all...but I'm so glad you've described it as a storm...I can relate to that and I know that Mother Nature rears her head when necessary, too.

    thank you!!!

  3. Great, honest post. This very human emotion is rarely ackowledged in gentle / attachment parenting theory in a useful, realistic way.

  4. Thank you once again for such amazing wisdom Lucy (and the other posts you shared on this topic).

    First - I have to throw in my long and loud laugh about the serenity of the pope, etc. - wonderful point! :D

    Aside from that...

    I struggle so much with anger - it scares the crap out of me. The household I grew up in was defined by anger, and I feel that out of control rage in myself (sometimes at the silliest things).

    Reading this, I think it's something I still need to work on - but that it would be dishonest to try to hold it in all the time (and what would it teach my child? That she must not express her feelings?).

    As usual, you've given me much to think about... :)

  5. Again, very glad to read this, and especially today, when my own bear has been out and roaring after a wet (big) bed and lots of days of differing needs coupled with many night-wakings and yes, the shouts of 'I'm not going to sleep!' here too!

    Thank you, Lucy, for reminding me that I am human too, and I'm not evil for getting cross sometimes. My husband manages to keep his calm far more than I do lately (though he's not 32 weeks pregnant, either!) and I sometimes wonder if I'm just losing the plot... So, good to know that if I am, I'm not alone. ;)

  6. I totally needed this. My five year old tests me regularly and now that she has learned the wonderful talent of high pitch screaming... it's enough to send even Mother Theresa running for cover.

    If nothing else, it's nice to know that other moms are experiencing the same thing. And that yes, it's ok for mama bear to feel angry because we are all human.

  7. Oh, also, have you read Claire's Raspberry Knitting post? Found that one greatly cheering too; must be something in the air at the moment!

  8. Thank you all, just back from women's group and feeling very nervous about what response might be here to greet me... am glad that it touched a chord, and thank you for your responses, and for respecting the act of sharing rather than going on the attack for my less than perfect mothering...

  9. Oh yes. Whilst I have learned the patience of a (childless) saint, I too will vent from time to time, to keep myself sane. After all, bottling up strong emotions is just a recipe for dangerous territory. And yes, the children look surprised and in fact my toddler often laughs at this funny thing Mummy is doing - which of course diffuses the whole situation wonderfully!

  10. This is beautiful. It is raw, it is powerful and it is REAL! Absolutely love the strength your displayed in writing this. XOXO

  11. I love you, I love you, I love you!!! Thank you for saying this! You gorgeous real lady. You do a great service to everyone by voicing what we ALL feel and are often afraid to say out loud. I'm sorry but people who pretend they don't ever feel like this are just not being really honest, and that helps no-one. Anger is just one of many many different emotions we feel and bottled up anger is the most dangerous kind, and we teach our kids to bottle it up if we do so ourselves. Good on you Lucy for just saying the plain truth :-) XXXXX

  12. beautifully said. yes, how can we expect our kids to love themselves in all their imperfection, if we don't give ourselves the same respect. it always comes back to the fact of growing up myself so that i can help my kids grow themselves up. i think seeing anger is so important for kids, but to me the difference between healthy and unhealthy is where the anger leads. in my own childhood, my parents anger (at each other) and huge fights would lead to them splitting up, again and again over the years hammering into my brain that anger and fighting means the world will soon end. not a healthy way to feel. it has been a hard obstacle for me in marriage particularly, i had to learn that being mad, even furious at each other, and fighting was okay. we could come through it. that's the key i think. showing your kids how you come through it.
    after storm, calm.
    thanks for taking the ball. i'll come back for it soon.

  13. As always CJ, finger right on the pulse - that is what scares me to. My witnessing the pure destructive anger between my separated parents - it makes it extra scary - you know how high the stakes are...

    ball was always with you my dear!

  14. Thank you SO MUCH for this! I really needed this!! I have been trying so hard at Gentle Discipline and everytime I "loose it" and yell I put another tally mark on my mental score board on to the failed side. That side has the majority of the tallies on it. I often feel like such a failure and just don't understand how so many others seem to make it work. Sometimes the only thing that gets my kids to stop is to scream. I am a mama of 4, the oldest is only 5, the youngest 1 (and two 2 yr olds inbetweena dn NO, they are NOT twins haha). Our house gets loud. Sometimes someone cannot hear me saying "no get down" across the room unless I scream it. Just hearing that another mama feels this way is so comforting to me. I am not abusive, I never get physical, I am not violent, I do not hit my kids, I never call names or scream for hours on end, there is no emotional abuse but sometimes I do get loud. I yell, I scream, I am human!

  15. I agree. You compare it to a mama bear, I usually think of myself as mama wolf. =)

  16. Christy - wow - that's a whole lotta little kids - we had 3 under 5 and that was quite enough for this mama's sanity - hats off to you for still being alive, let alone trying hard at Gentle Discipline.

  17. Thank you for this. I find your posts seem to correlate with what I need to hear or how I am feeling. It feels good to hear that I am not the only mama who feels this way. I always envision myself as a big mama lioness. Thank you again for speaking up.

  18. I understand the frustration as a parent but where do you draw the line? Problem is without that instinct to hold back and reprimand the kids accordingly, some people push a little further each and every time until eventually a child ends up injured whether it be physically or emotionally. I speak from experience. My ex wife was beaten as a child as well as her brother, now she beats our children both physically and emotionally. Problem is, on the other side of the coin, we're afraid to call in help for fear of being a whistle blower or a tattle tale but at what expense. I finally had enough and called when witnessing something completely screwed and of course she lied about the incident and got off without a question. So the question is who should be responsible for our children's well-being if it doesn't start with us. SHow your kids out of control rage and they will in turn pass on the sins of the parents to their children and so on and so forth. Be stern but be fair in your punishment and make them understand why they are being punished and they will grow to be better parents. I know this too because this is how my parents raised my sister and I and my kids with my second marriage are the happiest children on the face of the earth while my children from my former marriage are constantly having behavior issues, in and out of the hospital for health and stress reasons and they are already exhibiting signs of manipulation at an early age. Anger is a good way to vent frustration, just make sure it's released in the proper manner for our future's sake..

  19. Thank you for your concern Chris. I was waiting for a response like yours, it had to come! It is right that it should. Abuse is prevalent, cruel punishment still abounds, though is no longer accepted as the norm, as in the recent past. My concern is that we have gone too far the other way. I felt it as a teacher, and feel it again as a parent. Children have been handed rights and sainthood and parents handed far higher expectations, few extra tools and resources, mothers often parenting alone, isolated for long stretches, with our very human levels of tolerance, patience and energies, yet none of the "respect your elders" cultural baggage to support us. What I am talking about is not good, right or pretty, but it is real. And something which women experience, feel massive guilt about, and hide - lack of support and empathy fuels the cycle- the mama frustrated at herself takes this out on the sources of her frustration - her kids.

    I have never, would never beat my children. I would never smack them either to punish. Nor will I call them names or disparage them, shame or abandon them. it is not right on any level. And every member of society is responsible for the welfare of our children and to report inappropriate behaviour to safeguard the welfare of our children.

    What I am talking about here is the day to day dealing with kids and life and ourselves that can boil over, in every mama, which is not allowed, by society, by attachment parenting, by parenting gurus, which makes us as mothers wrong when we experience a natural emotion.

  20. I agree with you Lucy. Emulating Mary Poppins every second of every day is a little surreal. She was a fictional character and didn't have to deal with every kind of child-related frustration or all-day toddlerness, anger about the state of the planet, or sore boobs, chicken pox, she didn't have a sex life, or bank account, or car problems, or all the other REAL life stuff - good and bad!

    I don't think that we should strive to be 'practically perfect in every way'. It's kind of creepy when parents are like that.

    My brother in law was pretty screwed up by his Mary Poppins ridiculously "controlled" mother who was one such character and he doesn't want children himself now. Weird, but true.

    I don't think for even one millisecond that Lucy is abusing her kids in any way, shape or form by simply using her voice to express frustration. I think that not using it, could actually make us ill. It doesn't mean you can't be a happy balanced family if everyone has a voice for all their emotions.

    This fantastic song is about expressing ourselves using our voices - hope you like it Lucy.

  21. I hate to admit it, but I remember seeing something on Dr. Phil years ago (maybe even pre-parent time) when he was explaining to someone about the 'Guilt-Rage cycle'. It helped me see something that I have a habit of doing and I've thought about it often ever since.

    We can be too scared of anger - I certainly am. I find it hard to accept it in myself and find it hard to imagine that it will be accepted by others. It feels like an unhealthy relationship with a powerful part of me and I think it would be better for me and all around me that I learn to accept those less becoming parts rather than deny that they exist.

    Anger is such an honest, raw, vulnerable, powerful state and we all know how destructive it can be. Like everyone, I get totally overwhelmed by the frustration of dealing with multiple tired, stubborn, awkward kiddies at times and I do sometimes end up unedifyingly shouting and grabbing. I try to give them a warning that it's coming (I remember the cold, wet shock of a parent snapping seemingly out of the blue), I don't express it as spite or contempt and I don't hurt them. And although it might sound very corny, I do bring it up later 'We were very cross with each other weren't we? (smile and laugh) I still think you're very lovely you know.' And I do try to laugh with them at the things we both said and did when we were cross. I think it's crucial not to take it too seriously.

    I have no desire to crush them, physically dominate them or steal from them the things that make them strong, but I do need them to know sometimes that a line has been crossed and Daddy is now really really effing pissed off! In a way (and I don't mean in the heat of the moment), I hope this possibly makes them stronger, more comfortable and hopefully more adept at expressing their own rage and frustration. I'll have to ask them about this when they become parents one day :-)

  22. Someone in a hindu temple once explained to me one of the statues - a gruesome and bloodthirsty woman, eyes wide in fury, horrifically disembowelling someone with her bared teeth (no, stick with me here!). They told me that this legend illustrated the most benevolent of all mother figures. Sadly, I forget her name, but she's considered the Mother Mary equivalent. The moral of the legend was that there is no love as powerful as a mother's love, and woe betide anyone who invokes her pure, boiling wrath, as she will do whatever it takes to protect her children - even disembowelling with her own teeth.

    Anger is a part of being a parent; we need to know how it feels, we need to know when it's appropriate, and I believe we need to practise it within safe boundaries now and again. So that when push comes to shove, and someone puts our children at risk, we can do what it takes. And we need to teach these skills to our children.

    My latest blogpost touches on this topic also.

  23. Thanks for your supportive comment on my page, DreamingAloud.

    re the story above, I found out her name! She's the terrifying Periyachi (wiki it), said to punish women who do and say things to hurt others, and punish men who exploit women by trampling them under her feet. She is also regarded as a protector of children. You wouldn't know it to look at her, but the Hindus here feel that she is the ultimate symbol of maternal love.
    The picture on the wiki page is exactly the statue that I was talking about!

    Don't know if you're interested, but I think she's facinating, and think of her whenever I feel that my daughter needs to be defended!

  24. Hey little macaroon - am going to go and dig that image off the net and pop it with this blog post - thank you! Love finding out about myths and figures form other cultures.

  25. love this ! love the notion of it being a storm! having just (literally I was disturbed mid read of this article by my eldest crying at her youngest sister) created a massive brewing rain cloud! the youngest had been in her sisters room and decided it would be a good idea to paint her nails "on own" yes you can imagine; red varnish on the duvet, carpet her nice new monsoon top her sisters leggings etc etc etc! however storm over sunshine now out and off we go again!!!

  26. Realise that I'm way behind on this post, but wanted to add my 2pennorth.
    You have probably highlighted what is, for most of us the MOST fundamental issue in parenting, handling our anger and frustration, and the responses show that most of us struggle.

    Although my children are 222, 25 and 26 now, I I haven't forgotten how they could find all my buttons (in Buddhist speak) and push hard. We have to be kind to ourselves as mothers, and in that sense I would not want to judge you or any other mother for finding their anger overwhelming at times. I certainly did when I was in the thick of it with little ones.

    However, I feel that children learn who they can be from what we model, especially how we behave under stress, and they will regard all our fine ideals as crap if we don't at least make a sincere attempt to live them. (Ask my children what they think of their peace loving, organic hippie dad). Also so often I thought it was my children that were making me angry, but later realised that it had much more to do with what was going on with me than them.

    If we respond to our childrens anger by behaving as they do, then we tell them that this behaviour is acceptable. We have to find ways of keeping calm and yet being powerful - I love the book "Liberated parents, Liberated children" on this subject. It really was my parenting bible.

    I was and am very far from perfect, but I learned over the years to handle my anger a bit better than my parents had done, and my children are generally fairly peaceful people now as adults (my fiery middle son particularly) so we have hopefully made a little progress in the evolution of our family. It will be interesting to see how they are if/when they become parents.

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  28. This needed to be said... and more parents need to say it! I work in childcare myself, and the amount of emotional restriction that I see is frustrating. Just like Mama bear.

    I think it is wonderful that children can express themselves within reason, and with respect for others, and the same goes for adults.



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