CONFRONTING ANGER IN MOTHERHOOD
There is a mother-daughter memory that sticks out like a rusted nail, pricking me whenever I revisit it.
My screeching two-year-old is crouching underneath the dinner table in mid-tantrum. I do not remember what I needed her to do, but I remember that we had been like this for some time. Her screaming and me trying to hold back the thunderous roar gathering in my mind. At some point, I gave in and both our screams filled our home.
Perhaps this was the result of pregnancy hormones and stress. I was then four months pregnant and had begun preparing our home to be staged, sold, and packed to move out-of-state. But I was angry all the same.
It was hearing my own pained frailty echoing in the kitchen that silenced me. I reached down and pulled my toddler toward me in a bear hug.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered into her neck. “I love you. You know that, right?”
Her soft curls brushed my cheek as she nodded. “I love you too, mama.”
In the following silence, I waited for the police to arrive, so sure that a neighbor had heard the commotion and called for law enforcement. If they had knocked on my door, what would I say? Could I even safely admit my faults? Could I say, “I was angry?”
Even as I type these words, my husband’s fear echoes in my ears: Are you sure you want to write this? People might misunderstand what you’re saying. If they don’t know you—
Mothers aren’t allowed to be angry.
There is too much shame in anger.
It was diffuclt to stomach the way anger made me feel inhuman and the way it forced me to question whether my child would one day be caught in its radius.
The first year of my daughter’s life was a welcoming change in my life. I savored our stolen moments together and cherished her laughter and the way she clung to me. She showed me a new way to love.
I was unprepared for the eventual shattering of my strength.
We all entered a season of sleepless nights. My daughter experienced a never-ending rotation of achy gums, fluid in her ears, and a shifting sleep schedule. The stress of our jobs combined with the pressures at home frayed my husband’s and my nerves. No one seemed to be doing enough and the majority of the parenting had fallen on me.
It seemed like I was always digging deeper to be more patient and to be more loving while being indescribably exhausted.
During one particular night, my daughter (then a year old) wailed in my arms as I rocked and shushed her. I paced around the room while eyeing the door in search of my husband. My nerves jangled as anger began to rise inside me.
Where is he, I thought. Can he not hear her? Why is he ignoring us?
I paced faster and squeezed my daughter tighter as if to keep myself anchored. Yet, I lost control of myself. I bit my lip to keep from screaming, but I kicked the diaper pail instead. I was shocked and embarrassed as I stared at it toppled over in the corner, the door unhinged.
What have I just done?
The noise from kicking the pail finally woke up my husband and sent him rushing into the bedroom.
“Are you ok? What was that?”
“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just bumped into the trash can.” The darkness hid the torment on my face.
I was afraid my husband would judge me; see me as an unfit parent. I was afraid he wouldn’t understand.
It was difficult to stomach the way anger made me feel inhuman and the way it forced me to question whether my child would one day be caught in its radius.
To admit that I am angry is to invite criticism from people who do not know me, people who will ignore the possibilities of my circumstances and argue that my children be taken away from me.
As I research the ways anger can impact my ability to properly parent, I worry. I have discovered that my own childhood is littered with clattering moments of verbal abuse and emotional trauma. In consequence, I am more likely to repeat this cycle with my own children.
I carry a heavy weight whenever I reflect on moments like the one in the kitchen. I wonder if I could have been a bit more patient or if there was another mitigating solution. Greater than both is the fear that I have emotionally wounded my daughter.
I don’t like describing myself as angry. It evokes painful memories of my brother choking me, and for years afterward—often to his amusement—raging against him in retaliation. It reminds me of my religious failings as a Christian, cowing to sin instead of finding righteousness. Labeling myself with this word supports the constructs of an oppressive white majority against me as a Black woman.
To admit that I am angry is to invite criticism from people who do not know me, people who will ignore the possibilities of my circumstances and argue that my children be taken away from me. Or, as I have seen enacted against other parents in comment sections and parenting forums, deride me for being unable to handle parenthood and chide me for having children in the first place. To admit my own anger is to know that at some point after writing this, I will receive self-help articles from scandalized relatives playacting their support.
All mothers have moments when their resolve cracks. There are always moments when gentleness dissolves and gives way to sharp words. We cannot be perfect all the time.
I cannot handle the additional weight of their shame. I would rather say that I am agitated or frustrated because these words are more palatable. Qualifying my emotion only diminishes reality.
The first time I admitted my anger to another mom-friend, I was scared. But the more I talked, the more she nodded her head.
“Yep. Yep…everything you just said. I get it, sister,” she said. “I was just talking about this with another friend. I do it too. So does she.”
The more we talked, the more our conversation stripped away my shame, and I felt relief. The reality is: I have been an angry mother. And I am not alone.
All mothers have moments when their resolve cracks. There are always moments when gentleness dissolves and gives way to sharp words. We cannot be perfect all the time. Yet, we are not given a parenting manual.
All we have is our experiences as children and the advice people give us. Even then, they are full of contradictions. We must love our children, but we cannot spoil them too much. We must be gentle but never acting in anger yet we must correct our children’s wrongs. Then there are all the stressors in our personal lives that affect our ability to do this precisely. It is a tightrope-balancing act with a gossamer safety net to catch us.
I remember the first time my mother directed her anger at me. We were standing outside of our apartment building one gray afternoon on our way to run errands. Her piercing eyes numbed me and forced my gaze to the gum-stained sidewalk. I had made a lame excuse about forgetting her birthday the previous day.
“You wouldn’t have gotten me anything anyway,” she spat before turning on her heel and marching toward the parking lot.
As I got older, I sometimes recalled that memory, parsing it between the invisible fingers of my mind to understand it better.
It was seven months after my birth father died. I was six. How could my mother possibly hold me responsible for her happiness?
It took years before I could delve past the surface of this memory to see the burdens behind them.
The first time I shouted at my daughter, I saw the image of my mother crouched in front of me with her sharpened eyes and tensed mouth. What frightening image did my daughter see in me?
I sometimes hope that these moments fall into the gaping holes of her childhood memory and become lost to the malleable nature of her still-developing mind. I cannot handle the thought of her living with the memory of a moment that made her feel less than loved.
I want to handle my daughter gently every hour of the day. I want my life experiences and role as mother to dictate a capacity to express wisdom and an ability to neutralize a stressful situation. But motherhood is not always perfect. And neither am I.
As if sensing the agony inside me, my daughter looked up at me one day while we played together and said, “You’re a good girl.”
“What did you say?” I asked, confused. I couldn’t have heard her right.
“I said, ‘You’re a good girl!’” She resumed playing with her puzzle. I stared at her before smiling to myself.
Despite the times I have been angry, I am a good mother.
Despite the anger that burns inside me, I have to remind myself that I am more than that. I am love and light. I am forgiveness and hope. I am the chance to break generational curses and to become the bricklayer for new foundations for my children.
I am stronger than my circumstance. I am stronger than my anger.