Expert / 30 August, 2023 / My Baba
Author of Raising a Happier Mother, Anna Mathur stops by to give us the low-down on dealing with motherhood rage.
The morning rush to get everyone out of the house was well underway. My three-year-old lay face down, screaming on the floor. My 5-year-old was having his own meltdown, and my oldest son was bewildered. The noise, the exhaustion, the lack of anywhere to run to, any quiet space to retreat to, or any extra pair of hands to call to, found anger bubbling up inside me like a volcano.
As a psychotherapist who has spent years supporting fellow mothers in managing their emotions, I felt deep shame as the anger erupted. I threw a plastic digger plate with such effort against the floor that the shards hit the ceiling. The carnal roar that erupted from such a deep place inside of me found my three kids crying in fear. The shame that followed was immense. ‘I don’t deserve them. What kind of parent am I? I cannot cope’.
I will tell you more about what happened next in a moment, but I want to say something to you first. I get to see behind-the-scenes of thousands of mothers’ lives and front-of-house displays. I know with absolute certainty that I am not alone in this moment of rage, and nor are you.
I am passionate about talking about rage in motherhood because the more we understand how and why it comes about, the less ashamed we feel and the more likely we are to deal with feelings of rage in a productive way. Let’s start with why it feels so shameful.
Rage seems to wildly contradict the archetypal emotions we expect to feel as mothers. Think of the love, the gentleness, the dreamy gazes at our children as we feel joy and gratitude. Then think of red, hot rage and anger. They seem to sit at opposite ends of the scale, right?
I don’t know about you but it was as if, when I left the hospital with my newborn baby nestled in a car seat, suddenly a whole spectrum of human emotion seemed off limits. I could feel gratitude, joy and bliss, but boredom, loneliest, overwhelm and resentment? Oh, no! What a huge bar to set myself. Did you do this, too?
In truth, human emotions are simply a response to the circumstances in front of us. Motherhood is many things: stressful at times, overwhelming, wonderful, exhausting, joyful, lonely, and so much more. How often have you shamed yourself or felt guilty for finding hard things hard, or overwhelming things overwhelming?
Rage is a live, energetic, human emotion that rises up within us, and we need to find a new way to look at it. I have written a whole chapter about rage and irritability in my new book, Raising a Happier Mother, because the guilt and shame we can feel about rage and irritability can negatively impact confidence, self-esteem and our ability to treat ourselves kindly.
Sometimes, in challenging times (of which, let’s admit, there are many in motherhood), our internal, hard-wired nervous system response is to fight or flee the stressful situation, regardless of what it is. When our body is in stress, it seeks to escape the stressor to resume calm and equilibrium. We are filled with adrenaline, the energy and stress hormone. That reaction happens in you whether you’re having to make a quick manoeuvre on the motorway to avoid an accident, or whether you’re standing in the kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon and the kids are screaming relentlessly. Your sensory system goes into overdrive, and your body tells you to find safety.
So, in motherhood, you’ll feel that stress response rise up in you. But the challenge is that, like thunderclouds that crash together, the stress response is rivalled by another innate drive to protect your young, your child. You know that you need to keep them safe from harm.
That moment, in the kitchen, with the plate in my hand, my inbuilt drive to escape stress and my maternal drive to protect my children collided with a resounding crash of thunder. It looked like rage, it sounded like a roar, it ushered in shame as soon as the plate flew from my hand.
This moment sparked a stark realisation, and one that I’m on a mission to share with every mother I talk to about these shameful moments of rage that have us questioning who we are.
Rage is overwhelm. Rage is the result of pushing beyond the limits of your resources; it’s the result of overlooked needs and unexpressed feelings. Rage can feel like failure, but in truth, it points to a need for more gentleness.
When you begin to see rage and irritability as a sign that you are depleted, you can approach it in an entirely different way. Instead of shaming yourself, you begin to question, ‘What do I need? What am I lacking? What support can I access?’
If all has blown up, the rage has erupted, and you are surrounded by the collateral damage of the messy moment, then I want to share with you the most important tip before I give three more tips on how to lessen the likelihood of these moments in the future.
After rage, shift the focus away from shame and self-criticism, and instead focus on the repair. Take a deep breath or step out of the room if you can in order to regain a sense of calm and control. Then speak to your child, take full responsibility, and apologise.
Children can often feel like your rage was their fault, and whilst a particular behaviour or action may have resulted in your rage, it is our responsibility as parents to regulate our emotions and responses. I might say, ‘I’m so sorry I got angry like that. I know you threw the ball at your brother’s head, but it is not okay for me to have said those things to you. That is not your fault. I am feeling very tired, and I need to try and find time to rest so that I can help manage my big feelings.’
If safety has been disrupted, how might you reassure your child?
Ask yourself, ‘What does my child need from me to feel safe?’ And then ask yourself, ‘What do I need to give myself in order to have a little more resource and energy?’
When you notice that red mist threatening, ask yourself ‘what do I feel, what do I need?’ Consider a small way you might meet that need in the moment. Perhaps you need to take some deep breaths, rant to a friend, or plan for some time alone as soon as possible. Depletion builds when ignored.
When the red mist has turned into a damning cloud, do something physical to diffuse it. Jump on the spot, turn some music on loud, step out of the room, switch up whatever activity you’re doing and get an immediate change of scenery where possible.
If you recognise you are depleted, what support can you access so that you can refuel and recover your frazzled nervous system? When we are depleted, we are more likely to react to stressors from our emotional brain rather than be able to choose to respond in a way that we feel happy with later down the line.
What habits can you inject into your day-to-day life that top you up a little so that you’re not running on fumes of energy and patience? This might mean reaching out for support or reading Raising a Happier Mother to find fresh ways to meet your needs and validate your feelings as they arise.
Rage need no longer be a motherhood taboo. We all feel it, it’s human, but it’s how we respond to it that matters most of all. It’s how we listen to what it is telling us about our energy levels and resources, and how we learn that being gentler on ourselves in the day-to-day will result in less messy moments and broken plates.
Article by Anna Mathur. Raising a Happier Mother by Anna Mathur is available for pre-order now (Penguin Life, £16.99)