Years ago as a brand new mom to a little boy I couldn’t possibly love more I had my first experience with the kind of parenting anger that scared me.
I can’t remember the circumstances leading up to that moment or what exactly it was that ignited me, but I will never forget the fire I felt searing me from the inside and the violent, ugly thoughts that flashed through my mind.
The darkness frightened me.
No doubt there was a spectacular concoction of sleep deprivation and overwhelm that paved the way for me to lose it. (This is, of course, on top of the upheaval that children naturally bring to a home once accustomed to regular sleep ins and the luxury of a relatively easy weekly laundry rotation.) There were also other factors undermining my explosive emotions—financial pressures, a strained relationship with a friend, friction surrounding my role at work.
But the fact that I visualized throwing my adorable toddler into the wall terrified me. (Yes, I really did just admit that: I visualized shoving my toddler against the wall. Ugh.)
Who was this woman? Was this really me—the Christian mother committed to gentle discipline and intentional parenting? The wife who had never even yelled at my husband?
In that moment I suddenly realized how people could snap right in two and do unthinkable things they regret for the rest of their lives. Never before had I possessed an ounce of sympathy for someone known to abuse a child, but in that moment I was faced with the dark side of my own humanity and this is what I saw: I was capable of anything. Yes, even toward the tiniest person whom I loved with the most giant of loves. I was that person—the abuser—not in action or words but in the temptation of my heart.
To be clear, I wasn’t afraid I would actually inflict physical harm to my son. As angry as I was, I knew I had the self control to not act on what I felt. What most frightened me was the content of my own heart. Simply having the idea jet through my mind at all was enough to leave me shaking and scared and ashamed.
With trembling hands and a heart pounding my insides to a pulp, I called my husband and said, “I’m not okay.” I described how angry I was and confessed the darkness I had seen exposed in my heart. I told him I didn’t trust myself to be alone with our little one until I could figure out how to cool down.
A few minutes later he was home, hugging me while I sobbed all of my inadequacies out into the safety of his chest. He talked me off the ledge. He reminded me what kind of mother I am and he affirmed my commitment to invite Jesus into the deepest places of fear and inadequacy in my soul. (After all, the anger was only an indicator of the real things causing me pain.)
He also sent me to take a nap while he finished his last few hours of work from home with our son toddling around his feet, happy for some new company.
Several years later I can think of two or three instances I’ve been similarly angry and had to call my husband or a trusted friend for help. Always it’s been during times in my life where I’m severely sleep deprived. (I’m convinced chronic fatigue wreaks havoc on an otherwise stable person. I truly don’t think this can be overstated. It’s not an excuse, but it’s certainly not something to be ignored.) And it’s often been during times where other things are very much running at full throttle in the background: while grieving a miscarriage, while under a stressful deadline, while wondering how to make ends meet that month, and so forth.
As I’ve learned to crawl out from under the shame of my own meltdowns, I’ve realized that anger is a common thread running through most mothers’ lives. For most of us it rears its ugly head now and then in ways we’re not excited to admit and aren’t well equipped to deal with. We’re caught off guard because we thought we were “better” than that. We’ve bought into the faulty notion that love and anger can’t coexist within motherhood—that somehow our kids deserve a mom that’s more divine than human.
If you struggle with ongoing parenting anger management issues then by all means, please consider getting some external help working that through with a professional—this is not the type of anger I’m talking about. But if yours is the type that springs up now and then catching you by surprise, consider now how to set yourself up to manage how you’ll respond.
A few things to keep in mind:
1. Anger is a normal human emotion and you are not a bad person (or bad mother) for experiencing parenting anger.
2. If you need to, remove yourself from the heat of the moment. Put the baby somewhere safe like his crib and take a few minutes to walk away and do some deep breathing. Tell your older kids you’re sending yourself to your room for a 10 minute time out. (Then use that time to actually do what you need to do—deep breathing, prayer, a phone call, etc.)
3. While you’re not angry, spend some time thinking about your triggers. When are you most easily angered? Are there specific things that tend to set you off?
4. When you experience anger it’s often an indication that something deeper is happening under the surface. Once you’ve cooled down, ask yourself some hard questions: Are you afraid of something? Feeling insecure? Stressed out? Feeling like a failure? And so forth. What is the anger trying to help you see? Once you’ve pinpointed those things, then you can begin to map out how to address them.
5. Identify a safe person or two in your life with whom you can confess and also hold yourself accountable to.
6. Deal with shame if it rears its ugly head.
7. Practice self care and soul care. There are plenty of ideas in this series to help you determine what that could look like for you.
8. Decide how you can be proactive with addressing circumstances surrounding your anger. Do you need to schedule a weekly evening for alone time? Do you need to take 15 minute daily walks without filling your ears with a podcast or even music, focusing instead on the sounds of the neighborhood or your footsteps or the chatter your toddler makes in her stroller? Do you need to learn centering prayer or take a weekly yoga class or give yourself a strict 9:00pm bedtime until your baby starts sleeping through the night? Do you need to join a MOPS group or let go of some unnecessary volunteering commitments for a season or rearrange your housework so you can snuggle up next to your little one for afternoon naps?
9. Make some time to play with your children. Get down on the floor or go outside or take a bath together with some bath crayons. Often times too much multitasking is stressing us out more than we realize and we soldier on without realizing how far we strung ourselves out. A focused hour of play and bonding can sometimes be one of the sweetest, simplest antidotes to our parenting frustrations.
10. And most importantly dear mama, include Jesus in your struggles. He wants to show you his kindness and empower you to receive it and walk in it. He wants to be strong in your weakness. He wants you to access his grace. He wants you to celebrate your humanity but never forget that he doesn’t abandon you to it. He will help you. He will stretch and grow you. He will guide you and teach you and even comfort you when you blow it.
As I tell my mom-friends over and over again: You will never be the perfect mother but you are the perfect mother for your child. Rest in this wonderful match that God has orchestrated and trust that he knew what he was doing when he made you their mom.
You’ve got this. Now take a nap.