I was talking to a dear friend the other day. She has just adopted a little baby girl and she and her family are making the sudden transition from one child to two. Her son, who is also quite small, has been acting jealous and tormenting the baby by taking her toys and hitting her. My friend was surprised by how angry she felt, at her son for the way he was behaving, at the baby for not being settled already and needing extra attention, at her husband because he gets to leave every day while she is stuck with two very needy little people and she feels guilty because of this anger. While I was telling her that I get angry all the time, I don't know anyone who doesn't, I realized that this subject is one that seems to be off limits for mommies.
Mothers get angry. There, I said it. It's true. We think that we ought to be graceful, gentle, understanding, sympathetic and filled with endless patience. And so, it seems, does everyone else. But it's just not the reality that we live with every day. I think that it's trying to deal with this fact alone that causes so many crisis in the lives of women and children. We keep trying to carry this burden by ourselves, We add to it guilt because we shouldn't be feeling this way, and we are afraid to tell anyone how we feel because we expect that they will judge us harshly for our imperfections. If we talk to a counselor or call a free service we're afraid that they will flag us for CPS to start watching more closely, which they will. We're afraid that the older women whom we look to as mentors will stare at us blankly and have no idea what we are talking about when we share our frustration. And we're afraid that our friends will talk about us behind our backs and think less of us. After all, they look like they're doing a great job and never struggle. So we keep soldiering on alone until one day, some of us snap, and it gets ugly.
When my first baby was born I got a visit from the public health nurse and a giant wad of pamphlets. Some of them were on breastfeeding and immunizations. A lot of them were on how to find parenting support groups, and a few were on baby care. All of the baby pamphlets, without exception, in the crying baby segment said, "When your baby won't stop crying and you feel yourself getting frustrated and stressed and can't take it anymore, put the baby down in a safe place and walk away."
I'm paraphrasing of course. These pamphlets were designed to help prevent shaken baby syndrome, which happens when an otherwise loving parent feels so frustrated/scared/sad/unable to deal with the demands of baby care that they, involuntarily many times, just shake the baby to try and get it to stop crying; like we kick an appliance or car that doesn't work right.
So what about toddlers?
Where is the pamphlet that says, "When you are frustrated beyond belief and your child has just done something unbelievably naughty, put them down in a safe place and walk away."? The problem of course is that toddlers don't stay in safe places, they start tearing apart whatever room they're in while you try to get on top of the mess they have already made. They should say something like, "When you are tearing your hair out and your child is unbelievably naughty and you just want to beat him/her for being 3, take them to a friend's house, call your spouse and arrange for yourself to have a time out, or ask for help somewhere." But a lot of us don't even have anyone to ask for help, and this makes it even harder to get through the day.
The thing is, most of our anger as mothers is justified, I would venture that sometimes it is even righteous. When your 3 year old takes down the barrier you have erected between their play area and the back alley, helps his little 1 year old sister onto that alley, and then comes running in to tell on her, and her daddy comes home and sees her unattended in a place where cars zip by way too fast, (hypothetically speaking of course) you may very well be angry.
I would say that that anger is justified and that there is no reason to feel guilty about it at all. You will be angry at your son for recklessly disobeying and putting his sister in immediate danger. You will be angry at yourself for leaving them outside where you thought they were safe to go in and make sure that dinner wasn't burning. You will be angry at yourself for not being able to be everywhere at once. You will be angry at yourself for being a lousy mother. And you may even have some anger left over for the landlord who refuses to build a proper fence and gate in the backyard to keep the children safe.
In this situation your anger at your son is justified. What he has done is dangerous and foolish and you will rebuke, chastise, and correct as you see fit in order to make sure he understands, to some extent, the consequences of his foolishness. Your anger at yourself however may not be justified, and then again it may. You may be right to indulge in a little bit of self recrimination that will lead to you bring your children indoors the next time you are unable to stay with them in the backyard. You may decide that the risk is not worth the convenience of having them play while you work and rearrange accordingly. But the part where you blame yourself endlessly, the part where you continue to burn against yourself and your spouse for not understanding what you go through and your guilt over your faults and your anger towards them has got to stop.
But what about when it is less life threatening? When your son is tormenting your daughter, poking her when you're not looking to make her scream, or being otherwise naughty and disobedient, does it make you angry?
Personally I think that it's normal to be angry in such circumstances. One child whom you love is being directly cruel to another child, whom you also love. That child is also being disrespectful by not obeying you when you tell him not to. We all have different ideas of what age a child should be expected to show respect and be taught to mind, but the reaction from us is the same regardless of age. We are likely to find ourselves struggling with anger in response to such actions.
If an adult were to do to us what our children do we would not only be angry, we would be insulted. If you had guests in your house, and they decided while you were in the shower that it would be a good idea to put a fresh gallon of yogurt in the middle of the hallway carpet and proceed to dip their fingers into it and lick them repeatedly while flinging the yogurt against the walls, making tracks to the black couch and wiping their hands on it, when you got out of the shower you would probably be speechless. You may throw them out of your house. You might even consider suing them for damages.
But when they're your children what do you do? Do you hear yourself babbling in a hysterical tone, "What were you thinking? Why would you do this? Are you nuts?"
All mothers feel angry from time to time, and feel disappointed with the children in front of them. Cut yourself a lot of slack about experiencing that anger. After all it's what we do when we're angry that counts the most.
Did you ever see the story about the Winnipeg mom on trial for manslaughter? She found one of her triplets dead two hours after she slammed him down into his bed when she was angry with him. All I could think about when I read that story is about all of the times since I've become a mother that I have been to the edge and back. There are moments, I'm sure we all have them, when we catch ourselves at a precipice and realize that if we take one more step in the direction we were going, we will be at the point were no one should ever be. I have come up to the line so many times, it is grace alone that has kept me from crossing over. Grace that shocks me with the realization that I am about to become the kind of mother no child should have to deal with. We all have a choice in how we behave when we are at the end of our rope, and some take it that extra step. I am ashamed that I've ever stood at the edge and gazed forward.
So what am I trying to say really?
We shouldn't beat ourselves up for the anger and frustration we sometimes feel toward our offspring. It's normal to feel this way. But in the same light, we don't need to indulge ourselves when we are in that state either. Two things about anger have stuck with me ever since Sunday School, "In your anger do not sin(do wrong things)," and second, "Don't let the sun set on your wrath." As I understand it, don't go to bed angry. Don't let resentment hide in your heart and fester until it pours out of you someday in ugly vomit all over someone else who doesn't deserve it.
On that note I'd like to share a few tricks that have worked for me that when used consistently can keep that edge far away. The first is something I learned from an experienced mom and doctor when my first baby was almost a year. She told me to "move the action forward." Act before you are irritated and angry. I see so many moms say to their child, "Stop that." The child persists and the mother doesn't do anything to stop the behavior. Again they will almost whine, "Stop it. I don't like that. Leave me alone." Again he child will continue the behavior, again the mother does nothing to teach the child that there is any reason to stop the action. Finally the mother will get irritated and snap at the child, "Stop it right now. Don't do that." The child will be startled, may cry, and be totally surprised by the sharp and ungentle action of his/her mother.
These moms are teaching their babies to ignore them until they use the angry voice. (I do it too, so don't look at me like I'm on a high horse. I try to correct it when I notice it happening.) What this lady taught me, is that the very first time you tell a child not to do something and they do it anyway, you must take action. Don't wait until your annoyance overrules your inertia. Get up and deal with your child. Be consistent with your consequences. Make it happen the first time and don't resort to reacting instead of acting. In this way you rarely get to the point that you are angry and bite their heads off.
The second is of course to distract and redirect. I've discovered that telling a story is a life saver, it's something my kids love and they will stop mid fight to listen to my story, or my singing. A home school book I once read called them joyful interruptions. Do something so crazy, spontaneous, or silly that it breaks the mood entirely. Heck, stand on your head if you can do it without hurting yourself. Have some tricks up your sleeve before it happens so that you can use them in an emergency.
One thing that I find is a life saver is to have toys, games, or activities that can be unsupervised and save them for when you really need them. I once had a home business that involved being on the phone a lot, so if my kids started acting up when I was on the phone I would take the box of phone toys down and let them play with them. As soon as I got off of the phone the toys had to be put away again, or this strategy would stop working. In order to make putting them away fun also, do something with them that involves mommy time immediately after like reading them a story. This can also be a lifesaver for putting the Baby to sleep, or any other things that you need to do that can't be done while kids are screaming.
Finally give to them of your time and affection when you can. Don't spend all of the time when you aren't doing something vitally important brushing them aside. Let them help you make bread, even if it does feel like Chinese water torture watching them move so slowly and make a mess. Listen to their hearts and try to realize how incredible it is that this tiny person thinks the sun rises and sets on you alone. Your attitude will affect theirs, for better or for worse.
The pamphlet for toddler care that I would write would read, "When your children are squirmy and unbelievably naughty, and you are frustrated and they are driving you nuts, put everything else that you are trying to do in a safe place. Turn off the stove, and the computer, and the phone, and sit with them on the living room floor. Build pillow forts. Give hugs and kisses. Tickle, and take deep slow breaths. Find the joy of being a mother again on the rug as you are fully present with your children. You'll feel better, even if the rest of your work is not yet done."