Breathing Fire

I had a blessed epiphany sometime after my first born turned two. She was fantastically, dramatically two, down to the last detail, and it suddenly occurred to me that she and I were living shockingly parallel lives. We experienced pretty much the same angsts. We both felt completely marginalized. Our own lives were not under our own control, and we couldn’t stand it. Someone else made all the decisions, and we had to make do with whatever was left over.  Everything felt unbelievably intense. We were both attracted and repelled by the ones we loved best. We tried our damndest, yet still felt all our efforts to communicate landed on deaf ears. No one ever listened to us, no one cared. They just dragged us around through a day in a life we didn’t get to conduct.

Consequently, we both did a lot of screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth. My daughter’s fits were considerably more impressive than mine. I was often jealous of her fits and even strangely, vicariously sated by them.

Only, she was two. And I was 32. It doesn’t seem fair that I have matured so little in all those 30 years. Parenting has been a continual reminder of the fact that I’m really not so grown up as I like to think. I had always thought of My Man and I as pretty laid back folk. But since having kids, I have realized that we were really only laid back because we had constructed just the life we wanted, and got to make all our own decisions about everything. Denied the ability to make all my own decisions I discovered a part of myself I had hardly known.


I never used to be a rageful person. I am the sad kind by nature, when the going gets tough I crawl into bed and cry. I had to listen to a lot of Ani DiFranco in my 20s, just to discover some requisite anger for survival.

But since I had kids, everything has changed. And I do mean everything.

Mostly I stifle my rage. Letting it out seems to makes things worse, my babies reflect what they feel from me in magnified detail, not to mention the flood of self-loathing afterwards. So I swallow it down like a double shot of turpentine. Gulp for air. Try to remain standing.

This stifled mama rage is almost an emblem of motherhood to me. The job is just so insanely hard, the ability to take vengeance so completely off limits. Some whole days have gone by in which I just kept swallowing. The feeling is indescribably clostrophobic.

Fortunately, I suspect I don’t need to describe it. Although it is rarely revealed in public, and almost never in the fantasized media we are all drowned by, I am quite certain that most mamas feel this poisonous rage. Some more than others, to be sure. The parenting books always cede to this by saying, ‘sometimes, every parent gets angry.’ Is that an attempt to assuage my guilt? ‘Sometimes?’ Seriously? Try every fucking day, and some days without ceasing.

Of course, that’s how it feels in the heat of the moment. I know it’s not really every day, and no day is really all rage. Nevertheless, I sure don’t feel like they pay heed to this extreme and extremely dangerous emotion of parenthood.

What are we supposed to do with our flaring bellies full of turpentine? Obviously, you can’t just keep swallowing that shit down, something’s gonna blow.

I don’t believe it’s good to hide anger from kids. They get angry themselves of course, and since they learn by emulating, they need to see us get angry so that they can learn how to be angry. They need to see us deal with our anger constructively. But that to me is where anger stops and rage begins. If I have myself enough under control to go outside and scream, or pummel a pillow, or otherwise model appropriate angry behavior, then there’s really not a problem.

Rage, on the other hand, is the feeling of being out of control. Which is exactly what a screaming fit is, only our two year olds are about 28 inches tall. Although I am continually surprised at how strong little people can be, they still look relatively innocuous when they are out of control. When you invert the situation– and their small bodies are faced with our enormous mama hurricane, all five foot eight and Kali arms everywhere, howling all the air out of the room– how truly terrifying.

I’m sure it is terrifying on a physical level, but more importantly, their tiny hearts and spirits are all wrapped up in ours. At the tender age of two or three, we are still the beginning and end for them. Their view of the world and themselves is through our lenses. It is worth everything that we give them the best possible view.

All this is to say that I absolutely believe that it is our responsibility to give our best self to our kids. Stop playing martyr and make whatever decisions it takes to be your best self. Circumventing mama rage does not start when the heat flares, it starts the day before when you feel yourself flagging, and muster the courage to ask your man for an hour alone.

But what of the rage when it does come? When you have done what you could do (or didn’t but it’s too late), after you have been the mama you never wanted to be and the wave of remorse drowns you, let it go. Accept yourself as you are and have been. Love yourself, just as you love your two year old, even in the midst of a 40 minute screaming fit. Forgive yourself when you storm and rage, just as you teach your three year old that she is not the sum of the mean words she uses. Believe in your own true, kind spirit, just as you explain to your daughter that she is not the emotions that pass through her, but the enduring beautiful soul beneath.

We cannot be the perfect parents. It is a strange kind of arrogance to feel you are falling short of such an ideal. We are human, and therefore a constant work in progress. Being 34, I am hopefully not even half finished. I am growing myself up. Swallowing the turpentine some days, breathing fire other days. Forgiving myself when I can.

A mama’s heart is splendid and fearsome. We are the all-encompassing force of the world. But underneath our storms and passions, we are still little girls, trying to love ourselves.

14 thoughts on “Breathing Fire

  1. What absolutely tender territory to tred on . Rage – our right, its purpose, the shame-free zone when we give ourselves permission to lose ourselves, or be ourselves, if only the part we do not want to see or ever talk about.

    So excuse me when I say, as an ex-rager, that rage was never about anything other than powerlessness for me. That hopeless, fearful, hurtful place that says….you are not being heard or valued or seen. It was about the hideous moment when I was rendered insignificant by someone or something; marginalized, dismissed, shamed. It was the puffed-up beat back of a situation outside of my control. Just as you said…. that Kali moment when I said, in full-force volume, ‘like hell you will’. In fact, it still is about that for me but now I look at who or what is delivering that message and try to square off with it as, dare I say it, an adult.

    The point is, after a good long while you understand that the opportunity for rage never leaves the stage. That the situations that dismiss, betray, marginalized or control you in ways outside your control come up a million times over a lifetime and you learn that standing toe to toe with them in some heating battle of righteous indignation is exhausting. Over time that moment of armed battle shames you more than it frees you.

    Yes, for a while it is a blood letting and you are relieved. But at some point you see the rage you wrought in the eyes of those you love, in the people in your community, and you feel, well, a bit embarrassed that you have not learned to stand up to the folly with a little more grace.

    And that is when (lets just say around 45 or so) you start editing your emotions so that you can use your words in an entirely more succinct way. Less FUCK YOU and more, excuse me while I figure out what the dickens to do with this pile of shit you (person, place or thing) just placed in front of me. Yes, the pile of shit still stinks but you don’t have to stand there sniffing it and you certainly do not have to eat it. You can walk away and realize that life is just shitty sometimes and that you are no different than every other human out there that must endure the occasional raft of shit that gets handed to you. Or if you are different, it is because you try and deal with it with grace which is way, way, different than being a martyr. Way different.

    And when, at 58, your partner tell you he is leaving because you are not worth the effort to work through things, that the love is not there, that mistakes were made and that you must now figure out how to pick up the pieces again you think….I would like to rip you another asshole…but you don’t cause you know that this is just another round of senseless stink coming around the corner again and it will pass. Yes, it comes and goes — little kids, big kids, lovers, partners, friends, life, the military industrial complex setting the policy for endless wars, the fossil-fuel industry setting our policy on climate change legislation, the financiers making book on the stupidity of a consumer culture who just refuses to acknowledge how badly they’ve been had. Yes, it comes and goes and somewhere along the way you learn to find a better peace, a rock so you are not thrown willy nilly to the wolves of victimhood. You learn that it is better, or best, to take a moment to calm down so you might, just might, be returned to emotional sanity and think, as I’m sure you do when the world is returned to lightness, that you are one damn lucky woman for having the life you have – warts and freak’n shit and all.

    So get it out of your system and rage if it makes you feel better but I gotta say, it rarely helps. At least it never did me. Like I said, this is tender ground but you are all about speaking truths. These are just mine.

  2. Ah CJ….

    “A mama’s heart is splendid and fearsome.”

    You speak the truth gorgeous, you really do. I’m about two seconds from seeing my own awesome hissy fit from Alice because I’m standing here – insisting on writing back to you instead of delaying my own need for gratification (like we should, as we’re grownups now, aren’t we?) and writing my words later in the day. So better fly, get some clothes on these babes and go to the markets o get some produce…

  3. HOW OLD ARE YOU REALLY?? Only 32, to have such realizations and wisdom, oh good for you!! I wish I knew what you know when I was only 32. Now, at 52 and almost menopausal with a 15 year daughter, I would like to add one more piece to the puzzle, after being/seeing/feeling myself with less & less hormones~after seeing my always happy & pleasant girl blossom. This is not to excuse raging, but I believe they are 99% due to hormones. For me, no more hormones=no more raging. I believe you will find the same thing to be true for you in another 20 years. So, if it is from hormones, and it is part of the life cycle, it must provide some good, which is the ability to conceive. For me, it was almost as if my body was upset with me and causing me to rage because i wasn’t pregnant that month. My eror was not in raging, but before the rage began in not taking better care of myself: exercising everyday, watching what I ate, not to much sugar etc., calcium. When I did those things, I was more tolerable. So, remember every fault has a flipside strength~these negative emotions are probably the flip side of the positive emotions of a being a wonderful, loving mommy who is not Spock!! Give yourself a break & say a Hail Mary!!

  4. I met rage as a parent too… holy shit I had no idea I had all of that in me. Now that I’m in a few years… I look back and say that I’ve done most of my growing up since my kids were born. It’s been an intense journey of coming to terms with my own helplessness, hopelessness, feelings of being trapped… but still… until you drew the parallels between mama and her toddler… I didn’t realize that they felt the same way… that me and my small children… we were living the same lives. No wonder we both threw fits!

    There are many days that I realize that they are mirroring what I’m doing. It makes me take a damned honest look at myself… which usually hurts a bit… and I have to make the changes. Like I said… it’s easier now that they’re 7 and 5… but lately, I’ve been facing my own judgment. Apparently I sound horrible… because they sure do. For me, it’s easier now to deal with the rage… I don’t get it quite so bad… and not every day anymore… they don’t need me the same way that they did when they were 3 and 1. But the judgment… oh dear.

    It morphs… one thing into another… and I guess it’s really true… the parallel paths… the parallel emotions… and I wonder… does that mean that each generation really does move forward… evolving the greater path of parenting through living through the best that one’s parents can do, and trying to do better when we grow up? Does that means that our kids can do better than us with the next generation? Not that our society doesn’t have problems… but I look at my family and think that my grandparents bought into the idea that loving a child (holding them, nurturing them, hugging them) was spoiling a child… my mom vowed to let her kids know that she loved them… but she chose a rotten partnership that never fed her own needs… and she ended up stressed and trying to do it on her own with too little to give… and then there’s me. I did better choosing a partner… one that was present and loving to me and the kids… and maybe they will be able to do even better. Oh, I hope so.

  5. My nearly-3-year-old said to me the other day, “Oh, for Chrissake, Mummy!” A clear reflection of the week we’ve had. I think I’ve been trying to swallow too much of that turpentine. I’m going to read this post every day for a week! Thanks, once again, CJ.

  6. Thanks again for pinning down wisps of clouds that float around in my head, and arranging them just right.

  7. Great post CJ, especially this realization:

    >>I had always thought of My Man and I as pretty laid back folk. But since having kids, I have realized that we were really only laid back because we had constructed just the life we wanted, and got to make all our own decisions about everything.<<

    You nailed this one on the head, for me and my life too.

    Plus now that you point it out, I see this also in my boys. They are happy and content beings, as long as they feel in control of their own lives, with no brother poking or prodding, and no injustice denying them what they feel they need.

  8. Thank you, I needed your wisdom today. As a 43 year old Mama of a 3 year old boy who had a rageful morning brought on by too much parenting alone while being sick, it is great to hear your thoughts about the parallel process of parenting to put things into perspective. I agree it is important to foster love for yourself in order to be able to love others. And I also agree that it is important for our children to see us mess up and repair situations, how else are they going to learn how to do it themselves? To act like we are not human does not model a real life to them, it shows them a fantasy. And if I forgive myself, then I can forgive him too and we can move on to have a better day.

    1. So glad my words could give solace. Solo parenting while sick?! That’s enough to send me into near oblivion. How did you find this post at such a fortuitous moment?

      1. I was feeling alone and sad so I typed “rageful Mamas” into Google. Your post came up and I felt more a part of a community which helped me feel much better. I guess we were really meant to be in a community while parenting, but times are different and we are still adapting.

      2. Amen!
        “ragefull mamas,” thats awesome. Im so glad you found me. You will find lots of good company here. Turning over dirty rocks is just about my favorite thing. Looks like you are a counselor, so you will understand the importance of that.

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