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.