How do we deal with the ugly furies of motherhood?
“Wait right here.”
I leave my two boys, both 2 1/2 years old, on our doorstep. I shut the door, walk to the back of the house and scream. I scream for 10 seconds. Stop. Then scream again.
My teeth are bared, my face taut and red, my eyes narrowed into slits. I don’t feel human. I feel tight, trapped. I can’t breathe. I stop, take a few gulps of air. I don’t feel relieved. I feel tired. I want to run somewhere, anywhere. But my kids are waiting. I open the door. I don’t know what they’ve heard. But they look at me and say nothing.
I pile the kids into the car and head to the playground. Let them play while I sit, drink my tea and think. Think about how deep this anger at motherhood really goes — anger at the relentless barrage of needs. I know that mothering 2 1/2-year-old twins is particularly tough, and that they are at the apogee of their demands; but I still need to get a grip on my anger. I need to figure out how best to be with them when I’m coming undone.
I want some guides, some teachers to show me the way through this thicket of love, tenderness and fury. I want to know how to navigate an ambivalence that Adrienne Rich, 30 years ago, called a “murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” Like Rich, what I want to know is this: How do you reconcile feeling hopelessly in love with your children and furious that you no longer have much of your own life? How do you untangle this complicated nexus of ferocious love, fury and bewilderment?
I drive slowly and think about what my own parents taught me about anger. Nothing I want to emulate. My father’s anger was frightening, irrational and mean. It went from mild irritation to white-hot fury in seconds. My mother, a peace-seeker by nature, tried to calm him, sweep his rage under the rug and pray the rest of the day would proceed uneventfully. The way my father expressed anger hurt his children. When my children were born, I swore I wouldn’t repeat the sins of my father. No hitting, no demeaning. I’ve kept my promise but am still afraid of the potency of my rage.
I speak with friends, but they rarely cop to mother-anger except in that exasperated “Do you know what my kid did today?” tone. When I introduced the subject of anger in my mother’s group, there was a twitter of nervous laughter, like I had just introduced them to the slobbering mutant sibling I keep hidden in the shed behind the house. I got the feeling that even bringing it up represented some great moral failure on my part — like I had flunked the good mother test.
Thirty years after Rich’s groundbreaking treatise, we still can’t come clean about mother-rage.
We get to the playground, and Jack and Matthew go tearing over to the seesaw. I watch them go up and down, laughing, parrying words that rhyme, back and forth. My children are beautiful, decent and kind. Love starts to soften my clenched jaw, my armored heart. I hear a group of mothers cooing to their newborn babes in singsong mother voices.
I think about the tea I spilled on the boys’ carpet that morning. How it made a giant stain, and how I cleaned it up like a normal person instead of a maniacal housewife. There was a time I couldn’t bear to think that their room would be anything less than pristine, but their carpet is now scattered with stains, and I let it be. It’s not practical to replace it yet. My ideal nursery has faded, and my idealized notion of both my children and of motherhood is gone.
At the other end of the playground, a mother yanks her 3-year-old hard by the hand. The little girl’s glove comes off. “You are very bad,” the mother mutters with venom. I wonder what the offense is. Then I see it. A half-eaten tuna sandwich on the ground, smooshed evidently, by the girl’s shoe, and now covered with mayonnaise.
“God damn it!” the woman seethes. She grabs the sandwich and the girl, dragging her toward her car. The little girl looks miserable. On the playground, all action stops. The mothers look at each other. They say without words, “Poor kid, scary mom.” Maybe so. But I also understand how that mother feels. The longer I am a mother, the less I judge other mothers. I’m having a hard enough time trying to be the kind of mother I want to be — a good enough one. An honest one.
We drive home. I give the boys apple slices to snack on while I clean the kitchen. Almost instantly I hear screeching. One boy has stolen the other’s piece of fruit. The offended child starts howling, pointing at his brother. He proceeds to thwack him on the back.
“Hey!” I yell. “We never hit in this house. Ever.” I remember a line their preschool teacher often uses. “Use your words.”
My sons look at me, waiting.
“Use your words,” I repeat. Say, “No! Don’t take my apple.”
My son, the one whose apple piece was stolen, still looks at me, then looks at his brother, and says something remarkable. “I angry,” he says.
We all stop and look at each other. “I angry” he says again. His brother, unsure what to do next, looks at me for a cue. But I’m standing there, amazed at my son’s honesty. Amazed not only that he said what he felt, but that he didn’t act it out. The offender throws the apple down and runs off to play with his Legos.
I stand there, looking at my children. If they can accept that their anger is OK, then maybe mine is too. Watching my children reminds me again that expressing anger doesn’t have to be hurtful. If they can say what they feel — plainly, without everything else falling apart — so can I. Maybe I do have teachers. And two of them are my children.
That night, I get Matthew and Jack ready for bed. I put on their diapers. They rip them off. I put on their pajamas. They proceed to unzip them.
I could feel the heat rising in my chest. I feel tight, constricted. I want to yell at them to stop making my life so goddamn hard. I want to explode.
I think I’m hiding my anger from them, sweeping it away, but my boys look at me.
“Mama angry,” says one of my boys.
“Mama angry,” agrees the other.
My sons see clearly. They speak plainly. I know I need to do the same. I take a breath.
“Yes,” I say. “Mama’s angry.”
I kneel down to zip up their pajamas.