Understanding 'Angry Mama Syndrome'
Miriam McCaleb talks to mums who’ve come clean about their anger and looks at ways to avoid classic meltdowns.
So many of us are feeling overworked, under appreciated, overwhelmed and under pressure.
Is it any wonder we get angry?
During my 20-mumble years of working alongside children and whanau, some things seem consistent about family life. First, it can be amazing. Second, it can be awful. And third: many of us have absorbed a weird societal message that we must not admit the awful bits. If we are lucky we have friends who we can vent to and share with, but are we ever as honest as we could be about the hairy patches in our homes?
As family therapist and author Susan Stiffelman writes, “So much of parenting is done behind closed doors. We rate ourselves against the behaviour of imaginary parents, falling prey to insecurities that have us convinced we’re the worst of the bunch.”
For example, thinking that I’m the only one who’s ever yelled so loud at her husband/kids that her throat hurts for the rest of the day, like a shameful penance for the anger, ‘cos yeah, um, I might’ve done that.
So, in addition to the reading and thinking done in preparation for this article, I sought anonymous feedback from a range of mothers about the role of anger in their lives. Their responses were humbling, heartbreaking and delightful.
Turns out it’s not just me with the raised voice and the frown lines. And that there is plenty we can all do about it.
First thing, mamas, is to check in with your own history with anger. Did you come from a home where people expressed their anger in a shouting, volatile way? Did people manage anger passive-aggressively? Perhaps you were treated to the outdated notion that nice girls don’t get angry.
Miriam Greenspan is a psychotherapist and author whose book Healing Through the Dark Emotions challenges the reader to find the wisdom in those feelings we shy away from or revile – the so-called negative emotions. Like many in her field, Greenspan teaches that emotions aren’t inherently good or bad, they just are. She writes that “exhibiting anger is still by and large socially prohibited for women” and that “crying is often a feminine expression of anger.”
So perhaps we haven’t had much exposure to well-managed anger. Perhaps we could use some practice dealing with anger in a healthy way. It isn’t necessarily a problem to become angry, it is what we do with that anger that determines its place in our homes.
Or, as Karen Maezen Miller writes in her book, Momma Zen, “I lose it all the time. We all lose it all the time. The point is not that we lose our cool, the point is how quickly we find it again.”
In fact, anger can be a wonderful power for positive change: it points very clearly to something that needs to be addressed. As one of my interviewees said: “Anger can be such a good tool. Anger once moved me and my daughter and my unborn child out of a house I felt was unsafe.”
Anger functions like a prickle in your foot that needs removing. But will you remove the prickle with a sterilised needle or a rusty safety pin? Because bad stuff can happen in the name of anger.
People can get aggressive. Stuff gets broken. Hurtful things can be said. A friend I’ll call Mary admitted that she has taken out her anger with her husband on herself “by drinking alcohol or eating badly or doing something irresponsible like going [clothes] shopping instead of to the supermarket”.
In my house, we don’t hit our children or each other, but yelling and cursing are hardly positive parenting behaviours either, are they?
I don’t want to yell like that, and an understanding of brain science gives good reason to avoid giving in to the yelling. When our emotional brain (often called our limbic system) is no longer listening to the calming, regulating logical brain (our cortex) it’s not a good time for family conferences.
On a neuro-biological level, it’s like stress hijacks our best selves.
It can be difficult to accept the strength of emotion provoked by family relationships. Even though you’re a parent now and not the child, it’s hard not to be influenced by ancient stuff from the family of your upbringing (probably your birth family). Raw spots are rubbed, triggers are sprung. Old wounds can become infected by interactions so subtle we mightn’t have even registered them. Our subconscious minds may be so busy churning that it’s little wonder a domestic slight can set us off. (“Would it kill my family to thank me for cooking dinner, again?”)
Anger can be messy in other ways, too. The thing that sets us off might be from another overflowing pool. It’s not just about our relational history, but also about being grumpy with Dad and letting that ooze onto the kids. Or vice versa. Or being stressed about work, money, ageing parents, a sore back, the list goes on – you bet it can be a challenge to avoid snapping at spouse or offspring. Those stressors have a habit of overflowing.
Everyone I spoke to acknowledged the overflow problem with anger. They also all pointed to the way that our high expectations can be our own worst enemy. Sometimes our expectations are kinda unavoidable – like the mother whose stress at having to keep her house pristine for weekly open homes led to outbursts of anger. Not really the kids’ fault, more the tyranny of external pressure and the way that mothers so often act as the filter between Home and World.
But sometimes those pressures are our own doing, as identified by Lucy, who is more likely to get angry when she’s “taking on too many things at once, saying yes too much, celebrating busyness as though it’s some kind of race”.
Lucy articulated something else I bet you will recognise: how angry she gets when she’s “trying to be a ‘good’ mother but I’m really tired and need a break, for example saying I’ll cook tea when really it would be better for my mood if I said ‘let’s get take-out’.”
Lucy admits that she’d love for her family to “suggest the takeaways as an acknowledgement that they can see my tiredness, but they don’t, so I end up feeling like a resentful martyr which just makes me angry at myself because I hate that martyr stuff”.
So many lessons in all that lovely honesty. It would seem that with practice, our anger can be fuel for the fire of improvement – improvement of ourselves, our relationships and our communication.
Let’s think about how anger can be useful. Certainly in terms of social justice, anger is key for creating change. And closer to home, when I talked to Sharon, mother of two, she said, “I think, as a mother, it’s important for your kids to see that you have feeling too – a whole range of feelings including so-called ‘negative’ feelings such as anger and fear. That gives them permission to have those feelings too. It’s the way you deal with them that’s important.”
How wise. So for us to suppress or squash anger we run the risk of passing on very weird messages to our kids.
Let’s teach that it is normal to get angry. Mary, who we heard from before, admits that most of the anger in her house is hers, because husband and children are happy “if I just keep the house clean and prepare for their every need without complaint”.
I’m sure many partners and children would love that, but is that scenario really best for anyone? As mum of four Sam told me, if she didn’t communicate her anger “I feel I wouldn’t be equipping my kids for life and how anger is out there in the world”.
Furthermore, Sam reminded me that anger gives voice to truth. When you draw a line in the sand “you are being true to yourself”. It doesn’t hurt the family to realise that Mama has limits and needs.
The trick is to try and communicate those limits calmly before you must aggressively smash through them with your rolling pin.
I leave you with some questions as well as some ideas. Your answers to these questions, woven together with the ideas, hold the makings of a more peaceful home scene. For me too: I hope to reduce the need for throat lozenges, post-yelling.
Questions to ask yourself:
• Will we let go of our huge expectations or will we learn how to be okay with them – and with the stress of falling short?
• We know that we need to communicate our limits to our families, so how can we do so in a way that does not involve anger?
• Are you comfortable with the role of anger in your home? If not – what will you do about it?
Ideas to consider:
• Breathe. Practise calm breathing when you’re not angry so you can call on the skill during moments of tension. Our vagus nerve carries messages from our brain to our heart, lungs and stomach. You can use it to trick your system into calming down by taking long, slow breaths.
• Put yourself in time-out. I like to strategically empty the compost whether it needs doing or not. Give yourself time to calm that heart rate, which supports re-engagement of the cortex.
• Practise a technique that works for you. Here’s one from Sharon, “Sometimes, I can catch myself out by imagining things an hour on. If I’m lucky, I can think, “How would I like to look back on this situation? How would the calmest ‘me’ handle this?” It’s like asking the most effective part of myself to step in and be the mediator with the crazy, about-to-lose it one.”
This will get you through the moment but when you are calm, later, you need to take five to think actively, to reflect. Perhaps talk it over with a friend or your husband. What is it that is making you crazy? How can you tweak strategies and responses?
• A journal is a great way to monitor those triggers and identify your responses. Write down some quick notes at the end of the day. Over time, patterns emerge to help you figure out what is going on and what you might try next time.
• Care for your inner toddler. Pay attention to your needs: food, hydration, rest.
• Ask yourself, “What can I control in this situation?” Perhaps you can adjust your expectations, sometimes there are practical steps you can take in the moment (spoon-feed your overtired toddler on your knee instead of insisting on the highchair on this occasion). Other times, the only thing that you can control is your breath. We cannot control how other people react, even our children.
• I’ll say it again, practise breathing. As interviewee Katie said: “Just breathe.... When s**t hits the fan... the only thing you absolutely HAVE to do is breathe. This too shall pass.” So meditate, if you don’t already. Even two minutes each day will bring benefits. Or get thee to a quality yoga class, or go for a walk/run.
• Embrace the power of apology. We all make mistakes. We all lose it sometimes. Apologise. Forgive yourself. Move on.
• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, please seek support when necessary. There’s no shame in seeking support from a wise outsider. Perhaps start with your GP who will be able to make recommendations. Counselling is great and therapy is your friend.
Miriam is a calm(ish), happy person. However, without deep breathing, cabernet sauvignon, and yoga class, things get ugly. Fast. She’s an ex-university lecturer who blogs at baby.geek.nz.
Read Miriam's article on Strategies For Helping Your Child deal with emotions.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 26 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW