I don’t remember exactly what set me off the first time it happened. But I remember how it felt.
I had just brought home our second daughter after a harrowing pregnancy, birth, and NICU stay. I felt completely guilty sending my 20-month-old to daycare the next day while I was at home lavishing attention on the new baby. My 40th birthday was coming up and I was already disappointed that I chose to let it pass without fanfare—not that I wanted fanfare, mind you. I was much too stressed and exhausted for fanfare.
And then something small happened. Maybe I couldn’t find the last clean preemie onesie. Maybe I forgot to run the dishwasher. Maybe we ran out of coffee.
Whatever it was, it stopped me in my tracks.
I stood in my dark bedroom with my arms glued to my sides, my hands in fists, my jaw clamped shut, and heat radiating from every cell in my body.
I didn’t scream. Because the kids were miraculously both sleeping. And even in the out-of-body state I morphed into, I still had the presence of mind to sacrifice my needs for my children’s needs. Instead, a guttural noise rumbled up from my gut and scratched its way past the back of my throat and escaped out of my teeth.
This was the first time I remember Dr. Jekyll letting Mr. Hyde out, but it wasn’t the last.
Among my mom friends, I would occasionally joke that instead of postpartum depression I had postpartum rage. But mostly I didn’t say anything at all. My rage felt like a shameful secret. Here I was with two beautiful girls, a doting husband who had paternity leave, and a job I loved that gave me months to recover from childbirth. What did I have to be so upset about?
It wasn’t until I read Minna Dubin’s New York Times article, “The Rage Mothers Don’t Talk About,” that I realized I wasn’t the only one feeling...well...a bit off-kilter.
Published in September 2019, the article details the ways in which a series of small, ordinary annoyances can add up to a big explosion. She wrote: “Motherhood is relentless provocation! And yet we are expected to be saintly and patient, to lovingly hold and care for our babies, even at their most challenging.”
Last week, I spoke with Dubin, a mom of two who resides in the Bay Area. “The response to this article was so validating,” Dubin said. “I still get emails from mothers. I would say 75 percent of them say they’re crying in the email. I think that mothers are just so full of shame and self-hatred around any negative feelings that they might have, or ways that they are disappointed in their parenting. To admit it can feel transformational.”
After the influx of immediate responses to the article, Dubin says that the emails slowed down…until pandemic-related lockdowns began in March 2020. She then received another wave of responses, causing her to write a second article for the Times about mom rage during a pandemic.
She told me, “Moms were already doing all the ‘ands,’ like parenting all the time and working and….. Now there are a ton more ‘ands.’ There’s a direct connection between mom rage and lockdown.”
Deena Margolin, one half of the popular toddler expert duo, Big Little Feelings, knows pandemic mom rage intimately. A child therapist and first-time mom, Margolin maintains, “When my baby was about three months old, crying nonstop, I just had to get one work thing done and I didn’t have a partner there to step in for me and take over so I could focus….It was like I snapped. I suddenly had the physical urge to shake my crying baby–it was all so overwhelming and it was like I just needed it all to stop right then.”
Margolin recognized her response right away, and she notes now that rage is the “fight” portion of the “fight or flight” response: “You are reacting in survival mode rather than consciously responding to the situation in front of you.”
In this case, Margolin reacted by immediately putting her baby down and sitting in her rocking chair, allowing herself to “feel like a garbage mom” for a bit. “I had to remind myself that rage is a natural stress response–I wasn’t a bad mom, I was an overwhelmed mom. And it was a sign that I needed to get more support and have clearer boundaries around when I’m working and when I’m mom-ing.”
This lack of support for moms is one of the things that led Mary Clavieres, a mom of two living in Hoboken, New Jersey, to create The Transitions Collective, a platform that provides accountability, resources and community for women who are building businesses while raising families.
“Moms are staying home now and taking the brunt of the childcare most of the time,” says Clavieres. “I've seen a lot of moms like struggling to not put their business on the backburner. And it's heartbreaking because we shouldn't have to give up work we love.”
Recently, Clavieres and a few mom friends realized they had simultaneously reached their breaking points. “We were all sitting there saying we just couldn't take it anymore. And it was comforting and frustrating to hear that: comforting that you're not alone, but frustrating that it has come to this point.”
As a parent coach and mother of two adult children, Susan G. Groner, founder of The Parenting Mentor and author of Parenting with Sanity & Joy, suspects that the main trigger for mom rage is our lack of control over others. She says, “We have a plan for how we think things should go, but our kids–and often our partners–aren’t on board with that plan. Our frustration tolerance gets whittled away.”
With younger kids, we might be annoyed by constant crying, temper tantrums or whining, but with older kids, Groner says mom rage can stem from our children’s deviation from the overall plans we have for them.
“The frustration we feel because we can’t force our kids to study harder, do work on time and clean their rooms, easily turns to rage as it builds up. And being stuck at home this year and seeing everything constantly makes it much worse,” she explains.
Okay, so I’m raging. You’re raging. We’re all raging. How can we address our rage in a healthy, non-murdery way?
1. Give yourself a break
Margolin and Kristin Gallant (the other half of Big Little Feelings) maintain, “Remember you’re human, which means it’s natural to have the whole range of human emotions. Would you be this critical of a friend if they told you this same story? Probably not.”
2. Lower your expectations
Groner says that it can take practice to get out of the habit of micromanaging the rest of the family. Distinguishing what needs to be done from what you would like to be done can save us some rage-filled days.
3. Validate your child’s feelings...and yours, too!
“We’re often so quick to fix our kids’ unhappiness that we forget to validate their difficult feelings. That’s all our kids want,” says Groner. Indeed, when we jump in and try to fix things, children may think we’re minimizing their feelings, making them react, which in turn is infuriating to parents who are only trying to help, doggone it! Instead, just sitting with our kids, refraining from offering unsolicited advice, and saying, “I understand how you feel, and I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” can make a big difference.
That said, moms have feelings, too, and Margolin and Gallant stress the importance of communicating your own needs and feelings: “Using the phrases like: I feel ____ when ____, or, What would be helpful is _____ can be powerful tools for communicating intense emotions safely. And when a rage-y moment does happen, forgive yourself.”
4. Get to the heart of the matter
Groner, Margolin and Gallant all suggest that when you feel stuck in a rage cycle, therapy can be a great resource. After all, our response to current stress may be the result of past situations, and getting to the source of the issue can help us move forward in a healthier way.
If you are hesitant about therapy, start by looking for the triggers in your own life as Dubin and Clavieres did. When you recognize the (often minor) annoyances that can build up, you can look at them more objectively, lengthening your fuse.
5. Remember that social media is not real life
Even though Big Little Feelings has a gigantic following on Instagram, Margolin and Gallant caution that most media–and even conversations with friends or moms at the park–is a highlight reel: “You’re seeing cute cut-out shaped food and happy kids and moms with selfie ring lights and filters. But trust us, this is why we try to show the whole story on Big Little Feelings; you’re not alone or the worst mom on Earth. They also snap and yell, have messy houses or bad hair days.”
6. Find space
I found that what helped me increase my tolerance for chaos has been taking baths. Now, this is my own very unofficial advice, and if I were you, reading the advice that baths solve mom rage would make me roll my eyes, too. But hear me out...
It’s not the hot water, the Lush bath products, the back pillow, the glass of wine, the Entertainment Weekly or the Netflix I set up on my laptop that does the trick (though all of those things certainly ramp up the ambiance). It’s the fact that I am in a room by myself. Physical space is a scarce resource for moms of younger kids. And it’s even more precious in a pandemic when everyone is trying to work, play and live in the same shared space.
When the door is locked, nobody can ask me for snacks. I can’t possibly wash, dry, and fold a laundry basket full of teeny, tiny clothes. I don’t hear the sound of my three-year-old tantruming because I can’t magically turn her beautiful chin-length curly hair into a long, straight ponytail.
Previous to 2020, I could count on one hand the number of baths I had taken in my adult life. Now I indulge in at least one a week. Usually on nights that I’m not doing bedtime, so it’s a double-bonus.
7. Know that we’re in this together.
Moms, you’re not alone. We’re all in this insanely justified rage-fest together, so let’s hold hands and scream into the night. “We’ve been asked to put up with something that’s unsustainable...and we’re still doing it one year later,” said Clavieries. “How can any mom not be raging right now?”