Calming the Mother Rage

It was 5pm, in the kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon. I emitted a roar so thunderous that my toddler wailed and my sons abandoned the television’s glare to investigate. Next appeared my husband, clutching an open laptop whilst swiftly cutting off a colleague mid-sentence.

Eyes watched in confusion as I visibly shook next to a mound of pesto pasta that seconds before I’d envisioned hurling against the wall. I’d decided against it. The clear up wouldn’t justify the release. Heart galloping and adrenaline searing through my veins, I left the room and sank into the sofa crying shoulder-shuddering tears of failure.

I like to think of myself as a rational and nurturing individual. Yet this last year I’ve encountered rage like never before. It’s visceral, gaining momentum emotionally and physically until I am out of energy to tether it. If I’m not able to diffuse it, it erupts, leaving collateral debris of tears and shame in its wake.

I am not alone. ‘I have never had as short a fuse as in this past year’ shares a social media follower wishing to remain anonymous. The internet is awash with humorous motherhood memes about losing our rag, our minds and our willpower ‘not to drink tonight because I just can’t parent’. Whilst we laugh because it resonates, are we choosing to normalise rage and overwhelm because even in this age of ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ talking about the stark, messy reality of it feels too taboo? Perhaps, the true veil isn’t humour, but bitter shame and heavy guilt.

I’m lifting the veil, because what we don’t need more of as mothers is shame and guilt. And in a recent social media poll of 700 respondents, 93% mothers said they’d felt more rage and irritability in the last year than pre-pandemic. So, for the sake of our mental health, it’s time to start taking rage seriously and arming ourselves with tools to diffuse rather than repress it.

Rage as a symptom of burnout

There are many types of rage. Rage may be violent, destructive, compassionate, or motivating. There’s the rage against injustice that rises up when watching the news. Should my children witness an outburst, it provides a moment to educate, imparting something valuable. How disruptive or damaging rage can be rests on both the context and the safety in its delivery. The type of rage I am focussing on, is the rage that comes with the depletion of burnout.  One mother shared with me the physical nature of her rage: ‘I feel the irritability and rage coming up my throat and if I don’t compose myself, it floods out like fire’

We are a burnt-out nation of mothers who praise one another for being strong yet sit behind the closed doors of our ‘game faces’ feeling anything but. Burnout develops when we are forced to (or choose to) chronically deny our human-ness. We demote our own needs and overlook feelings in order to reserve what energy we can to keep calm and carry on for those depending on us to function. And us mothers, we tend to be skilled at looking like ‘we’ve got this’ as a member of my community admitted –  ‘I do such a good job of looking like I’ve got it together, that nobody asks if I’m okay’.

Often, I ask my Psychotherapy clients one deceptively simple question: ‘what do you need?’. After a moment’s thought, and commonly tears, the needs that arise are along the lines of ‘space, support and rest’. With those three things hard to come by, especially during the past year, burnout isn’t failure, it’s a human response to the circumstances. And it’s those very three things that will provide the antidote.

Much like a filling bladder or an old student loan, needs and feelings do not dissipate when ignored, they grow in size and urgency ‘I ignored my grief this past year, there just wasn’t time to cry. I ended up with this heaviness in my chest that felt suffocating. I broke and spent three days in bed unable to function’ – anonymous. Feelings and needs are energy in motion, they rise up like waves, and when we shove them deftly aside, they do not slink into nothingness.

Consider how physically you experience different emotions and needs, you may feel butterflies in your stomach, a need for connection as longing your heart, anxiety in your chests. So, when these physical forms of energy are chronically pushed down and repressed, the pressure builds and builds mounting, when unaddressed, to an explosive release.

The curse of the mother caricature

Rage is often portrayed in films as a masculine emotion. Whereas, the caricature of a mother is of the loving, kind, patient nurturer. She may be reduced to sobbing, but rarely do we witness red-raw rage. This depiction dangerously overlooks the complexity of human guilt and shame. And what do we often do in response? We pledge to try harder at being better, further shunting aside our needs, our feelings and, well, ourselves.

I am noticing, both in myself and other mothers, the strong drive to caveat anger and difficult emotions. An admission of rage, or finding something excruciatingly challenging is swiftly followed by a cascade of proclamations of love and gratitude for children. ‘It’s overwhelming, but I wouldn’t change it for the world/but I love them/but it’s good too’.

There is fear that the presence of anger drags love into immediate question. Thus a need to reassure whoever listening that we love our children. Love and anger can co-exist. So many times have I spoken to women who’ve concealed the truth of their post-partum anxiety, the extent of their low moods, and the reality of their intrusive thoughts out of fear that their ability to love and mother would be questioned, that their child might be removed from their care. One mother disclosed ‘I was sleep deprived and fantasised about being hospitalised just so I could sleep. I didn’t tell anyone as I was terrified, they’d think I didn’t love my kids’. So much of what we feel is a human response to the circumstances we are in, and in no way a reflection of how strongly our heart beats in love to our child.

I wonder perhaps, though we are long past the days of overtly emotional women being branded clinically ‘hysterical’, there is a deeply running unease in communicating the messier emotions of womanhood and motherhood out of fear of being gaslit by the very people we turn to for support. As these emotions are swept under the metaphorical rug, they build, they get lumpy and then one day, we trip over them, in the kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon. We have surely come along way, but we have a long old way to go.

Know your flags

With practice and reprioritising, it’s possible to avoid burnout before you find yourself sliding down the fridge, ending up on the cold tiles wondering how things got so bad.

Consider your red flags. One member of my community recognised ‘My burnout flag is that I just can’t be bothered to eat proper food. I snack all day on sugar, which doesn’t help’. It may be apathy, exhaustion or irritability. Perhaps it’s in the moments you proclaim ‘I can’t do this’ and then continue to do it anyway. You might struggle to make simple decisions or rationalise thoughts. Motivation slips away, taking with it the sparkle in your eye and the ease of your laughter. Perhaps they are a lack of desire to run a route you love, resentment for a family member who rests with ease, or feeling frozen as you open the laptop for work. Perhaps your flag is those nights adrenaline chases sleep out of reach, or a hypersensitivity to the normal sounds of your home.

To ignore burnout, is to fuel the very issue itself. Unmet needs do not slink away when ignored, they become more pressing. Rage is an adrenaline filled, reactive state in which rationality is hard to grasp. Whilst the other symptoms of burnout silently chip away at the sense of self, rage conflicts with how we see ourselves.

Your emotional and physical resources are a currency that you spend on your family for the benefit of their collective wellbeing. I am coming to realise that, for my own sanity’s sake, the replenishing of that very currency in order to spend it on them again, needs to be a collective family aim! Plan, strategies and diarise periods of space, rest and refuelling, whatever that may look like for you. Use what resources and support you have available to facilitate these things. And remember, small things, whilst they may never feel ‘enough’, are always better than nothing. They might enable you to find the strength to breathe your way through the next tantrum or curveball.

Dealing with the moment of rage and the collateral damage

If you feel the rage building, urgently prioritise calming your mind and body. Use a simple breathing exercise, step out of the room if appropriate. Switch on the TV for the children or hand out iPads like frisbees, delay dinner. Scroll, call, text, read, stretch, pummel a pillow, walk; do whatever you need to in order to calm your nervous system so that you can re-access your rational brain again.

If rage has erupted, take a moment to recalibrate whilst offering yourself words of gentleness. When rage is followed with self-criticism and shame, you are less likely to attend to the overlooked needs that led to it. Claim responsibility and talk the episode through with your family or child in a way that allays any resulting fear or confusion.

I recently apologised to my four-year-old for rage fuelled snapping. ‘It’s okay’ said his little voice in reassurance. ‘Being tired and grumpy is okay’ I said. ‘But shouting at you like that isn’t okay. I am very tired and I am going to find a way to help me try and be patient next time’. We can affirm the validity of feelings whilst acknowledging that how you communicated it wasn’t helpful. Just as I would let him know that the jealousy he feels at his brother having a toy he wants is acceptable, but hitting him isn’t a good way to outwork that feeling and perhaps next time he might stomp his feet instead.

Playing the long game

Acknowledging your needs isn’t guilt-worthy indulgence, instead it forms the foundations upon everything you love and enjoy can stand firm. Taking what you need to fend off burnout is not ‘me first’ it’s ‘me too’. Rest and seeking space often trigger feelings of guilt and inefficiency, yet it is the antidote to burnout and a building block to good mental health.

Prioritise these things as if your mental health depends on it, and as if your family depend on your mental health. Because, both are true.

Welcome the small things. One fellow mother shared ‘I need to see my mum. We speak online, it’s not the same but It gives me something’. Whilst you may fantasise about a week on a sandy beach devoid of all responsibility, an evening out might not cut the mustard, but it’s something. And when it comes to staving off burnout, something is always better than nothing. Cut corners, delegate, make space and lessen perfectionist standards where possible. Take your foot off the gas in whichever way possible and acknowledge that just like fuelling the car the more asking of yourself, the more you need to input.

Seek friendship and support. Whilst someone may not be able to relieve you of stress, they can validate your feelings and offer vital compassion, lessening burnout-fuelling feelings of self-sufficiency. If you recognise that you spend life firmly sat on a seat of the burnout rollercoaster, seek professional support, because where there is help, there is hope.

Compassion ends the cycle

Just as those you care for; you are equally deserving of a life well lived.

Us mothers need mothering, and where we cannot be mothered we must learn to mother ourselves. We must coax ourselves to bed at a good time, encourage ourselves to pick up the phone to a listening ear, to walk, to breathe deeply. We must offer ourselves compassion for the moments we fall apart, gentleness as we brush our knees down and guidance as we seek ways to grow.

Sometimes I wonder if the raging mother-me who fantasises about throwing the pasta against the wall, is simply the acting out of my inner child, who is angered and hurt at the injustice of being so chronically overlooked.

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