How Mad Can a Mother Get?

Editor's Note: This essay is a modified excerpt from "Crossing the Line in the Sand," one of the essays included in "The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage," edited by Cathi Hanauer.

On the phone I tell my mother about the essay I am working on.

"You're writing about anger?" my mother says with surprise.

"Well – yes," I say. "About, you know, my anger, and how can you teach your kids to express anger constructively, when you yourself never learned how to."

"What do you mean?" she says. "You weren't an angry child."

There's this pause. Sickening as it is, my mother and I rarely argue or fight – and even then it's a war of kid gloves not boxing gloves, all politeness and barely raised voices. (If you supposedly love someone, you don't hurt their feelings.) When I was a child, my mother would, when put out with me, yank me not so gently by the arm, or – far worse – torture me with a lengthy discussion of my crime, and our feelings. She didn't yell, and never hit. I don't remember ever being afraid of my mother.

Nor can I remember my mother and father having a real fight, ever. In terms of my sister and me, my father got mad the way fathers, historically, are permitted to: He'd yell some, shake his fist, and on very rare occasion spank. Once, I got slapped across the face for insulting my mother, but only once. I can count on one hand the occasions on which my father's anger seemed excessive, or frightened me.

For the most part, my family didn't do anger in the raging, rampaging, veins-bursting-in-the-neck way. My family stopped anger in its tracks. We drowned it in cocktails, or ate it with chocolate frosting, or left the room and let it starve.

"I could get pretty mad," I tell my mother on the phone, feeling my chest start to tighten in defense of my girl-self's anger.

"About what?" my mother asks.

She has a point. Even now, I can't truly pinpoint the source of my childhood anger. Clearly, I was put together with different parts than my parents. I was high-strung and overly sensitive – especially about being taken seriously, which is hard when you're under five feet tall and your nickname is Pip.

"I don't remember you being that angry," my mother says, but what I hear is, Oh, come now. You're exaggerating.

"Well, I was angry," I say. "I was angry a lot."

I want to hurt her a little.

"I threw a high heeled shoe at Rob's head in a French restaurant," I say.

"...When?" she says, finally.

"It was early in our marriage. I was in my twenties. Lots of stuff happened, actually. Some of it much worse than that."

"Really?" she says, but I can tell she does not want or need to hear one more thing. "I'm sorry to hear that, honey. You seem just fine to me."

"It's good I found a great shrink," I say, thinking, blessed is more like it. Over many years, Dr. B., my therapist, has helped me understand that I'm entitled to my anger and to express it, but not to slap a man across the face or rip off all his shirt buttons simply because he annoyed me.

"I agree," my mother says, the relief palpable in her voice. "Dr. B. sounds wonderful."

"She is."

And that's that. We are in agreement on something, so we can stop. Nothing has been lost. The key is to keep the peace.

What I don't tell my mother, then, is that the reason I went back to my therapist in my early thirties, after stopping for a time, wasn't depression, but a fear of losing control of my anger. I was humiliated by my behavior; it shamed me and made me feel guilty (for now, as in childhood, what did I really have to be angry about?). I was concerned because my husband, Rob, and I were thinking about having a child, despite the fact that I'd always considered babies shrieking menaces – glorified larvae – and children irrational, needy, unpredictable and narcissistic (much like myself I suppose). And if and when we did have this child, I didn't want to be a bad mother. I wanted to be my mother – safe, protective, rational, calm – but (and here's the catch) without giving up all my anger, for if it sometimes scared and shamed me, it also fueled me: my drive, my ambition, my work. It was a fundamental part of who I was, and I didn't want to sublimate it completely – only to tame it. I had horrible fantasies of shaking my child until his or her teeth fell out, yanking their limbs out of their sockets, burning them with cigarettes or smacking them around. I was terrified of what my anger might make me capable of.

Now, seven years later, I am mother to two very cool, very wonderful children: Isadora, 6, and Miles, 3. So far, neither has felt the need to flee from me, that I know of. There has been, so far, no fodder for an After School TV Special.

Still, everyday I feel as if I have to draw a line in the sand, a line I have to promise myself not to cross. Depending on the day's psychic weather – my mood's tide – the line can fade or move slightly, only to reform again and again. For example: Some days it seems all I do is yell at my kids, then apologize for yelling at them, then feel guilty for being such a lousy mother, then start to feel resentful about being made to feel like a bad mother. I mean, how crappy of a mother am I really? It isn't like they exist on a diet of Happy Meals and Ho-hos. I don't knock them around in public or humiliate them by screaming, If you don't stop crying, I am going to really give you something to cry about! I read them books and play pretend, I make sure they have mittens or some such facsimile in the winter and insist we eat dinner together as a family. I tell them they are loved so often they sometimes roll their eyes.

And yet, as I wash my face some mornings, I already feel overwhelmed; not even dressed, I am already pulling myself back from that line. I have a novel under contract, long overdue; I need to to add eight more books a monthly book review column I write, revise an essay for a collection I've been asked to contribute to, and, oh yeah, dress the kids appropriately while allowing for their individuality (read: fairy wings and lion suits) and try to keep Miles from undressing and tying another balloon string around his penis before we can get out the door. I must make breakfast, pack lunches, collect homework, hunt for library books eventually discovered in fireplace, walk kids to school without resorting to dragging on collars, avoid eye contact with the terminally chirpy Class Mother who will press me to bake peanut butter free cupcakes or chaperone the upcoming field trip to a turkey farm.

Most days, Rob is there to help me with all this. Other days – like today – he has his own deadline. So today, after dropping off Isadora, I will carry Miles to preschool – if necessary, upside down. Then I will coordinate his pick-up and play date with Nicole, our precious and most adored babysitter, without whom my life would skid into a ditch and explode. Next I will ride my bike to my studio, flipping off the car that cuts me off, nearly dropping my messenger bag which contains my laptop, and work frantically (novel or essay? Flip a coin) for a few hours. Just as I get into a groove (hey, I finally seem to be writing in English – as though it were my first language!), I will notice the time, briefly panic, and race out to pick up Isadora and take her to tumbling class, where, watching her learn forward rolls on the balance beam, it will occur to me that I never added those books to my column. Debating what to do if I lose my job – Sheep herder? Evangelist preacher? – I will drag my by now worn down daughter into the store for juice-boxes and pasta bunnies, giving in to her request for ice cream studded with what appear to be army men. Greeting us at home is Miles who has apparently markered Japanese swear words all over his naked body. Indefatigable Nicole will look ready to quit. I will give her a bottle of wine and make her swear to come back tomorrow.

The light on my answering machine flashes, ten messages. Can't I just push the erase button? Rob is working downstairs, checking online for Anthrax updates and putting out any fires flaring at Tin House, the literary magazine he's co-founder and editor of. As I watch the kids run out to dig for beetles in the dirt with what appear to be fish forks from the family silver service, my head pounds. I am never going to finish this novel. The publisher is going to ask for their money back, and I will have to say, Ha, ha, I have spent it all on tin foil shoes and applesauce! The only solution is to put "free kitten" signs around my children's necks and plop them in a box on the curb.

I will take deep breaths, remember that I'm in control, that I'm allowed to be mad but I can also choose not to get angry. So minutes later, when the kids come inside and find me on the phone (not returning calls but actually stealing a moment to talk to a real friend) and begin to pull on my sweater and whine, I will recall, somewhat sheepishly, anger management strategies pulled out of magazines and parenting books, and I will count, make myself smile, whisper that I'll be right with them. I will hold myself in check, and eventually they will run off and leave me to finish my call. This night, I will be able to push my anger back into its cage with the stick of hard-earned, well-managed patience.

But a couple of nights later – I am steaming artichokes and laying out chicken nugget stars and guitars – it creeps back out. Miles has pinched Isadora's Triscuit and, with charming malevolence, slowly licked it top to bottom.

Isadora screams.

"Miles, stop licking your sister's food!" I scold. Keep calm, I think.

Isadora grabs the cracker and smashes it into his face.

"It's my cracker!" Miles yells, grabbing back what's left of it.

I slam down the cookie tray, the chicken nuggets leaping as if alive. I cannot bear it when they hurt each other. "Stop it!" I say grabbing Isadora by the shoulder, and, to Miles, "No taking Izzy's food – "

"But Mommy – "

"Do you understand? Jesus!" I'm yelling now.

These days, not only does it seem as though I am constantly shrieking in frustration, I am boggled by the banality of what I am yelling about. Don't hug the cat that way! No you can't have beef jerky for breakfast! Did I hear a thank you?! Barbie's head doesn't go on Ken's body! Get up! Sit down! Are you trying to kill me?! Do you want my head to explode?! And who do you suppose is going to clean it all up! Huh? Don't look at me, pal!

But when they refuse to hear me, when they refuse to turn off the TV in favor of a painting project or building with Legos, the effort to keep from screaming "Barney is Satan!!" is sometimes beyond me. I ought to wear one of those bracelets that say WWMBD on them. What would Mrs. Brady do?

The first thing, of course, would be to sell a kidney so I could afford my very own live-in Alice, who would not only run our house like a fancy hotel, but also lovingly dress and deliver Isadora and Miles to school on time, freeing us from rumors that we're Carnie folks living out of tents by the East River. At school she would greet the Class Mother and happily agree to fashion a three foot statue of the school mascot out of ladyfingers, then accompany the entire first grade to an outing at the local prison. After school, she'd provide a tasty snack not concocted in a lab and help them with homework; then they'd all construct a baking soda volcano.

Thus, when Mr. Brady came home, I would not be tired and stressed, having worked, bathed, perhaps had coffee with a friend, and maybe even changed the leather pants (a mother's best friend, as they wipe clean) I've been wearing for three days ... so I'd be able to see him not as the bastard who got me into this mess, but as my lover who I am thrilled to have home again. I would be capable of sparks, of lively flirty adult conversation, and – over a sumptuous turkey-frank-free dinner – I might even run my stockinged foot up the back of his calf, causing him to wonder if I am truly his wife or, in fact, the robot love slave he asked Santa for.

Despite the noisy cracker licking debacle, Rob, unshaven and bleary-eyed, comes up from his basement office, where he has spent the day reading page proofs. So much for the Brady fantasy.

Though he looks tired and cranky, I know he's not likely to lose his head, except as a somewhat understandable (at least to me) response to an unbearable situation. Daddy broke the kitchen window with a flying fork/threw the chicken carcass off the table and into the dishwasher because Isadora, you again swore you'd never read when you plainly can; upset your milk; and declared the wild rice yucky, and Miles, you jumped out of your chair for the thirteenth time, raspberried your mother, and finally, stuck the filthy spoon you'd artistically spackled with modeling clay into your juice.

With me, in contrast, so often what sets off my anger is pure stress and fatigue. Likewise, sometimes I am often just too damn tired or lazy to discipline my children calmly and effectively (unless, of course, they are being unlawful or are in danger of, say, losing an eye). But my exhaustion is coupled with my guilt that I am one of the lucky ones. I shouldn't complain. I have money (usually), a partner (always), and child care (generally when I want it). Unlike so many husbands, mine is a true partner; I can always tag him to take over when I am about to grab the folding chair. My kids are happy, safe and healthy, and I get to do the work I want, more or less. How many people can say that? I am rich beyond words.

And yet, where once seeing a mother dragging a kid down the street like a wildebeest would have made me shake my head in horror, I now sigh in sympathy – for the mother, not the children. I can relate to the pure adrenaline – and fireman's carry – it sometimes takes just to get your kids from point A to point B.

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