Maybe you’ve been there too, mama. Maybe you raised your voice unexpectedly when scolding your child. Maybe you snapped at your partner. Maybe you found yourself clenching the steering wheel or fuming while stuck in traffic with your kids in the car. Regardless of how it presents itself, mom rage most commonly feels unexpected and out of character for you. It leaves you feeling out of control and helpless as you wonder what happened and how you got there.
As a therapist, I’ve spent the last several years listening to mothers share their experiences in motherhood. Inevitably, once we’ve developed a foundation of trust in our therapeutic relationship, the walls come down and I get the honor of getting to know the “real” mother behind the mask. When they talk about those unexpected moments of mom rage, they quickly go to a deep, dark place. Shame.
If that’s you, too, know that you’re not alone. Here’s what I recommend to my clients who are experiencing mom rage—and the inevitable shame that follows.
What is mom rage?
Rage is a symptom of feeling overwhelmed and under-supported. It is a symptom of today’s motherhood culture. We mother without our village, juggle work-home-personal life, carry the mental, emotional and physical invisible loads of motherhood largely by ourselves. Not to mention, we’ve been surviving a global pandemic for over two years and our patience has worn thin.
It’s a perfect storm for an increase in rage, mama.
Mothers have been told they are supposed to love mothering, be incredibly nurturing and know exactly what to do at every moment. So anything less than this idea of perfection is flawed. Rage is a forbidden emotion in this idealized world.
It’s becoming more common for mothers to admit guilt in motherhood, aka “mom guilt”.
Yet how often do we talk about shame in motherhood?
The difference between guilt and shame
Guilt is the feeling of “I did something bad,” whereas shame is the feeling of “I am bad”. Talking about guilt in motherhood is one thing, but admitting we’re “bad” moms is something very different.
Shame thrives in hiding; it feeds off of “secrets” and begs of us to never share our intimate vulnerabilities with one another in fear of being rejected, seen as less than or deemed unworthy.
In motherhood, where we desire to be the best, perfect in our children’s eyes (and in one another’s too), we don’t dare admit our dark moments to one another. The facade of perfection is one we all work at keeping up all the time.
If we are anything less than “perfect”, we have failed. So we don’t share our struggles. We hide them, keep them to ourselves and beat ourselves up silently for the damage that we have caused and our inability to manage our emotions. Cue a shame spiral that leads to an inevitable shame hangover, the aftermath we experience in the form of gut-wrenching self-judgment and fear that we’ve done irreparable damage.
Moving past the shame
Sharing our darker moments and being vulnerable can be scary. It requires courage and trust in another person. Yet it is through this sharing that the shame will decrease. Start with a trusted friend and see how it goes. If you need some additional support, find a mental health professional and know your shame is safe with them.
Releasing the shame associated with mom rage is one step in breaking the perfect mother myth.
When more of us talk about mom rage, the less we will see it as a reflection of our ability and more a common reaction to a larger systemic, cultural issue; perfection in motherhood.
What to do the next time rage hits
For most mothers, occasional anger, irritability and frustration are inevitable. Next time it happens, here’s what you can do.
- Notice what you’re feeling
Anger is often felt in the body immediately. It is the racing heart, sweaty palms and short breaths. Begin to notice these sensations in your body and try out new ways to manage your stress response.
- Take space and reconnect with yourself
If you can safely step away from your children for even just 30 seconds, allow yourself the space to regroup and find your center again.
- Take a few deep breaths
Breathing reassures your body that you’re safe and it can begin to regulate itself again. Try doing a box count of four. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for four. Repeat 10 times. Your breathing should slow down.
- Readdress the situation when you’re more calm
Mama, don’t sweep it under the run; own it. Use this as a teaching moment for your child, regardless of age. Explain what happened, without blaming them. Take ownership of your emotions and actions and then apologize, explaining what you will do differently next time.
Humans are social creatures that thrive in connection with one another. When that connection has been disrupted (also known as a “rupture”), such as in a rage outburst, it needs to be re-established. This can come by an apology, taking accountability and with children, through play. Invite your children to ask questions and share their experience of the rage moment; listen and validate their feelings. This is where your attachment with one another can grow even stronger. When you show them that mistakes happen, and that you can learn from them, they feel safe to make them themselves. When they feel safe, trust grows. Realistically, all relationships will have ruptures. It’s about repairing the connection that increases safety and trust.
Managing the shame after mom rage
We all know that raging at our children or our partner is not good for anyone. We also acknowledge that we are constantly modeling behaviors to our children that they are bound to repeat themselves. We need to demonstrate accountability when we slip up. Authentic apologies and behavior change show our children/partner that we are committed to learning healthier ways.
Be compassionate towards yourself. Try telling yourself “I am a good mom. Perfection doesn’t exist. I am doing a good job.” Remember that anger is a universal human emotion.
Remind yourself that the shame of anger comes from the unrealistic expectations set on mothers. It isn’t a reflection of your ability. No one loves motherhood all the time and no one can do everything perfectly.
Call a trusted friend. Shame can’t survive when we talk about it and there is empathy. Have one friend you know will be real with you and share their mishaps too.
Get help from a professional. If you are concerned about the amount of rage you are experiencing or the safety of yourself, your children or your family, get help right away. There is nothing wrong with you; the anger is telling you that you need some additional support and sometimes we need an outsider’s perspective to help us figure out what that is.
Get curious and learn from your rage
The goal is to feel rage less often and less intensely, right? Ideally we want to be able to stop the rage outburst before it even begins. That starts by getting to know yourself even better.
Remember, the rage is telling you something.
Begin to pay attention to your triggers. You don’t just get mad all of a sudden; something has been boiling underneath and it’s erupting when you feel the rage. Write down a list of your triggers and notice any patterns.
Bring awareness to your hidden emotions. Anger is like the tip of the iceberg: It’s a secondary emotion, meaning there is something right underneath it that needs to be explored. Often it is helplessness, feeling out of control or powerlessness.
Identify your needs. Ask yourself what you needed in that moment right before rage that you ignored or didn’t notice. Oftentimes it might be to slow down and stop rushing, to change your plan and redirect for the day or to take a couple minutes to yourself.
Take a closer look. Do your mothering decisions align with your values, not that of society’s? Do you mother the way you want to or because it is the way you think you should mother? Where are the “should’s” in your mothering experience? What do you value? How can you live your life in accordance with your values?
Once you can identify your triggers and the unmet needs beneath them, you can begin to proactively change the patterns that lead to anger and find more adaptive ways of managing stress throughout the day.