mom rage and grief

Understanding Mom Rage and the Deep Grief Beneath it

Mom rage is something no one really wants to talk about.  It defies our notions of what motherhood should look like, what motherhood should feel like.  Moms aren’t supposed to get fed up with their children, their spouses, their lives and actually express it in a fury.

And yet woman after woman sits down in my office tearfully confessing their struggles with rage.  They feel ashamed and out of control.  They want to do better by their families, serve as better examples to their kids.  Yet they are so afraid to acknowledge the depth of the pain that fuels this rage.

Rage is different from anger.  Anger itself is a common, healthy human emotion which can serve important purpose in motivating us toward action.  When we feel angry about an injustice, our anger can mobilize us into important righting a wrong.  Anger comes and goes when properly expressed.  And it’s proportionate to the situation at hand. Rage, on the other hand, is anger uncontrolled leading to a violent or senseless act.  It’s when you promise yourself that you won’t yell at your kids anymore but find yourself screaming things you’ll later regret as if you can’t stop yourself.  It’s when you commit to talking calmly with your spouse but you end up hollering expletives and storming out the door.  It’s when you feel your body getting tense and sweaty as you try to keep it together during the everyday annoyances of parenting life as kids have meltdowns, make giant messes, ignore your pleas for cooperation, or whack a sibling then exploding in full force.  Rage feels awful. 

Most moms struggling with rage do not have a history of experiencing rage prior to motherhood.  Women often feel like they don’t recognize themselves and feel frightened by this experience.  Understanding where this rage comes from is key to working through it.

Motherhood brings unique challenges that contribute to this rage. It’s time to look at these challenges to understand the source of this rage.

Moms feel like failures.  One of the most common things I hear moms talk about in my office through tears and halted speech is their feelings of being failures.  They worry about ruining their children and not being enough.  They beat themselves up for mistakes made, punishing themselves for not being perfect all the time.  They compare themselves to other moms they see who seem to have it all together and post perfectly posed social media pictures to prove it.  They judge their own success as moms based on how well their children behave.   And when they have an outburst of rage at their children, they count this as another sign of their failure.  They have far more compassion and forgiveness for every other person than they do for themselves. 

Moms tend to overburden themselves with responsibility.  They are trying to do so much in a day, in a moment, that it all feels like it’s hanging on by a thread.  And when the kids or the dog or the dishwasher doesn’t cooperate with this very finely balanced act, it all falls apart.  Moms work so hard to be there for their kids, supporting their kids’ intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development with direct care, play, and conversations all while staying on top of all the doctors’ appointments, school projects, sporting events, and seasonal clothing in the correct sizes.  And this doesn’t even include the pressure many moms feel to also manage the household, help aging parents, and take care of spouses.  These impossible expectations leave moms with no cushion.  If anything goes awry, then it all comes crumbling down. And this is most likely to happen when rushing to get out the door, during mealtimes, or at bedtime when kid cooperation demands are at their greatest. This is when moms typically feel like they just “lose it.”

Moms often prioritize everyone else’s needs before their own.  This means their own sleep, healthy meals, rest, time with friends, exercise, and fun all comes last if at all.  Moms tend to power through to caretake for everyone around them even when their own bodies are calling out for rest and recovery.  Everything else seems more important than caring for the self.  Yet our bodies, hearts, and minds can only function so well in this place of depletion.  Moms end up in a state of burnout which causes memory problems, mood swings, difficulty focusing, and utter exhaustion.  This contributes to headaches, back aches, stomach problems, and skin flares. In this depleted state, it’s no wonder their threshold for blowing up is at it’s lowest.

Mom work is often taken for granted.  So much of the mental and physical work of motherhood is unseen.  It’s the getting up at night to the sound of a coughing child down the hall.  It’s the late night worries about whether everyone is doing alright, whether they’re all happy, and whether the permission slip was signed for tomorrow.  It’s the bittersweet emotional work of watching children grow up and away.   It’s the endless meals and laundry and socks on the floor and more laundry.  Moms feel responsible for everyone’s well being all the time. And they often don’t value their own steady work in this culture that expects women to enjoy motherhood.  But the work is hard and tiring.  They do not get much praise or gratitude. And in their burned out state, resentments build.

So how do moms reduce their rage outbursts?  This is the advice you will often hear.

  • Set realistic expectations of yourself, your kids, and your partner.
  • Prioritize sleep and rest
  • Stop comparing yourself to other moms
  • Step away to self soothe when you feel your anger rising
  • Let go of some responsibilities
  • Say no more often
  • Reward yourself for not yelling or losing your temper
  • Make time for fun with friends
  • Take a break from social media
  • Meditate
  • Exercise regularly
  • Practice gratitude
  • Compliment yourself and your kids regularly 
  • Let go of feeling responsible for everyone’s feelings
  • Take deep breaths

While all of these strategies can be helpful in managing stress and anger, you probably won’t really see the rage lessen until you fully process your grief. 

Moms are grieving in ways they may not even recognize.  This grief is so deep and complicated that we often don’t even recognize its presence at the core of this rage.  Moms grieve their old lives, their lost freedoms, their former bodies, their careers, their hobbies, their utter change in identity.  Moms grieve what they thought motherhood would look like or feel like.  Moms grieve lost dreams and lost pregnancies. They grieve their babies as they grow up. This grief is often difficult to recognize let alone talk about.  Moms feel shame if they express anything but gratitude for their children and their family life, as if it’s not human to have mixed feelings about these relationships and life changes.  Unrecognized and unprocessed grief builds over the course of years for many moms.  And it is this painful, unseen grief that fuels the rage.

Processing grief is a serious job.  This means acknowledging all of your losses and the pain you feel with them.  It means allowing yourself space and time to feel and express these losses.  You can journal about it, cry, talk with friends, reach out to other moms, sit in the sorrow. Grief can be like a deep well.  Getting to the bottom of this well with gentleness and compassion may sound overwhelming to do on your own.  It may sound scary.  Many moms fear that if they start looking at the sadness, they’ll never stop crying.  They fear falling apart or disappearing into the darkness.  This is when a skillful therapist can help you to process your grief and build compassion for yourself.  Moms who make their own emotional wellness a priority will see benefits for their entire family as well. 

Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog.  If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. 

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