Mothers are supposed to be soft and loving. They are supposed to accommodate their children in any situation. Even when the child is having a temper tantrum – stamping his feet and screaming about something nonsensical. But there’s a secret that mothers will not talk about, lest others think they are unworthy of the title, as they themselves suspect is the case. Namely, that they sometimes fly into a rage at their children. They scream at them furiously over something unimportant, use foul language, threaten them, slam doors, grab the child too hard by the arm.
“I feel that I am about to explode, that I can’t control myself, as though a demon has entered me,” relates Eliana about the feelings that arise in her when she is enraged at her children. Eliana, a therapist and mother of five from Ma’aleh Adumim (her name, and that of some of the other interviewees, have been changed to protect their privacy), says she sometimes even smashes things on the floor. “I hold myself back so that I won’t touch the children. I keep my distance from them. When it strikes, it’s like I’m possessed.”
Most mothers manage to stop themselves before they cross the line. But even approaching the line frightens them, too, and leaves them with acute guilt feelings. “I don’t talk about it with anyone,” Eliana continues. “There’s shame behind these fits. Anyone who knows me can’t imagine that I’m capable of being angry and shouting like that.”
Like Eliana, many other mothers feel they have lost control at times, that they are harming their children. They feel alone with their failure and their flaws, because such rage is something you don’t talk about.
Or hardly talk about. In 1998, the American writer Anne Lamott published a piece on Salon, in which she described courageously and with humor one of the most frequent – and most unacknowledged – phenomena of motherhood: the fact that our children, whom we love and who are more precious to us than anyone else on earth, sometimes arouse tremendous rage in us.
Lamott admitted that she had threatened her son, had thrown toys into the street, had slammed the door of his room so hard that things fell off the shelf.
“I woke up one recent morning and lay in bed trying to remember if the night before I had actually threatened to have my son’s pets put to sleep, or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to keep them alive when, due to his neglect, they began starving to death,” she wrote.
Before you say anything – yes, this happens to fathers, too. Still, mothers have been assigned a concept of their own – “maternal rage” – because gender-related elements that go beyond the general parental experience are also involved in this form of rage. What enters into it is the inequality that still exists in most households. The feeling that, despite everything, a heavier burden lies on the mother’s shoulders. Sometimes they buckle under it, and sometimes they take it out on the children.
I don’t talk about it with anyone. There’s shame behind these fits. Anyone who knows me can’t imagine that I’m capable of being angry and shouting like that.Eliana
Few mothers will admit to such things. When the writer Minna Dubin published an article last September in The New York Times about the anger her toddler son generates in her, a flood of furious responses followed. Some of them termed her an “unworthy mother.” At the same time, she related that she had also received hundreds of emails from mothers who thanked her for at last giving voice to an experience that they, too, have to cope with, and which arouses in them feelings of shame, guilt and fear.
Months later, the coronavirus pandemic struck and Dubin was again bombarded with messages from mothers who had read and identified with her article from the previous September. It looked as though the world crisis, which gave rise to social isolation, reduced support networks and high levels of anxiety and pressure, was also a trigger for maternal rage.
The Israeli mothers who were interviewed for this article attested to that. Parental counselors also noted a rise in reports about maternal rage. Their impression is backed up by a new study conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dana Vertsberger, Maya Tamir and Ariel Knafo-Noam interviewed 228 mothers and fathers after about three weeks of lockdown. Forty percent of the respondents reported that since the outbreak of the epidemic, the frequency with which their children generated powerful negative feelings in them had risen.
Anywhere but home
“I feel like a balloon filled with water that someone is stepping on and that’s about to explode,” says Renana Lotem Ophir, 41, a mother of two from Tel Aviv who practices a mind-body form of therapy and also prepares women for childbirth. “Explosion” is a recurrent term in this context. “It’s impossible to control it, as if there’s a fire inside me that can burst out within seconds.”
“Until the coronavirus, very few things could destabilize me,” says Avital Bashan, a mother of three (9, 7 and 2) from Moshav Matzliah. “But during the lockdown the children asked questions and I didn’t know how to answer them.”
Bashan, who monitors infant development and works with families in the postnatal stage, notes that the situation was made more tense by the fact that her husband continued to work during the lockdown, leaving her to manage the house and take care of their housebound children.
“There were multiple quarrels between the children, remote learning with all the technical hassles, a 2-year-old toddler who needs attention amid all this, a refrigerator whose doors were never closed, boredom with no release, and on top of it all, pent-up personal and psychological tension that had to burst out somewhere – and, regrettably, many times it burst out on the children,” Bashan says.
At suppertime, normally a pleasant and harmonious part of the day in their home, she would slip away: “I would put food on the table and leave. I went for a walk within the permitted 100 meters, made some phone calls, stared into space, googled – anything to avoid being home at that hour.”
The peak actually arrived when the lockdown ended.
Bashan: “On the day the stores reopened, I went with the three children to renew their wardrobes. When we got home, we discovered that one of them had lost a new pair of flip-flops. Seemingly a bit of nonsense – they cost 40 shekels [$11.70]. But I started to scream at him wildly. I felt as though my body was charged up, totally coiled, and that I was losing control. Until at one point he said, ‘Mom, I don’t even hear your shouting. Your eyes scare me’ – and I fell apart. That was a strong kick to the gut. I went into my room and cried for hours. I felt that I wasn’t me.”
Bashan realized then that she needed help. “I asked my husband to take a few days off, or at least to work from home a few days a week,” she relates. “I told him that I would go crazy otherwise, that I felt I was a bad mother. At first he didn’t get what I was talking about – after all, I’m in charge of their daily lives, and the house is functioning – but I explained to him that I feel bad and angry all the time. In the end he understood.”
After that outburst, Bashan spoke to her son, apologized and hugged him. “We even found the flip-flops in the end,” she says. But the incident continued to trouble her and prey on her conscience.
Meital, 35, from the north of the country, mother to a 3-year-old daughter, is a caregiver at a special-needs preschool. “Before I became a mother, I was sure that I was a very accommodating, tolerant person,” she says. “I really am like that most of the time, but with my daughter, of all people, other sides of me come out, and it’s very hard for me to bear them.”
“She’s an amazing child,” Meital says about her daughter, “and also demanding. She knows what she wants and doesn’t give up on it. It’s a great life trait and challenging for the parents.” Meital says she doesn’t usually “explode” at her daughter, but “many times I feel this seething inside and I have the feeling I’m liable to explode. It often happens in the mornings, while we’re getting organized and leaving the house.”
The rage grew more intense during the lockdown. “My husband was working and I was on unpaid leave,” she notes. “So I was with her alone for whole days. She doesn’t like to be by herself. She demands total involvement, so the days were very intense. On top of that, she began waking up very early. The days became very long, and I was tired. There was this one time when I was quite agitated the whole day, and so was she, and we fought with each other nonstop. In the evening, when I put her to bed, she wanted me to read her a story, but I had no more strength to talk, so I suggested that I would sing relaxing songs, but she wouldn’t have it and started to cry.
At one point he said, ‘Mom, I don’t even hear your shouting. Your eyes scare me’ – and I fell apart. That was a strong kick to the gut. I went into my room and cried for hours. I felt that I wasn’t me.Avital Bashan
“After a whole day of crying and frayed nerves, I felt that I couldn’t stand to hear more crying. I couldn’t take it, I asked her to stop, and when she didn’t, I just started to scream at her like a madwoman, until finally I asked my husband to come and put her to sleep. I felt awful. I needed two days and a talk with a parental therapist to come out of it.”
Meital has no doubt that the rage is related to the coronavirus period. “It took me a long time to achieve an ‘equilibrium’ in parenting, so that the whole burden would not fall on me – and now it’s back to square one.” Besides which, she says, “Before the crisis I had things that anchored me – vacations, entertainment, chilling out – and now there’s no horizon for anything. My husband works a lot, and I’m really scared that I’ll find myself in a bad place again.”
Surge in rage
Mor Katzir, 37, from Pardes Hannah, a parental counselor by profession, also discerns a surge in the “rage” phenomenon in the wake of the pandemic.
“It took parents a long time to understand that they were not the only ones affected that way,” she says. “At first the social media were inundated with posts about creative activities you could do with the children – the photogenic lie. Today mothers are saying, ‘All I do is scream, from morning until night. And to get up tomorrow to another day like that? Suddenly I’ve become a bad mother.’”
Despite her professional experience, says Katzir – who has four children, all under the age of 7 – maternal rage did not evade her during the lockdown. “My daughter went into an endless series of tantrums. I wrote about that and about my difficulty to remain calm in the face of the events. Eighty percent of the online responses were, ‘It’s the same with me.’”
Even during routine times, coping with rage was one of the greatest challenges facing Renana Lotem Ophir as a mother, she says. Her first two years as a parent were relatively easy, she notes, but when her eldest daughter (now 9) got older, Lotem Ophir felt that all her most sensitive buttons were being pushed.
“The way she would ignore me when I asked her to brush her teeth or get dressed in the morning, for example, or her tendency to sprawl on the carpet or the sofa with an air of boredom and listlessness, rubbing some sort of fabric between her fingers. It made me feel contempt, like, why doesn’t she do something with herself? At certain moments the rage surges in me,” she relates.
The relations between her two daughters also trigger her anger. “The older one would hit her occasionally, and that would drive me crazy. I reacted hysterically, shouting and pulling her aside roughly, and ordering her: ‘Sit here and don’t hit your sister!’”
The girls’ behavior, which grew more acute during the lockdown, often filled her with intense rage. “It’s surprising how powerful it is,” Lotem Ophir says. “Afterward, you ask yourself: ‘Just a minute, what happened? What did she say, anyway?’ And actually, nothing happened.”
She saw it as an opportunity to take stock of her fits of anger. Just recognizing that she doesn’t need to be perfect was a relief: “I felt that I was losing myself in the rage, as though it wasn’t me. So I went to a few therapeutic sessions to try to understand the anger I had inside, which really scared me. That’s where I understood that I really have these intense feelings because I am a strong person, but that they don’t need to be vented on the children.”
In addition, she continues, “If you dig deep into that moment of rage, you understand that it’s usually connected to remarks people made to you as a child. For example, what I perceive as an expression of boredom in my daughter has always been a trigger in my life. The source is in my childhood, in the way I grew up and in what people told me about ‘not doing anything’ and what it means to be passive.”
Does that help you in moments of rage?
Lotem Ophir: “It seems to me that [practical implementation] of the therapy comes not in the volcanic moments, but in the moments of quiet. I grew up with the notion that boredom is a waste of time, so I let that thought come to rest in me. I notice how it affects my body. And after I accept that knowledge, and don’t try to change it or to be angry at my mother, it melts away. The next time I encounter that in my daughter, it will set me off less.”
In order to cope with the guilt feelings that assailed her after the attacks of rage, says Lotem Ophir, she focused on her strengths as a mother. “You have to ask yourself: When you’re not angry, which is most of the time, what are you? What qualities do you have? What do you bring as a mother and as a woman?”
Her advice to other mothers: “After an outburst like that, instead of hating yourself, you need to tell yourself, ‘Most of the time I’m a calm, patient, loving mother,’ and truly to experience it in the body. Because one of the problems is that after an outburst like that, your whole week is shot. You feel like a crappy mother, and the guilt feelings are liable to lead to more anger and outbursts.”
After an outburst like that, instead of hating yourself, you need to tell yourself, ‘Most of the time I’m a calm, patient, loving mother,’ and truly to experience it in the body.Renana Lotem Ophir
Another insight arises from conversations with these mothers: The moments of rage often arrive precisely at the conclusion of days in which they performed supremely – they didn’t make do with being “a good enough mom” but tried to be perfect. On days like that, if something suddenly doesn’t go smoothly, the sudden switch to anger is even more intense.
Lotem Ophir agrees. “Well,” she says, “if we agree to identify the moments at which we outdo ourselves during the day and go easy with ourselves a bit just then – maybe things won’t reach a stage of such rage at the end of the day. Let’s say I get home in the afternoon, and I don’t have the strength to cook something healthful again, and I feel I just have to rest for half an hour on the sofa. If I let myself rest, what will happen [with the children]? So they won’t eat healthfully for one day, but I’ll have a moment to relax and I won’t explode afterward. When I give the children corn schnitzel [from the freezer], I feel as though I am not being myself. But that’s nothing compared to the way you lose yourself when you go out of your mind and scream at your children.”
Naama Zeidman Nagari, 34, from Rosh Ha’ayin, has two sons, 3 and 2 years old. Self-employed, she always works from home.
“I freaked out during the lockdown,” she admits. “At first, when they only shut down the preschools, it took me a whole week to collect myself. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the situation and I was simply irritated, a ticking bomb. Facebook became full of photos of tight schedules and creative ideas, and I’d just take out magic markers and one of them is already scribbling on the sofa.”
Zeidman Nagari was swamped by feelings of guilt. “You don’t do what everyone is doing, and the schedule isn’t tight enough, and they watch too much television. It took me time to understand that this is the situation and that you have to let go and try to get the best out of it. It’s better to let them watch too much television than to spoil the relationship and lose your sanity.”
Noa Gur-Horowitz, 39, from Ramat Hasharon, a mother of three (daughters of 6 and two months, and a 3-year-old son), conducts clinical studies for pharmaceutical firms.
“We had just gone into isolation again,” she says in a despairing tone in a phone call. “Last night, after spending hours putting the kids to sleep, I saw that I had 82 messages in the preschool WhatsApp. Turns out we were all being sent into isolation.”
It’s mainly with her 3-year-old son that Gur Horowitz feels she’s losing it. “When he takes a toy and smashes it against the head of his older sister, I find it hard to contain myself. He wants attention so much, and often greets her with shouting. Sometimes, when I need to pry him away from her, I tear him away and I do it unpleasantly. I didn’t believe that I’d do that with my child,” she says.
Everything intensified during the lockdown, and has remained at high pitch since.
Gur-Horowitz: “My husband and I both worked from home, we had a lot of work, and the children drove us crazy and fought all the time. I felt terrible about sticking them in front of the television, especially when you take into account that the social media were flooded with pictures of creative things to do. With the older one I could do things like that, but the middle one always came and interfered, and threw paint and chairs at her. It was impossible to sit down and play a board game with him. He has no patience, and the only thing that calms him down is watching television, so in the end I was thrown back on that.”
Most of the burden of taking care of the children fell on her shoulders, she says, which frustrated and angered her. Thus, in the face of challenging behavior by her son she reacted with searing anger. “I told my husband we had to move, out of embarrassment toward the neighbors.”
“When he behaves violently or uses violent language like ‘I’ll kill you,’ ‘I’ll smash a chair on your head’ – it shocks and infuriates me. I become enraged and then I torture myself, because he is just a boy. When he’s not acting like that, he’s amazing and has tremendous emotional intelligence. He’s a child who shows a great deal of love and expresses it verbally in a way that is captivating.”
‘I feel like strangling you’
What accounts for maternal rage? The Hebrew University study conducted during the first wave of the epidemic found a clear connection between parental meltdown and parents’ inability to regulate their negative feelings. That conclusion is supported by the testimony of the mothers who were interviewed for this article. The more worn-out, overburdened and tense the mothers are – the more they feel that the burden of the children and the household is exclusively theirs – the more trouble they have regulating their feelings and the more prone they are to outbursts of rage.
“When we come into contact with anger while already flooded emotionally, we will find it harder to respond according to the situation and not on the basis of other things we carry within us,” says Noa Shefer, a clinical social worker. She goes on to explain why the phenomenon is called “maternal rage” and not “parental rage.”
“There is a different attitude toward women’s anger in our society,” Shefer says. “An angry woman is usually described as being hysterical and aggressive. Socially and politically, there is fear of women’s anger, because it disturbs the existing order. Most women have internalized these social messages and experience their own anger as something alien and threatening, hence feelings of guilt, shame and fright arise in angry mothers far more than in angry fathers.”
Anne Lamott offers two additional explanations for the phenomenon. First, she writes, it appears that mothers get enraged at their offspring simply because they can. “When the problem first begins,” she writes, “we sound in control when we say, ‘Now, honey, stop that,’ or ‘That’s enough.’ But it’s only an illusion. Because actually, all day we’ve been nursing anger toward the boss or boyfriend or mother, but because we can’t get mad at nonkid people, we stuff it down ... because we don’t want to lose our jobs or partners or reputations.”
In the presence of other adults, then, women generally follow proper rules of behavior. The rage other people provoke in us in the course of the day does not burst out. It’s absorbed, sequestered in our bones until the moment we get home. “We only think we’re going from 0 to 60 in one second,” according to Lamott, but when the problem with your kid starts up, you’re actually starting at 59. You’re at high idle already.”
Which brings us to her second explanation for maternal rage: the fact, which should be self-evident, that children tend to be irritating. You can’t use logic on them. They are raucous and frenetic. Some possess an amazing talent to identify the buttons that activate us and to push them unmercifully. They tend to repeat actions, especially vexing ones, over and over. Their interests often clash with ours. And they also generate in us dreadful, devastating worry, which frequently underlies the rage that, paradoxically, bursts out at them and hurts them.
In fact, volcanic rage conceals within it other emotions. Anger is a defensive way to express vulnerability, anxiety and fear,according to the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön, who adds that many times it is also an expression of not having set boundaries.
According to Renana Lotem Ophir, “If you delve into this rage, you discover much love and caring. You know, if my daughter lies on the sofa again in her nothingness pose, and instead of being irritated, I look into her eyes, I will feel how much I love her. And then instead of quarreling with her, I will simply lie next to her on the sofa. Why not, actually?”
Danielle Arad, 27, delved into that rage. For her and her partner, parents of two boys, of 2 years and of 5 months, the surges of anger that entered their family cell were a wake-up call that changed the course of their lives.
“When the preschools closed, we found ourselves with a toddler and a newborn infant, trying to work from home, study and be parents simultaneously,” says Arad, a choirmaster and a master’s student in musicology at the University of Haifa. “It didn’t work. The toddler drove us nuts. We would go crazy. I am not a violent person, but I would catch myself suddenly saying things like, ‘I feel like strangling you – stop turning the light on and off!’ All kinds of emotions welled up that I never knew existed within me. We would catch ourselves shouting at him.”
This impossible situation led them to psychological counseling, and they transformed the challenge of coping with the anger into a mission. “At first it was mainly a matter of awareness,” Arad explains. “We started to understand how little patience we had for the child, for his shattering of boundaries, his contrariness – for the boy in him, actually.” They realized that the problem lay not in their son’s behavior, but in them.
“The child comes and turns on and shuts off the light 80,000 times a minute, and you take a deep breath and say to yourself that everything’s fine, he’s doing what he is supposed to be doing – exploring the world,” Arad says. “It’s my problem, not his. And then you try to explain rationally to him [why he should not behave that way], or find something else to occupy him. The process is to become creative instead of freaking out from nerves and looking for release.”
As the couple improved their anger management, they noticed that their son was developing wonderfully and also eating well and putting on weight. As a result, even after the preschools reopened, they decided to have him stay at home.
“We are still doing that,” Arad says proudly. “It’s extremely tough. But the coronavirus gave us an opportunity to understand something about our parenthood, and in the meantime, despite the difficulties, we are very pleased.”
Shefer, for one, counsels parents in similar situations. She recalls a moment a few months ago, after she herself became a mother. “I was driving and listening to music,” she says. “Suddenly I noticed that all the songs were about the power of romantic love, and I asked myself how it could be that there aren’t songs anymore that deal with motherhood. Motherhood is thrilling! The range of emotions in motherhood is vast – the love, but also the anger. Everything acquires stronger intensity, including negative emotions. I sat in the car and thought to myself that something here has been silenced.”