I have to put him down. When I lean him over the side of his crib, his body tenses and a wail rises in his throat.
“I’m sorry, Will,” I say. I clumsily lay him down and he screams. As I crumble into bed, every nerve in my body is on edge. The wails next door pulsate, and I imagine I’m never going to sleep again.
Before I had my son, my images of motherhood always included a rocking chair – a mother with an infant cradled in her arms. Of course babies cried and got upset, but mothers soothed. I knew parenting would drive me to frustration, but I would never be like those bad mothers at the mall who yelled at and spanked their screaming children. So it was a shock to me the first time I felt the passion rising, the desire to squeeze him just a little too hard, wanting to cause him some of the agony he was causing me.
When Will was just twelve hours old, my husband and I couldn’t stop staring at him. When a nurse remarked that he looked like Harold from the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, I flushed with new motherly pride. When he wasn’t sleeping, his eyes opened wide with what seemed a happy, almost cartoonish curiosity, his tiny nose sloped up in perfection, pale wisps of fuzz on his head. His head nuzzled against Dave’s chest, his tiny fist clenched, we watched him in silence.
“I don’t understand how anyone could ever hurt a child,” Dave said, his voice suddenly heated. I murmured in agreement, my body tense at the thought. During those first few days at the hospital, I had vivid images of my wrinkled and cooing newborn hurt in some way – I would close my eyes and see his arm broken, his face turning purple, or his body falling out of a high-rise window. Perhaps it was the powerful postpartum hormones surging through my body, the primordial nature of motherhood. I would shake my head to clear the horrible images away, chastising myself for such awful thoughts.
He was so vulnerable. A living being, body and soul, who without the assistance of another, could not eat or even move. Without me, awful things just might happen to him.
The first weeks on the job quickly changed my idyllic image of myself. When a night with five straight hours of sleep seemed an impossible miracle, when his screaming caused my blood pressure to rise and my nervous system to go haywire, the discovery scared me: I could be the one to harm him.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. My mother, whose fiery extremes I inherited, once broke my brother’s eardrum. He had sassed at something she said, and she smacked him across the head. It was the 1970s, and the subsequent hospital visit resulted in no questioning of my parents. My brother described his earache to the doctor, a diagnosis was made and antibiotic drops were prescribed. My mom only mentioned it to me once or twice – her voice quiet, face flushed.
Anger is not new to me, and I knew Will would eventually evoke it. I was just surprised it came so soon, before he was even capable of sitting up. Amidst all the baby showers, tiny sweaters and socks, plush blankets and stuffed toys, our image of babies is all tenderness. We hear so much about the joys of “little ones” that images contrary to that notion seem somehow wrong. When I was pregnant, mothers with grown children told me of the instant mother-child bond, of tightly curled fingers and toes, of how peaceful his warm sleeping body would feel against my chest. No one told me my anger would make me, at times, want to hurt him.
To feel anger toward a child, particularly a baby, is something most new parents hide. To feel anger toward a child, particularly a baby, is something most new parents hide. Especially in an age of over-parenting perfection, we pride ourselves on being so well-read and educated that bumps in the road are our own fault, stemming only from our own ignorance. We know much more than parents of the past. We know the harm that expressing our anger can cause. We have seen children ravaged from anger turned violent, their stories a dull ache in our chests. But this still can’t make our own anger, when summoned, suddenly disappear.
Most of my friends refused to admit they had these feelings, preferring to segue into a conversation about “those cute little toes,” but my friend Kate, thirty-two, a high-school English teacher and mother of a three-year-old told me, “There is no way of reasoning with a screaming baby or a tantrum-throwing toddler. I have literally had to put my daughter into the backseat of the car, close the door, and walk in circles around the car so that I don’t do something I will regret.”
She agreed that being angry at your children somehow seemed more permissible in years past. “It used to be okay to spank, it used to be okay to scream, so people felt less ashamed by their actions. The mores are much stricter today – and probably rightfully so – but we also don’t know what we are supposed to do with our anger.”
Even though we have been taught that anger toward a child, more often than not, is inappropriate, changing norms can’t alter base human emotions. And just why is anger so maligned? Are we doing our children any favors by hiding our own anger, or perhaps letting it out in passive ways that are ultimately just as, if not more, harmful than a spanking? Searching my local library’s database, I found shelves of parenting advice, with titles like The Wonder Years, Smart Love, and Your Confident Child. When it came to anger, however, there was not much to be found. Beyond the outdated A Good Housekeeping Parent Guide – Battles, Hassles, Tantrums, and Tears: Strategies for Coping with Conflict and Making Peace at Home (the clip-art image on the cover shows an alarm clock ringing while a mother with pearl earrings pulls at her child’s arm, attempting to get him out of bed) the only book I found dealing directly with parental anger was Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma by Nancy Samalin.
Samalin notes that children bring “warmth, humor, boundless energy, and creativity” to a household, but “by their nature . . . bring to the family environment disorder, aggravation, ambiguity, and turmoil” as well. She goes on to note that “many people find it hard to accept that such an intensity of negative feelings could be radiating from them to their (normally) beloved, innocent children. If our capacity to feel terrible anger for the children we love distresses us, it is our capacity to speak and act from those angry feelings that so often fills us with horror and self-loathing.”
But it fair for us to always deny our own extremes, or to loathe ourselves for being human in the midst of such a challenging job? Why is anger so maligned? A friend with three children under the age of seven puts it this way: being drawn into a confrontation with your child is like being drawn into a confrontation with your own mother – you know it’s probably the better choice to step away, but there’s a child in you that wants to be angry. Parents are not emotionless robots. If we were, we would not know the abounding love only a parent can have for a child. Unfortunately, along with that come raw edges, which can only serve as constant reminders of our profound inability to reach parental perfection. And perhaps this isn’t such an awful thing. My brother, today a successful family physician, has received many awards and accolades over the years, and with every one, his imperfect mother beamed with pride.