Since childhood, I’ve had an anger problem. Not a get-slightly-ticked-off problem, either. The right provocation could fling me into incandescent rage.
When my horse repeatedly failed to obey, I’d shout streams of invectives: What’s wrong with you, you stupid horse? Can’t you get anything right? Then I’d jerk him in the mouth to show I meant it. He didn’t understand a word. I was 12 years old.
Around that same age, my sister and I had a big fight. We fought constantly, but this one was, I recall, particularly vicious. I grabbed her ring finger, gripped it hard in my fist.
“I’m going to keep pulling until you stop,” I said coldly.
She didn’t stop. I wrenched her finger out of joint, and two decades later, it still splays crooked.
Another time, fighting with her on the drive home from school, I threatened to make her get out and walk, going so far as to stop the car.
I slapped her in the face at my wedding rehearsal, right on the front steps of the church. I could argue I had a good reason, but it doesn’t matter. It’s no wonder we don’t speak.
But by the time my husband and I got pregnant, I’d changed. Yes, I still said the f-word a lot. But college had softened me. We’d found religion. We’d done dog rescue. I’d trained dogs — enough to see the anger in my earlier attempts with horses, and vowed not to repeat those mistakes. When my greyhound ate my childhood blankie, I didn’t scream; instead, I worried for his health.
Patience had come to me. It had come late, but it had come. Most importantly, I got treated for my persistent, but unacknowledged, depression and anxiety. Stress levels plummeted; I was ready for this baby.
Except, you’re never ready for a baby. At least, never ready for what that baby will become. I weathered reflux, babyhood, and even the beginnings of toddlerhood without any anger. Yes, I got mad at things, but never that roiling rage that threatened to consume me.
At least, that is, until my son began dumping things.
My husband likes dinosaurs, so he bought our son every plastic dinosaur toy Amazon sold. They lived in cloth bins in our bookshelves. My darling son decided fun meant not playing with the dinos, but dumping them out and trouncing away. He ripped books off the shelves. He yanked costumes off the shelves. And because he was only 1 year old, I had to clean them up.
Which meant leaning over, pregnant.
I grew up in a house of yellers and long ago swore to practice gentle parenting. But the dumping. The dumping made me clench my jaw. I ground my teeth while I piled books back onto shelves, while my back ached with the effort.
If I caught him in the act, I shouted, “No dumping!”
My son looked bewildered. Not injured or frightened, but confused. Why was Mama suddenly shouting?
My anger kept to the dumping until I had a second baby. Suddenly, my oldest son was pouring water — water I had to clean on my hands and knees with a baby strapped onto me.
“Why are you doing this?!” I’d demand, in a voice straight from stress and sleepless nights.
“Why are you pouring water? Who do you think has to clean this up?” He watched with wide eyes.
Then he retired to the back room to dump the LEGOs.
Oh, the LEGOs. I had an almost post-traumatic-stress reaction to the sound of LEGOs spilling onto hardwood floors. Because I knew: they’d get kicked everywhere. There were approximately 1,000 of them, and I would have to clean them up. I began to go ballistic at the sound.
“What did you do?!” I’d scream.
I’d barrel into the room and subject my toddler to a tirade about cleaning and dumping and mommy cleaning and I am going to get rid of those, I swear. I think if he ever cried, I would have stopped. But he only stared at me.
“You can’t yell at him like that,” my husband told me. “It’s not good for him. They’re only LEGOs.”
I thought back to my horse. I remembered screaming at him to do things he wasn’t trained for. It hadn’t done any good: for him, for me.
“Let’s put the LEGOs up for a while,” I said. “Then I won’t get mad about them.”
I learned to truly manage my anger that way.
I have three sons now: three active, busy, small boys. I have certain rules that, when a polite request doesn’t work, merit a raised voice. They can’t jump on my bed, for example, and they can’t jump on the furniture.
Cleaning had become a battleground, so we made a rule: Mama can’t pick up toys, so you can’t keep toys you can’t pick up. It took a while, but now they know, with prompting, that they need to keep their things clean. It works, mostly. When it doesn’t, and I get frustrated, I might raise my voice. I’m not proud of that. But it’s goal-directed and doesn’t shame.
I still get mad, but I don’t yell or slap or anything. When it gets really bad, I step away. And if I do yell, I try to apologize to my kids and ask their forgiveness. They know Mama isn’t supposed to yell, and they tell me not to do it ever again.
I’m working on it, kids. I’m working on it.More On