This week one of my children ran ahead of me on the way home from the library and ran right across the road without looking. My heart jumped into my throat, and I felt fear and anger rise up within me. I called to her to stop, and when I got to her I told her angrily how upset I was, “You’re not old enough to cross that road by yourself yet! You should have waited for me, like I’d asked!” She looked away, tried to walk away from me, and shrugged her shoulders. Her reaction made me even angrier: “She doesn’t care. It’s not sinking in, and she’s not listening to me. When will she ever learn, when will she listen?” I thought. As I proceeded to tell her off even more, three houses in our 6-house cul-de-sac emptied of their occupants– Bob and Karen were going out for a walk, Martin was bringing in his bins, and Tina came out to get something from her car. They all witnessed my anger. Now, as well as feeling angry, frustrated and helpless, I also felt deeply embarrassed.
Does every mother shout at her children? A wise friend once said to me that she thinks every mother thinks they shout more than the next mother. Close friends make admissions to one another about their anger and shouting, as though they’re confessing cardinal sins. Otherwise, it’s rarely discussed. Every mother who has ever told me that she shouts at her children has admitted to a sense of shame about it, “I know I shouldn’t, but they just make me so angry!”
Perhaps there are mothers who don’t shout. I know a few people who say they don’t, but in my heart I don’t believe them. Is there a person out there who is able to remain calm and patient at every moment of the day? Sure, there are people out there who pretend to be like that. I used to watch those mothers with envy and wonder how they could be so resourceful and calm. Now I think it’s a sham, artifice constructed for the benefit of others. Behind closed doors things must be different. Everyone has buttons, everyone gets irritated. And if it doesn’t come out as shouting, it must come out some way: sarcasm, snide remarks, the silent treatment….
One reason we feel so ashamed may be that some people can be so judgmental. If it’s not the mothers who are pretending to be saints then it’s neighbours and other observers. A friend this week told me that a week after her new neighbours moved in they said, “Oh, so you’re the shouty woman.” When she told me this story I cringed. This mother has two busy little boys. Her husband works away for months at a time and she does everything on her own. The pressure is enormous. In addition, one of her children has poor hearing so she has to talk loudly to him, whether she’s angry or not. She suffered the judgement of her neighbour and now has to live with the idea that every day they must overhear her daily struggles. My heart was filled with compassion for her.
Parents know it’s awful to be on the receiving end of someone’s anger. It engenders hurt and shame, sadness and disconnection. No one likes to get yelled at. I don’t want my children to feel this way and yet I find it hard not to get caught up in my anger and frustration. What I need is the loving support of the people around me. Instead of looking over your glasses at me as I struggle with my toddler in the supermarket, please offer to help me. Sympathise with me. Tell me how hard it was for you too. Instead of gossiping about what you heard or saw me do, put yourself in my shoes, try to understand why I might be struggling. Drop a dinner off for me, send me a supportive text or just smile at me and ask me how I am. Recognise that I am human, that I’m working my darndest to do my best for my children. Recall what it was like when you had your children and how challenging it can be to be in constant close proximity with people who are, by virtue of their age, self-absorbed, immature, constantly busy and lacking in self-awareness. Take a moment to understand the pressure I am under, assume the best of me: that I love my children and that I am simply struggling. Understand my struggle and reach out to me. Don’t judge me because when you do I judge myself and then I am alone.
I have read more parenting books than I can count. But I still shout and then feel ashamed of myself for doing it. It’s this cycle of anger then recrimination and guilt that so many of us experience. How to escape a pattern that is like a tsunami sweeping us away? How to regain control of a situation where we feel so out of control?
I have no easy answer because clearly I struggle with it too. Personally I am working on inserting more compassion for myself into this cycle. Extending compassion to myself involves affirming that I am ok and that I love myself. It means connecting with that part of myself that never changes: my essence, my soul. It means seeing what is eternal and beautiful about that part of me, seeing myself as God sees me, if you will. It means recognising my humanity and seeing my own potential for change. It means connecting with the deepest part of myself and forgiving myself for all of my mistakes. It means going easy on myself. It means being authentic.
I am convinced that if I can do this for myself, even just a little bit, I will be able to move toward deeper compassion and connection with my children. I may not become a more patient person and I may shout as much as I always have done. But at least I will be real, I will be authentic and I will be me. I will have shown my children that we are all fallible, that forgiveness is something we can extend to one another on a daily basis, that it is possible to re-establish love and caring even when a relationship breaks down and we get upset with one another. And I hope that they know that underneath the anger exists an everlasting love that no amount of shouting can ever erase. I hope….