Mother Rage, Or How Do You React When You Burn the Toast?

September 24, 2019


I've been noticing lately, through my mindfulness and meditation practices, something omnipresent in my life: Anger. I've always been such a happy person, or at least felt expected to be cheerful and happy, that it took me a long time to recognize my anger for what it was. In my quest to understand my anger better, and to know why it was coming up so strongly after a life of smiling and laughing and people pleasing, I started reading. A lot. One fascinating article I found (and can't seem to re-find to link to, unfortunately) spoke of the moments in our day that give us a good read on our baseline mental state. It said that how you react when you burn the toast is a strong indicator of how we're genuinely feeling when all filters are removed. Think about it, you burn toast and it's no big deal. Just make more. But it can really make you flip your lid. And just reading that, I felt the anger bubble up fast, and red that I had experienced when I missed out on a parking spot the day before. Same concept, different no big deal. Deep down, I was angry. More or less all the time. Anger was my baseline mental state.

In our modern lives and these bizarre times, there are plenty of things to be angry about. Take politics, for example. I mean, that's enough. We can basically just stop right there. But life has so much more. Work, schedules, money, relationships.  However, for me, the biggest source of my anger all made sense when I received my New York Times Parenting email three days ago, containing a piece on 'Mother Rage,' a term I had never heard anyone else use, but had identified myself - and learned to keep to myself because, for shame!

On the select few occasions that I had said in confidence to someone, a couple times even another mother, that "you don't know true rage until you're a mother" it did not go over well. And it turns out that that sense of shame that accompanies mother rage is damaging all on its own, and ironically, serves to make our rage cycle, and get even worse as time goes on. In her essay entitled The Rage Mothers Don't Talk About, author Minna Dubin writes,
I start working with a life coach. He assigns me a section of Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman cites the work of University of Alabama psychologist Dolf Zillmann, who discovered that the physiological effects of rage can last for days, and that rage builds on rage. Repeated aggravations — “a sequence of provocations” — can dramatically increase anger, so that by the third or fourth rage trigger, the person is reacting on a level 10 in response to a misplaced key or a dropped spoon.
Amazingly, that is exactly the burnt toast analogy, explained for overwhelmed mothers, isn't it? I felt such a wave of relief reading Dubin's essay, because when you're in it, and feeling ashamed of it, mom rage feels like a deep and personal defect. I imagine all the other moms I know as being perfect - as if they're straight out of a Little Golden Book from the 1950's. One of my neighbors truly does seem like a perfect mom, and Coco has made it abundantly clear to me that she'd rather live at their house than at ours, but I'm smart enough to know that she is a mom, too, and Coco is never there for her mother rage. Sigh. Luckily, another neighbor mom has shared with me that she drinks more or less on the daily to keep from killing people, to which I said 'cheers!' and understood exactly what she meant. Note: If you don't understand exactly what she meant, that probably means that you do not have a husband, and two children and full-time job. ;)

I keep trying to find the secret sauce to motherhood. And I haven't found it yet. Being a full-time stay at home mom was delightful for me when Coco was a baby, but then it became increasingly isolating and difficult as she emerged into toddlerhood. Working full-time as a mom left me unbelievably overwhelmed and short-fused, but even still the reliability of the daily rhythm was a positive. Being a part-time working mom and part-time student mom is kind of insane, but I'm doing my very best to create a schedule that, as Dubin writes, "fills up my patience cup." She elaborates, "when I manage to exercise, make art and eat healthy food, I have a longer fuse," and it truly felt like she was speaking to my soul as I read that. However, I couldn't help but laugh when she concluded, "Unfortunately, as a working mom with a small child I am not swimming in spare time, and cooking, running and unpaid hobbies often fall to the bottom of the to-do list." Sigh. This is the mother's dilemma.

I know that I am more present and growl less when I am able to make my art - this blog and my podcast; and I know that cooking and exercise make me a better mom, too. So I'm determined to guard enough time in my schedule each week for these things. Not for myself, but for filling up my patience cup for them. Framing it as something I do more for my children than myself really highlights the validity of that self-care and what it really is after all. I highly recommend that you read Dubin's full essay here, and please share your thoughts and feelings about it in the comments below. I would love to hear what you think!

Join the conversation!

  1. I kind of felt a bit ragey reading the last paragraph as you justify the self care because it will make you a more patient mom. That's great but doing it just for you own mental health and peace of mind is reason #1. Mama should not be last on the list or only allowed to make time for things because of the benefit to her family (of course that's important too but kinda just a bonus of looking after yourself).

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    1. I guess that was motivated more by moms I have known who completely neglect their children's needs in the name of their own. They take self-care to mean selfish-is-okay, and that is not something I want to promote. You are 100% right that being balanced and healthy for the sake of it is reason #1, Allison. For sure!

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  3. That NYT article is one of my all-time favorites. The feeling of being "seen" almost brought me to tears.

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  4. Thanks so much for this response to my piece in NYT, Lindsey. I really enjoyed reading it! The struggle is real:) Take good care of you. -Minna

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