The Agency Roar
Why mothers experience rage and what to do about it.
Posted Mar 21, 2020
"I just snap. There's no warning, at least not one I notice... and then my whole body is crimson. I am a lion and my son becomes prey. Immediately after I shout or hold his tiny arms too tightly, I feel horrified of my power and rage." —Celia (consent provided; name changed for anonymity)
Since time immemorial, societies have held motherhood to a standard of perfection; mothers must be all-capable polite, and patient heroes. Central to this mythical perfection is the notion that mothers shouldn't express (or feel!) anger. Whether witnessed and silenced to the zone of the unspeakable or cast out of the realm of our conscious experience, anger is classified as a negative emotion with negative consequences—a dangerous feeling that women should not admit to experiencing. The truth is, however, that we all feel angry.
Ekman (1999) first identified anger as one of the six basic human emotions felt from infancy. Scientists have since supported the evolutionary capacity for anger—it has been hardwired in our brains over millions of years. At times, anger is seen as a secondary emotion in response to another feeling. For example, it can be activated from fear or threat (e.g., evolutionarily, this meant fear of an animal attack; we can now consider a threat to also mean the unknown of COVID-19). Anger is also activated as a way to protect oneself or enforce social norms (Wilkowsky and Robinson, 2010) or out of a desire to achieve a goal otherwise unlikely to be attained (Panksepp, 1998). On an unconscious level, we often weigh whether something feels justified or meets our expectation of reward—and when there is a mismatch between expectations and reality, a signal goes off and cues our anger response.
So if anger is a normal emotional experience, why do we tend to deny it till it festers and grows?
One reason for the denial of anger—at least in women—can be traced to the systemic approach to anger and agency (the expression of power, free will, and competence) in women in general. Gender studies have shown that from a very young age, sex differences in expressions of self-control appear to be epigenetic—meaning they reflect the interaction of genetic predisposition with social expectations (Hodes, 2017). The message young girls receive continues to pulsate in the cells of the grown woman: Anger is unattractive, unbecoming, and wrong and should be warded off or pushed down.
Accordingly, women's collective historical fear of anger, its impact, and the destruction that follows lead to the foreclosure or denial of the expression of anger altogether.
The problem with anger then being seen as binary—good or bad—with no gray area is that the range of how anger may be expressed is denied. We do not appreciate the nuance and significance of anger—including its pivotal role in fueling a sense of empowerment, agency, and as a defense of personal integrity (Modell, 1993).
The Agency Roar
Consistent with the warding off of women's experiences of anger, there is limited research around mothers' experiences of anger. One exception is a ground-breaking study by Christine Ou (2018), published in Birth magazine.
Ou found anger to be a significant feature of postpartum mood issues (anxiety and depression). She emphasized the importance of normalizing anger and explained that shame increases the intensity of symptoms and lengthens the course of depression and anxiety. Ou also highlighted powerlessness as a cause of the mother's experience of anger—her feeling of day-to-day helplessness alongside the subjective mismatch between her expectations of motherhood and the reality that ensues. As explained, this mismatch between expectations and reality can be a major anger trigger.
At the crux of it, anger often surfaces as part of an important effort at self-agency, which I call the agency roar. It is an effort to stand up for oneself, be heard, and make one's own expectations and needs known. It's the right to matter, be respected, and be seen. This roar may stem from feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, invisibility, isolation, anxiety, depletion, loss, and mourning (past or present), which can be triggered when our children need us to see them. Currently, during such an unprecedented turbulent time—requiring a high degree of social distancing—many of these experiences are being triggered.
Allow me to paint a typical afternoon in the current state of the world for many:
You are at home. All day. You have painted rocks, sang baby shark, had a dance party five times; you have read nearly every book and watched an average week's worth of TV. You make dinner early as an activity. No one eats it. You clean it off the floor. You get everyone ready for bed (way later than planned). Exhaustion, and maybe anxiety, start to creep in.
You dash up and down for someone's forgotten water bottle, the PJs from the dryer, or the stuffy they want tonight.
After a lengthy bedtime, you sigh with relief, because it's finally over. You sit down. You remember that you haven't eaten in hours. Have you had water? Just as you rise to put on the kettle for tea, the inevitable first cry (or second or tenth) echoes down the staircase: "MOMMMMM!!!!!!!"
Here it starts. The stuffy isn't the right one, after all. Their pajamas are itchy. Perhaps they remembered something about a project due next week or a fear of spiders that has now scarred them forever.
You are tired and spent. The incessant demands pile on top of one another and get all wrangled up with your unmet needs and increasing feelings of invisibility and depletion. Your anxiety over plans gone awry (again) rise. You feel totally powerless.
In "Communication and Emotion: Essays in Honor of Dolf Zillmann" (2003), Zillmann's theory of anger is explained. Zillmann emphasized how a "sequence of provocations"—in this case, incessant, repeated demands—lead to an escalation in anger until a "level 10 red rage" erupts.
In the scenario above—and so many others mothers face—a sequence of provocations is compounded by a lack of agency, powerlessness, and likely unmet needs and disowned feeling states. Rage is anger when anger becomes unstoppable. It appears when you have pushed anger (and possibly a range of other feelings) out of the way for too long.
So how do we prevent this from happening?
How to Honor Your Anger
1. Recognize—and remember—that you and your needs matter. The idea of self-care can feel like added pressure—so think of it differently and ask yourself: What do you need to feel that you matter and to feel alive? You might realize you aren't taking care of your own basic needs (shower, food, sleep) and/or you're full of unprocessed emotions.
2. Notice your triggers. Recognize your provocations—noises, smells, fatigue, and difficult feelings. Perhaps it is these difficult feelings seen or expressed by your child that shine a light on these same feelings you feel now or felt as a child.
For some, not being seen or understood is an old problem, reminiscent of their childhood. Perhaps it is the lack of agency or helplessness that is triggering you. If so, then feeling invisible as a mother reaches in deep and yanks out that last cord of agency you thought you had.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for popularizing mindfulness, has talked extensively about the cry that comes "from deep within our hearts" as "from the wounded child within." He explains, "healing this inner child's pain is the key to transforming anger, sadness, and fear" (2018).
When a woman becomes a mother, she does not instantaneously disconnect from herself pre-children. It's not only her adult persona that she brings with her to motherhood but also the child part of her, and all parts of her identity from before this transformational time. She brings along her childhood pains, losses, failed attachment, or the confused, embarrassed, and insecure adolescent. These various inner parts of the mother are vulnerable and easily triggered.
Anger becomes the "voice" or agency and, sometimes, the only way a person feels they can be heard.
3. Use humor, play, and ritual when possible. We all do better when things are predictable—and get thrown off a bit by the unknown. Play makes things less overwhelming because it exists in the transitional space between real and not real. As Winnicott poignantly remarked (1971), "play is itself a therapy."
Adding in a new ritual or a little play or humor can, therefore, save a tantrum (theirs or yours!) by decreasing its intensity and offering a little space and lightness. Play is a way to really connect or reach the creative, authentic, and less defended "true" part of our personality. For this reason, adding play into a routine has a double benefit. Routines help children know what to expect and to feel safe (which translates into fewer battles over time). They also help create a sense of control and organization—a win/win.
In combination, playful routine—or using humor to tame a tantrum—releases some of the tension while also potentially introducing a new ritual you can rely on to deal with future tantrums. For example, to deal with bedtime battles, you might incorporate five minutes of knock-knock joke "pillow talk" after books. A light and silly moment can distract your child into the realm of imagination and make-believe, which softens the exactness of the thing they find threatening. This, in turn, brings the child to a place where they can more comfortably examine their worries and regulate tensions—you might be surprised how it can have the same effect on you.
4. Practice self-compassion. Similar to the idealization of motherhood, the notion that all anger is negative or shameful is misguided. Remember that in mothering, you still deserve to be mothered, so try to mother yourself and find the people who can mother you.
Whether it is a professional, a friend, a family member—find someone you can trust and speak to openly. You deserve to feel that you matter. You deserve to feel held. And once you do, you will be better able to patiently and presently hold your children.