It’s late morning. I sit on the couch in the sunroom, nursing my baby and watching the boys play. This particular day started too early, and my attempt to sneak in some writing before the demands started was interrupted when Aedan curled up beside me, clinging to my arm and resting his head against my shoulder. Now, the boys are playing a noisy game of “you be the lizard and I’ll be the dragon chasing you”: they roar, hiss, screech with delight. To say I am overstimulated would be an understatement. And I’m tired, and hungry. I decide to do something about that last one. I sling the baby up onto my shoulder, and walk to the kitchen to find something to eat. And the second I am out of the room, Colm’s squeals of joy turn to cries of distress. I tense up (if it’s even possible for me to be more tense), my jaw clenching, and storm back into the room. Aedan has his brother pinned face-down, and he’s gripping Colm’s chubby little cheeks, pulling his head back. And I lose it.
With my baby still in my arms I start yelling. I forcefully pull Aedan off of his little brother, pushing him away from Colm. I scream “What are you doing? What is your problem? It’s not okay to hurt people!” And as I utter those words, a voice somewhere in my head whispers: You are such a hypocrite. It’s not okay to hurt people but you’re trying to hurt him.
And then the guilt and the shame set in. I feel like shit, like an awful person. All three of us are crying. I promise to do better but the truth is, now that I’ve lost it once today I’m more likely to lose it again. This path is so worn I swear I walk it in my sleep.
Anger is absolutely the last emotion I expected to encounter on my parenting journey. So when it began to bubble up, hot and intense and unstoppable, just after Colm was born, I had no idea how to handle it. I had never experienced anything like the kind of anger I’ve just described. My biggest triggers are Aedan getting too rough with his little brother, and my own over-stimulation: both of these are unavoidable parts of parenting young kids. I hate this aspect of myself. I think it’s ugly, out of control, and scary. Over the last two years, I have promised myself and my kids repeatedly that I will not yell. I will not lose it. I will do better, be better. And, inevitably, I break my promises, over and over again.
With the guidance of a wondeful therapist, I’ve come to realize some key issues with my approach. First of all, framing it as “doing better, being better” implies that what I’m doing now is wrong, and that there is something wrong with who I am today. And saying “I’m going to be better” sets me up for a big let down when I lose it the next time. Because, let’s face it, just saying those words doesn’t magically make it so. Learning a new way of dealing with explosive anger isn’t going to happen overnight. So if I’ve promised to be better, and then I’m not, the feelings of shame and guilt are even greater. It’s a pattern that leads to more anger, more shame, more depression. Instead of saying “I’m going to do better”, I now think of it as doing differently. I’m learning new techniques. I am still me: ever evolving me.
The biggest issue I face, though, is that I am trying to live without anger, trying to deny the feeling exists, trying to squash it down. But anger is a very real, albeit a very uncomfortable, feeling. It is physically uncomfortable: we often feel anger in our bodies, the tension and the jaw-clenching I mentioned. Maybe you ball your hands into fists or grind your teeth. Maybe you feel it in your gut. We often feel an intense need to relieve that anger, by yelling or by lashing out: shoving, hitting, kicking. And that may feel like relief, briefly. And then we feel awful for what we’ve done. We might feel even angrier then, at the person who “made” us lose it in the first place, and at ourselves, for losing it. The feeling of discomfort lingers, intensifies.
So what if we just sit with our intense feelings? What if we just give those feelings space to be? Over the past month or so I’ve been trying this. Noticing when my anger is being triggered. Acknowledging it by saying, either in my head or outloud: “I’m really angry right now!” I feel it in my whole body, I feel that urge to strike out, and it is so uncomfortable. I feel my anger peak, and then, gradually, simmer down and finally pass. I’ve noticed that when I do this, I’m actually angry for less time. There are fewer tears shed. My relationship to my kids is unscathed.
The hardest part about sitting with my anger is still dealing with the situation at hand. Since my anger is usually triggered by Aedan getting too rough with his brother, I still have to act. Real life prevails: I can’t just retreat to a quiet room and deep breathe until it passes. For now, I tell Aedan firmly that we don’t push, hit, kick, bite etc. And then I go to Colm, if he needs me, and I hug him and kiss him and make sure he’s okay. I hold his sweet little self until the anger begins to dissipate and then I might address Aedan more fully. For now, it works to get me through the day.
This trick of giving space to uncomfortable feelings works with more than just anger, of course. When I’m feeling depressed or anxious, I’ve begun to just notice these feelings, acknowledge them, and patiently watch for them to pass. And in the same vein, when I am feeling happy, joyful even, I honour those feelings by attending to them, letting them swell and crest and then gently lap at my toes as I wait for the next wave, whatever it might bring.
Were you surprised by unexpected emotions in parenthood? How do you deal with things like anger or deep sadness in your everyday life? I’d love to hear what works for you.