I remember the most recent moment when I snapped. My kids and I had just returned home from school. “Go to your rooms,” I said in a cold and gravelly voice that didn’t sound like my own. “Now!”
Tears and whimpered protests followed. I threw up my hands. Now I was yelling, the intensity of my anger surprising me. “I don’t want to hear it! Don’t even look at me. Go.”
You might deduce from this story that I am a cruel, hardened monster. But let me explain: Really, I’m a nice person. If you bumped into me in a crowd, I’d probably smile at you and let you go ahead of me. I’ve always hated conflict and confrontation. So when it comes to my kids’ various everyday offenses, my strategy is usually to let it go.
But maintaining this peace comes at a cost. The anger, the frustration, and all the icky emotions that I make a conscious decision to suppress in favor of not rocking the boat are buried only temporarily. Fueled by the typical aggravations inherent in raising small children — the incessant bickering, the whining, the sass, the Play-Doh that gets stuck in the carpet — those feelings quietly gather strength. They build up, and up, and up, a heavy weight that festers in my chest, until one day I can’t hold them in anymore, and I finally explode.
This is what happened that afternoon when I morphed into Angry, Mean Mama. The morning hadn’t gone well, both girls arguing so much that they almost missed the bus. Later, on the car ride home from school, we all enjoyed a tenuous peace for approximately 47 seconds until my older daughter did something stupid to annoy her sister. Little sister promptly expressed her displeasure by shrieking like a parrot on steroids. The high-pitched noise got under my skin. I could feel a headache coming on. And I decided, finally, I am not taking this crap today.
So after roaring at the kids to go to their rooms, I paced the kitchen, waiting for my husband to arrive home from work. As soon as he got in the door, I announced, “I just can’t deal with them right now.”
I grabbed my car keys and drove aimlessly into town, pulling into a parking lot where I sat with the engine running. Fuming, flipping the radio on and off, tears pricking my eyes. As the sky darkened around me, my breathing slowed and the heaviness in my chest started to lift. At last, I headed home.
When I walked into the kitchen, my daughters were running toward me with hugs and apologies, thrusting a card into my hands. “Dear Mama,” it read, “we’re sorry we were notty.”
What was left of Angry, Mean Mama fizzled out when I read those words. I apologized to the kids for yelling, and explained why their fighting upset me so much: It made me sad and angry to see them arguing, because I know how much they love each other. We talked about the need to respect each other’s feelings and personal space. They promised to be better, and I knew they would be — for a little while at least. And then we moved on.
Do I think it would be better to worry less about being nice, to be more assertive with my kids instead of letting stuff go, to voice my frustrations more regularly so that those emotions wouldn’t simmer and periodically burst out into an adult version of a temper tantrum? Yes, I do. And I’m working toward this.
But I also believe there’s no one right way to deal with the complex emotions of motherhood. Each day, all of us are doing our best to navigate the delicate trade-off between keeping the peace and retaining our sanity. I used to think there were perfect moms out there who constantly had their ducks in a row, who effortlessly and lovingly taught their kids discipline and respect without ever raising their voices or having a nervous breakdown themselves. Now I know better. A mom who is calm and in control 100 percent of the time falls into the same category as trolls, unicorns, and husbands who never leave their socks on the floor — she does not exist.
Whether you find yourself having a meltdown every day or once a year, you are not a monster. Sometimes those meltdowns are necessary. They get us back to our baseline, back to a quiet space where we can breathe, to a place where we know our needs and our feelings were heard and acknowledged. They remind our children that we are not perfect, that their conflicts can affect others deeply, and that adults struggle with big feelings, just as kids do. And if we are open to it, the aftermath of a meltdown can be a natural opportunity to reconnect with our loved ones, and to reaffirm how we all want to be treated.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on Scary Mommy, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.