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.
The example Goleman uses is (wait for it!) a mother in a grocery store with a 3-year-old and a baby. The 3-year-old is begging his mother to buy things, pulling food off shelves and not listening when she orders him to put it back. Then the baby drops a jam jar, which shatters on the floor. The mother explodes: yells, slaps the baby, slams the cereal box down and angrily zigzags the cart toward the exit.
Of course Goleman chose this story to illustrate Zillmann’s “sequence of provocations.” Motherhood is relentless provocation! And yet we are expected to be saintly and patient, to lovingly hold and care for our babies, even at their most challenging. To dwell so serenely in the state Anne Lamott calls “the myth of maternal bliss,” that we don’t yell or curse, and we certainly don’t become enraged or violent.
Looking for help, I join a 12-week anger-management group for mothers. The facilitator encourages us to add “tools” to our “toolboxes.” We practice deep breathing through one nostril at a time, and we read about “happy parenting.” The most important part, for me, is the mirror provided by the circle of tired, sad mothers. One woman is divorced. One has a toddler at home and a 3-month-old on her breast. Only one participant is a dad; apparently, there is no class for dads who rage. Another mom admits that she wants to throw her child across the room, and the rest of us have forgiven her before she has finished her sentence. We all nod, as our bodies flood with relief that the rage has not singled us out.
Couples therapy, individualized therapy, life coaching, anger management for mothers — I have been working on my mother rage. I have not yet found the golden ticket to serenity, but I have noticed that when I manage to exercise, make art and eat healthy food, I have a longer fuse. In toolbox lingo: These things fill up my patience cup. 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.
I am trying, though. And failing. And sometimes succeeding. I count every small win — today I got mad and clenched my fists but kept my voice really calm! Each day I begin again: breathing in his sweet little-boy smell when he crawls into our bed and I wrap my arms around him, enveloping his body in mine; and by the end of the day, whispering to myself, “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him, don’t touch him.”
[“I’d like to melt down when my kids do,” writes one mom. Read how she keeps it together.]
Minna Dubin, a writer, public artist and performer in the Bay Area, is working on a collection of essays about motherhood.