It’s Fine. Everything’s Fine. (Except I Lit the Fire.)

mother anger

Have you seen the meme of the dog sipping coffee amongst the flames? The one where he says “It’s fine. Everything’s fine”? Most days I am that dog, sitting calmly through the chaos. And yet, I also lit the fire. My anger frightens me. It lies dormant beneath a peaceful exterior, surprising everybody, including me, when it breaks through.

My anger erupted most often when the children were small. The mother who would lay her life down for her child if even one person looked askance at his sweet face was the same mother who yelled when he accidentally broke a dish. The hypocrisy seems astounding, but it is wholly and completely possible to lose your temper with the ones you love and, at exactly the same time, desperately want to protect them from yourself.

A coupling of whispered prayers permeated our household when the children were young. The first, “Please, Lord, help me stay calm,” followed only moments later by another, dripping with tears: “Please, Lord, help them forget.”

In order to manage my anger, I tried tips that were popular at the time. Give yourself a time-out, they said, but there is no putting the lava back in the volcano once it begins to spew. Take deep breaths and count to ten, they said, but there is no counting when the emotional rush of words overcomes your logical brain. Nothing worked.

Instead, I apologized. A lot. To me, there was only one thing worse than letting my anger spill out unnecessarily in front of my children, and that was letting those same children believe that they were the cause.

Looking back at that exhausted mom, I have so much grace. All of the typical new mother struggles were real, but there is one issue that I am fairly certain lay at the root of my anger.

I never meant to sacrifice myself to care for my children, but that is exactly what happened. At some point I came to believe that to mother well, I needed to attend to my children’s every need while denying my own. What I didn’t understand was that there are infinite paths to good motherhood and exactly zero of them ask a mother to leave herself behind.

In the Catholic faith, Mary is elevated as the ideal mother, giving us a vision of an obedient, wise, loving mother draped in peaceful blue. But Scripture also gives us glimpses of Mary’s mothering mistakes. Mary loses track of a young Jesus for two whole days, and here I was, worried about how my toddler’s tantrums in Target reflected on my mothering skills.

Mary is not the model of motherly perfection because she spent hours on the floor playing with baby Jesus, or because she cooked the family’s meals, or because she raised a well-behaved little boy, but because when God revealed his hopes for her, Mary responded with an emphatic Yes. Mary’s fiat is her claim to fame. She showed us that a critical tenet of motherhood is listening to and saying yes to God.

Prior to becoming a mother, I was good at listening to God’s desires for me, in part because I was good at listening to my own desires. God gives us interests and talents and gifts for a reason. Following those interests helps us find our purpose, which fulfills God’s hopes for us. 

But when I became a mother, my ear was so focused on my children, from their night breathing to their giggles to their cries, that I stopped listening to myself. Instead, when I wondered about how a mother should act, I looked towards others for guidance. I was a lost sheep hiding among the 99, assuming that following the crowd meant following God’s will.

Those bouts of explosive anger were a sign that something was wrong. My body knew before I did that allowing myself to melt into the background of my life was not the answer. Instead, I needed to find a way to continue using the gifts God gave uniquely to me.

That meant giving myself the time and space to follow my passions. Dinners out and spa days were not the type of self-care I needed. I needed something that was mine. A large part of me wanted to return to my engineering career, but I knew the timing wasn’t right for our family. Instead I started a blog, chaired the moms’ group at church, went back to school to get a masters’ degree, and read countless books sans pictures. What I chose wasn’t important though. What was important was that I made a practice of listening to myself and to God, so that whatever I chose would be right, not just for me, but for my entire family. 

What I wish I knew earlier was that it would be okay to set down the mantle of motherhood and take time to rediscover myself. The shift into new motherhood (and mid-motherhood, and teen-motherhood, and grand-motherhood) can feel like an identity crisis. We owe it to ourselves to escape into the desert and pray for guidance toward this new life.

Being a mother certainly involves sacrifice, but God never intended us to sacrifice it all. Motherhood may be everything, but that does not mean that everything we are is defined by motherhood.

I wish I could tell you that turning inward and listening to God’s hopes for me is what cured my anger. Of course it didn’t. Anger is an important human emotion. Eliminating anger altogether is not the answer; understanding it is. My anger still shows up, but because I am more in tune with my desires and needs, I am better at recognizing the preliminary rumblings. Voicing the things that make me angry, even if only to God in prayer, has allowed me to seek out the cause of that anger and turn it into necessary change.

When I think about Mary’s fiat, her Yes to God, I think about the courage she needed to say yes to something that society would have shunned. An unmarried virgin bearing the son of God was certainly not the accepted norm for motherhood. We need that same courage today.

Just like Mary, the best mothers I know have willfully branched out from the crowd. They have listened to God’s will for both them and their families, and found a way of mothering that is uniquely their own.

Now that my boys are teenagers, my angry outbursts are less about my hopes for myself and more about my hopes for them. When I catch them playing video-games instead of studying, I feel the heat rise up within me, ready to explode. But then the memory of myself fifteen years ago douses the flames. 

Just like me, my sons are desperate for something that helps them feel more like themselves in this world full of responsibility. And so I back away and let them have their minutes of fun. I could have never anticipated, fifteen years ago, that taking the time to understand my anger would be the thing that helps to bring our family joy.

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Holly Forseth is a high school theology teacher and writer. She earned her B.S. from the University of Notre Dame and her Master of Pastoral Studies from Loyola University New Orleans. Holly has held many roles in life, but her favorite is loving people for who they are. She and her husband live in Arizona with their two teenage boys.

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