You're on the phone; it's an important call. Suddenly you hear a bloodcurdling scream from the other room. Your older child has just hit your younger, who now has a swelling red mark just above her eye. You forget the phone. You hold your weeping, wounded child in your arms. Fury rises.
Most of us don't like to admit how angry we are capable of becoming with our children. We want to be nothing but perfect parents, loving parents, and when anger intrudes, it spoils the image we want to have of ourselves. Yet anger is as natural as a mother's milk coming in. There is, in fact, absolutely no way to be a parent without being angry from time to time. It starts when your baby cries and won't be soothed, and you feel anxious. Even if the early months run smoothly, you can't help growing resentful at the fatigue and the inevitable loss of your own space and time that new parenthood brings.
Every mother has those moments when her 2-year-old frustrates her. Every mother who has been bitten, splashed, spilled on, defied, rejected, or kicked has experienced a moment of unexpected rage at her child. Every parent whose child has run off the curb, climbed too high on a jungle gym, or come too close to the pot of boiling water has experienced terror and fury. Every mother whose child has let her down by not behaving or by refusing to sing that very cute song when asked or whose child won't go to sleep or keeps calling for another glass of water knows this primitive emotion.
We all have ideal images of what our sons and daughters will be, and as wonderful as our children are, in one way or another, they won't always meet our expectations: This child can't catch a ball, that child is not an artist, and the other child is different in temperament or appearance than we had hoped. These common disappointments need not be harmful, however, in the long run, if a parent can acknowledge feeling let down, yet at the same time still love the child, accepting the ambivalence that is the handmaiden of any great love.
Anger is as much a part of the landscape of parenthood as love. What matters is how we handle it. A mother who screams often, who feels easily frustrated, and who lets herself wallow in anger is harming her child. Such a mother was probably deeply angry before she even gave birth, and the trials of raising a child have only intensified her anger so that she isn't able to balance the emotion with loving feelings. Of course, some parents are so frightened by their own anger at their children that they deny it, repress it, push it away. Such a parent may appear calm, loving, perfect, but this facade is bought at a high price. It makes a mother or father unreal, fake, synthetic. It creates a kind of shallow feeling that interferes with genuine affection as the parent hugs the child, reads a story, soaps him in the bath.
Loving and hating are hardly separate conditions. One is almost always tinged with the other, and getting used to that fact is one of the surprising tasks of parenthood. It's one of our unsung, amazing accomplishments.
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Child magazine.