Recently my children have started calling me “bad mommy” when I do something they don’t like: put a toy in timeout, take a tantruming child to their bedroom, what have you. Generally I find this amusing and I remind myself this means I’m establishing reasonable limits. In other words bad mommy = good mommy, yes? And when it comes to these types of disciplinary matters, I think that’s pretty true. My two-year-old’s proclamation of my “badness” would be met by nods of approval by knowing mothers everywhere.
But regrettably, sometimes I really am a bad mommy. The kind we shame on Facebook and whisper about at the playground. The kind who is does the wrong things, says the wrong things, and gets incredibly mad at her children in that visible unstable sort of way. The kind who loses control and sometimes wants to hurt the little people she created. Like a pot of water that boils over on to the stovetop, sometimes I have episodes of rage that terrify me, and certainly terrify my children.
Friends were dismissive at first. “Oh I know, they’re little hellions! Sometimes you just want to shake them! Good thing they’re cute.” I oscillated between feeling like every mother bursts into fits of rage, that this was a normal occurrence of life with small children, and feeling very much the opposite, that I was the only mother on the planet who ever had flashes of fury in which she desired, even for a moment, to really harm her children.
I have never truly physically hurt them, thank goodness. One time I did push Gabe, my four-year-old. It wasn’t violent but it was a push nonetheless, and he defined it as such immediately. I have also tossed Phoebe, my two-year-old, as well as Gabe, on to couches and beds with more force than is appropriate. Mostly what I do is clench my fists and bite down hard on my bottom teeth and ooze with anger. Sometimes I slam doors. And I yell. I have uttered so many curse words under my breath intended for my babies, and some of them have come out audibly, directed at little ones who don’t know their meanings but feel their cruelty regardless. And I’ve shamed them, just poured my yuck right over their spirits like an evil baptism.
I walk away, I turn on Netflix for the kids, I make a cup of tea. Something to disengage. I wish I could say that I feel horrible instantaneously, but sometimes it takes me a bit to transition from feeling vindicated to feeling guilty. When the guilt comes I make amends. I apologize, I ask for their forgiveness, and it rips me apart that they pardon me every time. Often Gabe cries, falling into my arms and weeping. I cry too, sometimes, other times my tears are delayed and I just feel worn out, embarrassed, despicable. If he isn’t already crying, he surely will be when I ask him if Mommy was scary.
My shame grew and grew, just as the frequency of my rage episodes did. The more I experienced rage against my children, the more shame I carried. And because shame thrives on secrecy, the longer I told no one the extent of what was going on, the deeper I feared losing the respect of others, or even my children themselves should CPS come knocking.
But I’m learning that shame is beaten back by exposure. One night I texted a friend some more details about what was happening. About how I was unraveling. About how I get so mad at Gabe, and sometimes tiny Phoebe too, and how it doesn’t feel like “normal mom stuff” in my heart. She responded with care instead of judgment. She asked if I had considered therapy, psychiatry, medication. I had thought a lot about the first item on her list; I have always valued counseling and was currently seeing someone actually (not that I had brought this up during our sessions). But it hadn’t occurred to me that I might benefit from seeing a medical doctor. I didn’t feel put off by the suggestion; I’m a believer in antidepressants. It just hadn’t occurred to me that this thing I was experiencing could be medical. My friend sent me some links to articles about depression expressing itself as rage. I wept reading the articles — I wasn’t the only one. There were other mothers, other good women who loved their children, who found themselves exploding with rage against tiny humans. I wasn’t the only person on earth having this struggle and that knowledge empowered me to take action.
So I confessed everything to my counselor. I had already been seeing her for months but I hadn’t told her about my rage because Shame, the liar, told me not to. I feared losing my children, but then I also thought to myself If I am a real danger to my children then I need to lose them in order to save them. My counselor was humanizing and gentle when I told on myself; she added that I ought to see a psychiatrist. I gulped. She said we would figure this out.
My counselor told me that it was a sign of a good mother to tell on myself. She said it’s the parents who have problems but never tell anyone that end up damaging their children or losing custody of them. That made me feel better. But she also made me promise that if I find myself unable to deescalate while raging, and Simon isn’t home, that I must go to a neighbor for help immediately, and failing that, call 911. I exhaled and I promised. I knew she was right, of course, a million times over. She talked at length about how shame and depletion are the pillars that support rage. When your cup is perpetually empty, and you are being bombarded with lies that you are not enough, a likely end game is rage. Shame + depletion = rage. My counselor preached self-care instructions. Self-talk instructions. It all made sense and I took mental notes, all the while thinking easier said than done. We talked about the work to be done before December when my family will grow by ten fingers and ten toes.
That’s another thing — I’m having a third child in December. We did this on purpose. (The first one was a very-much-not-planned WHOOPS, the second one was brilliantly planned during unemployment, and this one was a genius move during questionable mental instability — baby timing might not be our greatest strength. But making cute babies? We’re really awesome at that). In telling this story, I fear that everyone will think she’s having ANOTHER baby? Is she stupid? I’m not here to prove that I’m not, and I hate that it feels necessary to assure the world of this, but it does so here’s the thing: I love my children. I love them with a ferocious love, an enduring kindness, an involuntary affection. My love for those babies is the fiercest force that’s ever been awoken inside of me, and I would go to hell and back for them. And I will love this next baby, this wanted baby, the very same way, with my whole heart, with all the compassion and fallen humanity therein. I wish I was a perfect mother; I wish I had only strengths and no weaknesses. But I am deeply imperfect, and as I try to accept that daily, I make the only smart move I can, over and over, as the need will never diminish: get help.
Calling the psychiatry office was one of the most humiliating things I have ever done. It felt like the definition of rock bottom. I was two inches tall in the pit, barely making out the sun over the crest of the earth. But after I did it I felt a huge sense of relief and I was surprised to find myself anticipating the appointment instead of dreading it. My psychiatrist asked me a million questions. Medical history, mental history, family history. Have you always had a temper? No. Would people describe you as an angry person, like your husband or old boyfriends? No. Was your pregnancy planned? Yep.
Triggers, she asks — what brings on the rage? Breastfeeding. I’m a lactation consultant and fiery as ever about nursing, but as a human I’m maxed out. I have nursed Gabriel for over four and a half years, and I am also nursing his two-year-old sister, and growing another person in my uterus, and it’s too much. What else, my kind psychiatrist inquires. Not enough sleep. Being woken up before 6AM every single day. Other things? Well, misbehavior. (This makes everyone nuts, right?) It almost seemed to obvious a trigger to go into detail, but I do anyway: being repeatedly ignored when I know the kids can hear me. Being kicked and swatted and whined at day after day after day. Tackling tiny sumo wresters into their carseats while they scream. Chasing after gleeful children who streak across parking lots. I also tell my psychiatrist that sometimes the rage comes out of nowhere, and these instances frighten me the most.
She asks me if I’ve had any mental health diagnoses before. I say yes, an adjustment disorder and I give some context. I also say depression, but that I’ve never had an official diagnosis. I mention sheepishly how being in her office makes me feel like I am actually a sick person, whereas being in a counselor’s office just makes me feel proactive and responsible. She scribbles on her notepad. I am overwhelmed by the notion of mental illness, but also thankful that I am getting the help that my babies and I so deserve.
Have you ever contemplated suicide? Sure, in my darkest moments. I’ve wished I wasn’t alive. For a fleeting moment or a few hours or maybe a day, here and there over the years.
The thought is always gone the next day? Correct.
Have you ever made a suicide plan? No. I’ve never considered taking action to end my life.
Have you ever wanted to hurt your children? I say sometimes I just want to slap Gabe across the face. She presses harder.
Have you ever wanted to really harm them badly? She leans into the word harm. Her tone of voice and body language are clear: she is talking about beatings, abuse, lasting damage. Ever? Has that thought *ever* crossed my mind? Yes, I whisper.
Have you ever had rage fantasies, thought about doing horrible things to your children? Damn, woman. I was able to answer “no” to all of her questions about punching walls, throwing things. Can’t answer no to this one, which is much worse than the earlier questions. Yes…I have had those fantasies. There, I said it. She knows now how broken my soul is. But she just continues to her next question, kind and dignifying, clearly a doctor and not a priest.
Have you ever had homicidal thoughts? Have you ever contemplated a homicide-suicide? I’m only one inch tall in the pit now, maybe one centimeter. I’m shell-shocked and feel lower than a slug to receive this question. No, I tell her. It’s the truth. But it only makes sense that she asked me.
She hypothesizes that all of my rage episodes have triggers, even the ones that appear random. She asks me how I am at self-care. I say okay and she doesn’t believe me. She asks if I was better at self-care before I was a mother, I say of course! (Isn’t that true of everyone?) She doesn’t let up: you were never really good at it, were you? It’s not shaming or accusatory, just knowing, an olive branch of truth. I think about it and tell her no, I’ve never been good at meeting my own needs — I’m really good at meeting other people’s needs. I tell her about the depletion issue that my therapist and I discussed, how a constant diet of depletion is a setup for rage. My psychiatrist agrees. She says my rage is fueled by not taking care of myself like I should, even when it seems to come out of left field. When your tank is always on E, a child protesting bedtime can make you unhinged, instead of annoyed but in control of yourself, she offers as an example. I feel less insane with this theory from her that there is a measurable explanation for all my “episodes.” I feel less crazy, and simultaneously alerted to the degree I have neglected myself.
She takes my vital signs and finally proclaims near the end of my ninety minutes that she doesn’t think I require medication at this point in time. She says that nothing she would consider prescribing is very safe with pregnancy or nursing, and she feels that the risks to the fetus and my nursing children outweigh the benefits I might receive. I wonder for a moment if she’s in a jam and would be writing out a STAT order for Wellbutrin if I were not in the family way. But she seems confident in the plan she recommends: continue regular counseling with my therapist. She will be in contact with my therapist, and I sign the HIPPA papers to allow the two of them to discuss my dark yucky parts over the phone anytime. My psychiatrist tells me she’s going to call me in two months to see how I’m doing and then we’ll reevaluate my needs. I’m uneasy that she didn’t prescribe something for me; at this point I’d love a pill to keep me from ever lashing out against my children again. But I’m also encouraged that she thinks that I can do the long, hard work of therapy to center myself in wholeness.
My psychiatrist runs my credit card and I sign the receipt. She smiles at me in a motherly way. I thank her and I leave.
I used to think that when I became a mother I would stop being a human. I would be bigger, better, more capable. I would be divine and Pinterest-perfect. But if anything I am more human than ever before. I love bigger but I hurt deeper and fall harder. And even the sweet babes that I nurse and nurture, even they (especially they) fall prey to my weaknesses. To my state of mental health or illness. To my humanity with its ever-glaring pock marks.
I understand how child abuse happens. When you’ve repeated yourself a hundred times, and tried every trick in the book, and compared yourself to every mother you know and your kid — who seems to instantaneously combust because the air around him doesn’t contain his preferred blend of oxygen — to the kid at church who is actually wearing Sunday best and who doesn’t throw himself on the floor and fake a grand mal seizure when he doesn’t get his way — after all of that, when you feel completely defeated and moronic and exhausted, and you have utterly nothing left to give, even regard for others’ opinions of you, sometimes you just want to beat the snot out of that little punk. It sounds so tempting, and it really feels like they deserve every ounce of it.
Thank God I have not given in to the full urging of the rage. I’ve been mean, I’ve jerked little hands through a parking lot too forcefully, I’ve used shame and intimidation to punish my children. And I tell myself that it’s not as bad, not as wrong as hitting or “really hurting.” And maybe a jury would agree with me, but my heart knows the truth. I know, just like the people reading this who have never called a psychiatrist’s office, that it is always wrong to shame a child or use fear to control their behavior. It’s pretty basic. But it turns out that I’m a lot more limited than I thought I was. I’m coming to grips with the fact that I have to be Human and Mother at the same time. And, on the other hand, I get to be Human and Mother at the same time.
And I cannot do this without a village. No, not in a way that will keep my children’s dignity and my sanity firmly intact. And it’s rough right now because the vast majority of my village is over a thousand miles away in the Midwest. My husband is in a new job which was the reason for our relocation. His purpose is clear while mine remains nebulous. Why am I here? What does the future hold for me? That answer will take some unpacking but I seek it with intention. This move has been harder than I expected and progress feels glacial. I know of lots of people but don’t truly know many people. Not deeply, not like I crave, not like time and interactions has yet allowed for. It’s a slow burn, I’m learning, this brand-spanking-new life we’re creating here. When I can use all the bad four-letter-words while looking like hell and eating ice cream out of the carton in front of people who know I’m a pastor’s wife, then we will be true buddies. We will laugh til we cry and cry til we laugh, and we will weather motherhood and this messy beautiful life as a team. I look forward to it with the greatest anticipation.
I type these next words to preach truth to myself as much as I type them to share with you: being a good mother and having mental health struggles are not incompatible. I’m worn out. I haven’t been caring for myself well. I’m going through some huge transitions. I was carrying shame, such heavy shame, because I believed the lie that good mothers don’t have mental health struggles, and the longer I delayed sounding the alarm, the more times I blew up at my young children and increased the chances I might actually harm them. And it’s true that sometimes being a good mother means being psychically separated from your children to keep them safe, and I’m just thankful I told on myself before more severe intervention became necessary. That happened by the grace of God. My heart goes out to all the mamas who didn’t speak up, because they were afraid and ashamed — I was those things too, still am, and I know I easily could have gone down a different path. I am no different from you. We all, everyone, must work harder to remove the stigma from seeking mental health care. Until calling a psychiatrist is a normal as calling a cardiologist, there is more work to be done. And our lives and our children’s lives depend on it.
A dinner plate that falls to my kitchen floor is in peril the moment it leaves the countertop, but it doesn’t actually break until it’s fated meeting with the laminate. There are many instances in my journey as a parent that I am that falling plate. I’m going to shatter; I’ve already left the countertop. My blood pressure is rising and my temper is flaring and my children are quickly becoming less adorable and more infuriating. I might even know I’m about to crash but I fear I cannot rescue myself. It’s utterly terrifying and it feels like a monster has kicked me out of my body; the demon storms in and I am standing helpless on the curb. His name is Rage. He feeds on depletion and he breathes shame and he contorts my brain. He sends me spiraling. But because I am a human and not a dinner plate, I do have more options than inanimate objects do. I do have the ability to send up a flare, to ask for help, to shout out “I’m going to break! Get me out of this free-fall!”
Simon came up with a system for me to use to communicate with him quickly in times like these. It’s a scale from 1 to 10: 1 means I could not be enjoying my children more and 10 means I might kill someone. We have agreed that if I reach a 7, I am no longer a safe parent in that moment. Daddy needs to take over, or, if I am alone with my babies, I need to send up my own smoke signal: stick them in front of PBS Kids, or outside to play, or simply walk out of the room and give myself my very own timeout (preferably with tea and chocolate). This system is helping me, and it’s not even so much about the 7, it’s about the 2 and the 4 and 6.5. It’s helping me check in with myself on a regular basis and not just when I see the monster called Rage approaching. And the great thing about that is increased self-awareness, which results in me taking action when I’m a 5 or 6, to keep my children that much safer, to guard their dignity that much closer. And when the radar beeps 6 or 7, there’s the self-talk corrections, which I prefer to think of as monster evictions: “Get out, you bastard! These are my babies and this is my life and you don’t get to hurt us like this!” And then you punch him in the face and throw him out of your sub-conscience. (And you still take that timeout probably, because let’s face it, the monster is one stubborn dude and he’s not smart either).
Let’s be honest — there are social media posts that are appropriate and those that are inappropriate. We all subscribe to a set of unspoken rules when it comes to Facebook, Instagram, and the like — you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps no where is this more true than with regard to parenting. For example, it’s acceptable to post pictures of your kids smiling. You smiling with them. Statuses about funny things they do and sweet things they say. About once a week I’m able to capture a Facebook-sanctioned picture of my children and/or have a cute story to tell about them in a status update. But daily I have lots of stories I could tell about them that don’t follow the rules. For example:
“It’s almost bedtime. I have been so patient today. It’s almost time to rest. I’m giving the kids a bath and Gabe refuses to stand up so I can wash the lower half of his body. I ask nicely. I am very nice. I say he can play for two more minutes. Two minutes passes. I say it’s time. He ignores me completely. He is on another planet. I say his name repeatedly. I start raising my voice hoping I will be acknowledged. I wrack my brain for a bribe I can offer. Nothing works. My heart starts pounding and I clench my jaw in fury. For the millionth time I forget I am interacting with a four-year-old and I feel disrespected by an adult who thinks I’m dirt. I drag Gabe up out of the water by sheer force and he pretends like his legs are spaghetti. He’s whining; I’m pleading and cursing under my breath. He tries desperately to collapse in the tub and I struggle to retain my grip on forty pounds of slippery disobedience. He’s falling over the edge of the tub now and I have him propped on my pregnant belly, arms and head dangling over my shoulder. I manage to soap up his genitals and legs but what I really want to do is let go and allow his head to smash into the hard tile floor. For a moment I hope there will be blood. The monster has invaded and he is gnashing his teeth.”
That’s an everyday story from the Kim household and I’ve got a million more just like it. And here I go posting it on the Internet. But I have this theory that I’ll be a better mommy if I’m a more honest mommy. If I worry less about meeting others’ standards of motherhood and worry more about telling the truth about being a human being who happens to have reproduced. You might think I’m horrible. You might think I’m appalling. But at least my shame will be exposed, and I know it’s much less dangerous to me and my children that way. It can’t fester and therefore it can be overcome. When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible IS light. — Ephesians 5:13, 14
I’m pretty sure we’re all broken plates. We have all shattered. Maybe not as parents, but in other ways. We are not playing with a full deck. We don’t have all the answers or all the resources we need. Sometimes we need therapy or medication or hospitalization. Sometimes we need vacation or babysitters or showers with no little people watching. All the time we need each other. And the more we can admit that the sooner we’ll tell a friend how we found ourselves hating our kid one night, the sooner we’ll call a psychiatrist, the sooner we’ll be more honest with ourselves and our spouses, the sooner we’ll be more accepting of others’ help. It’s exhausting to glue ourselves back together over and over again. And I know from experience that once you break, you’ll break again more easily. I think it’s time to show each other all our broken places and dole out hugs (real hugs not that nicey-nice crap) and say “me too.” Maybe that’s the beginning of healing. Maybe that’s when we stop shattering.
Photo credits in order: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130404-smart-saucepan-for-stressed-cooks (pot boiling over)
https://lupinelife.com/2014/11/20/mom-confession-im-a-yeller/ (profile of mom yelling)
http://weheartit.com/entry/group/215981 (monster hovering over woman)
http://atypyk.com/archive/broken-plate/ (put back together)