I write to remember what I know. Recently a mom in my Mother’s Club posted a distress call on our online chat board. After watching her two young children all week and through most of the weekend, she became inexplicably enraged at her husband, innocently returning from his relaxing three-hour Sunday workout. She abashedly described herself as screaming, name-calling, slamming things around and basically engaging in an entirely unprovoked adult temper tantrum.
Boy, did reading her post take me back to the days! The last one was about two weeks ago, in fact. Her question to us was: What to do? But I think the more important question is: Why?
Most moms don’t go crazy for absolutely no reason at all. Especially when the current construction of the idea of “mom” is so crazy-making. Just for the sake of argument, let me first acknowledge the influence of the primal soup.
Much as I hate to admit it, a lot of my own Crazy Mama episodes do emerge from the maelstrom of my personal primal soup. I don’t really know what’s down there. Years of therapy sessions have tossed up some ideas, like broken bits of wooden ships. A critical, verbally abusive father. Fear of abandonment. Ambivalence about commitment. I wish I could summon the power of Poseidon, reach down into the wildly swirling waters and uproot the vortex, fling it irrevocably across the ocean where it would crash onto some other shore, then subside into unusually calm waters, as if there had never been any storm at all. But no, the primal soup is in me—it’s the blood running in my veins, the peculiar chemical cocktail that seeps through every cell of my body with the insidious and irrelevant influence of childhood.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that I cannot calm these waters alone. And it’s taken me even longer to learn that I cannot count on the Husband to help me soothe the squall, either. Because of the way our aquatic machines speak to each other in sinister subvocal Atlantaean whispers, of course I have meshed my life with a man whose primal soup was stirred from the same pot. Different spoons, different spices, but the same savor in our bodies. So just when I need him—anybody—to save me from myself, there he is, stirring my soup counterclockwise in exactly the rhythm destined to call up a true tempest.
Somehow I must escape myself and him, to save the children.
Enter the paid professional. The well-paid professional. But does he ever earn his keep! The first thing I learn from therapy is that I am not crazy, but exhausted, depressed, overwhelmed, isolated, and often unsupported. The second thing I learn from therapy is that I have some good reasons for feeling angry. Nobody tells me these things. No, I pay the therapist good money to sit there, week after week, and listen to me figure it out for myself. The first therapist I ever hired, back in the days when I was steadfastly single and starting to wonder why, aced the interview question I tossed her: Why do you work as a therapist?
“It gives me the opportunity to serve as a witness,” she answered, “and so help people change. And I myself am changed by the act of witnessing.”
And so I call this mother to the witness stand. What cause have you to feel rage? Don’t you have it all? A beautiful home, two healthy children, a loving husband, an income you don’t have to earn, time to spend with your children, watching them grow? How is it you fail to appreciate what you have?
Ask yourself this, mother, the next time you are reduced to a vengeful, slobbering beast: when was the last time you had a peaceful, three-hour workout? Or this: In the morning, does your husband say to you during the last-night’s dishes, eggs the Five-Year Old insists on scrambling himself, Two-Year Old’s newfound preoccupation with the cord to the food processor she can now reach from her booster chair when you forget to strap her in—does he say to you, “Is it a good time for me to get my shower?” Or does he just go and take a shower?
To simply go and take a shower. This is a luxury you have not had recently.
No, for you to get a shower now requires a Machiavellian level of planning, preparation, equipment and manipulation. You can bribe your children with T.V. time or chocolate, you can sometimes strap them into a bouncy seat suspended from a door frame. To avert full-scale separation anxiety (which inevitably results in a strained back from the consequence of having to carry twenty-five pounds on your hip for the rest of the day), toddlers MUST have access to the bathroom, which mandates a meticulous review of the safety hazards of your bathing area, a screwdriver and a drill. Older children can be expected to plaster themselves to the outside of the shower door attempting conversation with you, which the sound of falling water renders incomprehensible but still audible. Sure, you may get yourself into the shower, you may get wet, but you’ll get none of the psychological benefits of personal ablution your husband so cheerily enjoys each morning as he emerges from his twenty-minute shower, damp and bright-eyed.
On mornings when he is in charge of breakfast, you remember the golden rule, and inquire politely before slipping toward the bathroom: “Shower okay now?” But instead of nonchalantly waving you away as he locates Five’s homework, packs an appropriate, nut-free snack bag for Two, sets the kitchen table, unloads the dishwasher, starts the laundry, sweeps cereal off the floor, and separates Two’s teeth from Five’s hand, he looks at you wild-eyed and snaps, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but we have hungry kids here. And I have to leave for work early today—my trip to Portugal is next week!”
Every once in a while you may sneak off for that morning shower when your children are sated with cinnamon toast and your husband slumped uncomplaining in front of his cooling coffee, but you’ll regret it. When you come back, Five will be having a tantrum that involves dumping the entire folded contents of his shirt drawer on the kitchen floor, which is streaked with wet scrambled egg someone unwisely tried to sweep, your husband will be standing next the garbage can looking completely muddled about the poopy diaper in his hand, and Two will be running brown-bottomed through the house, laughing and screaming “Ne-Ne! Ne-Ne!” Now you know why your mother used to wash her hair in the kitchen sink.
If we speak of these things, we are told to stop complaining. We are lucky to be home with our children full time. Worse, we’re informed that we are imagining inequity. We could, in fact, have a shower any time we like, work out at the gym, see friends, achieve polished grooming. Our unhappiness is the failure of our imaginations to plan our lives and our time. Just get a job, we are told, if you don’t like taking care of the kids, and pay someone else to do it. We are called bad mothers.
The truth is, our lives as parents do not sort themselves out effortlessly along equitable lines. These separate roles—wage-earning and child-rearing—are complex and often incomprehensible from the other side. Each role bears the weight of its own history and ingrained expectations, internal and external. And raising young children is hard work that puts pressure on the entire family. It takes thought, effort, conversation, flexibility and commitment to share it equally. But caring for young children also sucks up every spare minute of time and every spare ounce of energy for having sane and effective partner conversation. So often we fall back on a default division of labor that doesn’t make use of each partner’s strengths, doesn’t nurture each partner’s needs equitably, doesn’t offer each partner an equal share of the gifts of life with children.
So listen to the rage. Do not be ashamed when it rears its head. What can you learn? What can you give up? What can you change? What can you be grateful for? Listen now, as the wave crashes softly to the shore. Walk together into the gently foaming surf to search for shells and driftwood, while the children are still young enough to want to swing from your hands.