Mama Meltdowns: Making peace with losing your temper.

Over at my blog, I write about happy afternoons in our English village. Or I write about all the small wonders of family life. Or I write about trips to places that look like a page ripped right out of a fairytale. But, to quote one of my favorite movies, “this ain’t Ozzy and Harriet”. Our family has many good times but we have our bad times too. And, while the balance is thankfully weighted more towards good, it does seem that we experience both positive and negative emotions with equal force.

Take this weekend, for instance. It began with high hopes and grand plans for The Diamond Jubilee – a four day British holiday to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. Since, my husband was out of town on a business trip, I planned to make it a fun girl’s weekend for me and Maren. We would make crowns to wear, bake yummy treats, bike to street fairs and have fun with friends. And we did do some of those things. But what we seemed to do more than anything else was argue.

“Crowns: check. Royal attitude problems: check”

What went wrong, you ask? Well, in a word…everything. I mixed up the schedule for the street fairs. Maren got carsick and vomited all over a friend’s backseat (and all over us) on the way to a lunch date. I broke a bottle of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and a plate all in the same day. Maren decided to pee standing up rather than sitting down on her potty with seriously messy results. The sunny weather turned cold and rainy, leaving us cooped up indoors instead of cycling to parties. Maren met every “no” from me with a three year old’s deadliest weapon – repeating her question over and over until my head ached. Oh, and the list just goes on. Small irritations that would have ordinarily been brushed aside were in seemingly endless supply and added up to two very short fuses. It didn’t take long until we both blew our tops. And, not just once, but several times. So, my weekend plans of tiaras and parties quickly exploded into a royal battle of wills.

“Take off this shirt, turn off the Jubilee coverage and eat dinner? I think I’ll tantrum instead, madam.”

I wish that I could say this was the first time that I’ve lost my temper with Maren. I really do. But, it wasn’t. After patiently coping in situations that should have driven me mad during her infancy, I had my first mama meltdown around the time she was 18 months old. It was a minor blow up – especially when compared to some of the scoldings I’ve seen take place in the checkout lines at the grocery store – but still, I chewed on myself and shamed myself and questioned my parenting for days afterwards. I don’t consider myself to be an angry person or one prone to arguments but I do express rather than hide my feelings. And, coming from a large Southern family, when I express myself, I can be a bit, well…loud. But I didn’t want to be one of those mothers that shouted or angered easily. And, by all accounts from family and friends, I wasn’t. I was a calm, patient, flexible and sympathetic mom. So, I was shocked and upset the first time that I shouted at Maren. And, I wanted to believe that my temper tantrum was just a blip on the radar. A smudge on an otherwise fairly spotless record. I wanted to believe that avoiding anger in parenting was possible for me. But, somewhere inside, I realized that erasing an entire emotion wasn’t very realistic. And, more importantly, I knew it was my responsibility to teach Maren how to express anger…and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t make peace with showing her my own frustration.

So, the first step towards this truce was to accept that frustration is a normal part of any relationship – and that includes motherhood. Sure, it’s unpleasant or even disappointing but it is very human and even the best mothers sometimes feel angry at their children. I also had to accept that showing frustration would not cancel out all the love that I gave to Maren, any more than loving her would prevent me from feeling angry at her.  The two emotions, while sometimes heightened by each other, were not mutually exclusive. But, just because anger is normal, that doesn’t mean that every way of expressing it is. Physical violence or character attacks, for instance, are clearly harmful and unhealthy responses. So what about the way that I dealt with frustration? What was good? What needed work? I decided that expressing rather than hiding my feelings was a good thing. It allowed people to know immediately when something was wrong and provided an opportunity to communicate. I wanted to teach Maren to do the same. But, I didn’t like my tendency to shout and I didn’t want to teach her to raise her volume to get her point across. So, I had to work on that and I decided to make my work very visible to my daughter. If I felt frustrated, I told Maren what I was feeling and I told her why. If I felt myself losing my temper, I took deep breaths and told her that I was doing it to calm down. Or, on the rare occasion that I felt beyond the point of deep breaths, I asked for a minute alone – which hasn’t worked yet, but I still try! – or I put on our shoes and we took a walk around the block to blow off steam.

“Your little girl is cranky too? Let’s roll.”

Yet, sometimes, in spite of my best efforts to see the world from my child’s perspective or to manage my own frustration, I do miss the mark. And, sometimes Maren goes through limit testing phases – which I think she is in right now (oof!) – that seem to require a minor meltdown…from both of us! So, on occasions when I handle a situation poorly with Maren, I wait until I am calm and I go talk to her. I  hold her and tell her four things:

-I tell her why I felt angry about her behavior.

-I tell her that I don’t like that behavior but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love her.

-I tell her that being angry is ok but yelling isn’t.

-And, most importantly, I apologize to her.

And, then I hug her to pieces. Because let’s face it, she is an irresistibly huggable kid.

“Grumpy or not, I love you big time.”

As mothers, we must teach our children many things. Some things we will teach them through discussions, but much of their learning will come from their own observations of how we behave. In my case, I realized that although I didn’t want to lose my temper, it was inevitable that I would. So, I had to make sure my responses to anger were ones that I wanted to teach my child. I took the ‘bad’ label off of anger and viewed it instead as just another feeling on a mother’s spectrum of emotions. I let her see me, her mama, as a human being rather than an eternally patient parent. And, with any luck, watching me experience and cope with a range of emotions, will teach her to value all feelings and to feel capable of expressing her own highs and lows.

“As they say in Robin Hood, every town has it’s ups and downs…”

So, 2 years after my first mama meltdown, you might be wondering how things are working out. Especially given my earlier story about our royally cranky weekend. Well, I’ll tell you one last story and let you be the judge. As Jubilee weekend came to a close, Maren got very upset at dinner because I took off her Union Jack T-shirt to save it from getting splattered with pasta sauce. She cried about “wanting to wear the Queen’s shirt”, kicked at the table and would only take a few bites of dinner. So, after all efforts failed to turn her mood around, I took her upstairs, put on her pajamas and laid her in bed. I expected that she would get out of bed and follow behind me as I went downstairs to do the dinner dishes – after all it was only 6:30! – but, suprisingly, she didn’t cry or get up to follow me. After finishing the dishes, I walked upstairs to find her sound asleep. I pulled the blankets around her, took a photo – she’s never fallen asleep on her own, let alone that early, so it was photo worthy! – and went back downstairs.

“Just because I’m asleep at 6:30, doesn’t mean I’m going to stay that way…”

After about an hour, I heard a small voice call, “Mama?” and I walked upstairs to find her sitting up in bed. She reached out her arms and the first thing she said was, “Mommy, I’m sorry that I used my yucky voice and was mean to you at dinner.” I told her thank you, snuggled her in and covered her face in kisses. Then, she asked if there was “some more Jubilee” to watch and I told her we’d go downstairs to see what we could find. We put our crowns back on, snuggled under a blanket and stayed up late watching a documentary about the Coronation. We waved at the Queen, watched the crowds waving flags, yelled “hip, hip, hooray” and ate the banana bread that we made that morning. I guess if frustration has to be a part of our life every now and then, I can only hope that making up is always this sweet.

“Happily ever after…”

Whatever type of mama you are – a patient mama, a passionate mama or somewhere in between – I encourage you to be gentle with yourself. Although we may feel pressure from the world (or ourselves!) to handle situations ‘perfectly’, I don’t think our children require flawless parenting. I think that motherhood can be a place where we learn and grow just as much as we teach and nurture. Our crown may slip from time to time and we may have to figure out how to put it right again, but I think that’s okay. In fact, it may be one of the most important things that we can show our children how to do.

What do you think? Have you ever lost your temper with your child? What strategies do you use to prevent a “mama meltdown”? What benefit, if any, do you think your children gain from viewing your experience with unpleasant (as well as pleasant) emotions?

Sarah Scott

About Sarah Scott

Sarah Scott is a former Occupational Therapist turned stay at home mom, living in the English countryside for a year with her family. While she was pregnant, Sarah envisioned working part time. Of collecting her smiling child from it’s crib each morning after 8+ hours of sleep. Of watching her husband, Jake, jog off with their baby in the stroller so she could have some “me” time. But, baby Maren overheard that plan and decided she didn’t like it. Nope, not one bit. And so, with a potent combination of ear-splitting cries, breastfeeding hormones and the sweetest face this side of the Mississipi, she introduced her parents to attachment parenting in a way no book ever could – through pure gut instinct and trial by fire. Soon they were hooked – er, attached? – and dove head first into the world of co-sleeping, breastfeeding, baby wearing, cloth diapering and more. These days, you can find Sarah chasing Maren around, taking photos, bantering with her hubby or writing her blog about the adventures of stay at home motherhood & her family’s experience as expats in England. Look for new posts here every Monday and go to http://scottgossip.blogspot.com for travel, photography and mommy posts Monday through Friday.