The new Netflix film, The Lost Daughter, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel and staring Olivia Coleman as Leda, touches on a slightly darker side of motherhood that we don’t often see in books or films…mum rage.
When I watched the actress who played the younger Leda, in a series of flashbacks where we saw her slamming a door so hard a pane of glass in it cracked while her young daughter looked on, and losing her temper when her other daughter pulled her hair too hard, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It’s not that I’ve done those things to my own children, but like a lot of mums I have lost my temper with them more times than I’d like to admit.
In the film, we see lots of happy moments of the young Leda, played brilliantly by Jessie Buckley, with her two daughters, who are aged around 4 and 5 in the film. But alongside those moments, we see some all too familiar scenes of a mother – at the end of her tether - struggling to juggle work and the demands of young children.
In her new book, Angry Mother Assertive Mother: From maternal anger to radical repair, author and psychotherapist Christalle Hayes offers techniques to control and use maternal anger in a constructive way, and also shows mums how to practice compassion, especially after a bout of anger, and self-care, which can stop it bubbling up in the first place.
‘Every mum I spoke to for this book really resonated with the theme,’ says Hayes. ‘Lots of mum lose their temper when they really don’t want or mean to, and this often happens because of the way motherhood is set up. Mums are under a lot of stress, juggling too many things, they don’t sleep enough, and many are lacking in proper support from those around them. Kids are also hard wired to push boundaries, and they need us so much. All this can be a recipe for a flare up.
‘Although it’s important here to make the distinction between occasionally losing your temper, and actually hurting your child. If you feel your temper or anger is getting out control, I advise you see your GP as soon as possible.’
Here are some common triggers – and how to diffuse them
This is one of the hardest times of a mum's day, says Hayes. ‘Everybody has worked so hard all day, so nobody is on their best form. The kids don’t want to go to sleep, they want to stay up and play, but they’re cranky. And mums have expended all their energy and need some downtime. We then become resentful because that time we need to sit down and re-charge is being taken away from us. We’re thinking, “I should read my child another story, but I also really want my dinner and to have some time with my partner, or to watch that show on Netflix.”
‘So, what should you do? Routine is everything, and if you put in the work early on at bedtime you’ll reap the rewards later on. If you find bedtime dragging on, start it earlier. And be prepared – have a cup of tea, have a wee, put your pyjamas on before you get started – anything that makes you feel better, or that you don’t want to do afterwards. I always find that helps.’
‘Lots of mums tell me this can make them lose their temper,’ says Hayes. ‘I also spoke to women who had a tough time having a second child and then when they came along the older sibling resented them. One mum told me her two daughters were fighting all the time and she yelled, “I’ve gone through all this to give you a sister and you just fight all the time!”
‘But siblings will always fight, usually for attention and resources, so you have to learn to deal with it. For a start, don’t match their energy. If they’re shouting, and then you start shouting, things escalate. Learn to bring the energy of the fight down, not up. Breathe deeply, self-regulate, and reframe their fighting. Sibling rivalry is how kids learn to navigate relationships outside the house. As long as it’s not bullying, leave them to it. If they’re tussling over a toy, resist the urge to jump in, and instead step back and let them figure it out themselves.’
‘I suffer from this,’ says Hayes. ‘When I’m trying to cook dinner, and I can hear the TV blasting in the other room, the kids are whiny because they’re hungry, that’s a big trigger. The other one is driving – if I’m lost, or if I’m late, or trying to park, the sound of my kids squabbling in the back drives me mad. So, I now tell them I need silence when I’m trying to park. Have self- awareness so you know when you’re likely to get mad, and you can self-regulate when you feel the anger rising. Acknowledge you’re in a situation that makes you feel stressed and find ways to reduce it. And if your kids are old enough explain to them that you need quiet for a few minutes. Be honest with them.
‘Sometimes anger is a secondary emotion to shame, guilt or fear. If your child runs out in the road and you get angry, it’s a result of fear of them getting hurt. If they hit another child at playgroup, your anger is rooted in the shame you feel in front of other parents. So instead of beating yourself up, be self-reflective and go easy on yourself.’
What should you do after an outburst?
‘If you do have a blow out with your child, what should you do? Sometimes, when I’m getting my little boy dressed in the morning, and he just wants to play, I can get a bit shouty and snap at him. This makes the situation worse because he becomes upset, so what I’ve learnt to do is take a step back, take a breath and say to him, “Mummy is shouting, but Mummy shouldn’t be shouting. We had a bit of a moment there, didn’t we?” Then I explain why I was mad, and I tell him I love him. We need to acknowledge that mums are human, and they lose their temper. Previous generations didn’t always do that – parents were always right and didn’t need to apologise or explain. A lot of mums I spoke to for my book said when they were children, their mum’s outbursts of anger were usually followed by silence. Nothing was said or explained. Now we know better, so always take a moment to explain things to your child. And say sorry when you need to.’
Cristalle Hayes is an existential and trauma-based psychotherapist and author of Angry Mother Assertive Mother: From maternal anger to radical repair****, published by Rethink, out now