Last March, my daughter Cadence celebrated her 4th birthday. We had a simple brunch at home, with a makeshift stage for the birthday girl. She had prepared a show, and her guests were the captive audience for her original compositions. After snatching the mic away from her brother Dylan, our little diva sang about burger steak and gravy, flowers and rough boys. Then we gathered all the kids and sang the birthday song around a strawberry cake. And Cadence’s wish?
“I wish… that my mom and dad would not get mad at me.”
Everyone laughed, thinking she had more mischief up her sleeve. But I chuckled uncomfortably, feeling my heart sink to the ground. I was ashamed that she used her birthday wish for me, and that it exposed my biggest weakness: my temper. As she blew out her candles, I knew I had to grant that wish.
It’s not a big deal to see a parent get angry and reprimand her kids when they do something wrong. In fact, I’ve heard many people complain about the opposite – spoiled kids raised by moms and dads who don’t get mad enough. But how do you put a check on how much anger their transgressions merit? And is it even effective in reinforcing good behavior?
These are questions I deal with every day, because I have a hard time putting a handle on my emotions. A noisy, hectic breakfast can send me spiraling down into a fit of rage over unfinished cereal… I have literally cried over spilled milk. And instead of controlling my temper, I use my anger to get what I want.
“Go to sleep now, or I will get mad.”
“If you don’t finish your food, I will leave you.”
“Aha! Does it hurt? Good. That’s what you get when you don’t listen to me.”
These are words I have uttered, mistakes I knew I was making. I hold love hostage, I withdraw affection until my terms are met. The more they refuse to obey, the more my anger is unleashed. Like a weapon, whipping them into shape. But at what cost? I feel kindness drain from me as my words get sharper and my gestures get rougher. They obey to appease me for the moment, or because I’ve physically made them follow my command. I wonder if they will look back at their childhood and see an angry mom with a baby in one arm, shouting threats, hurriedly picking food up from the floor and sobbing. I wonder if they truly understand me when I calm down, hug them tight and say sorry. And when they say “it’s okay, Mom” I let out a deep sigh of relief, but still I wonder: Is it really okay?
I struggle to be kind and loving in everything I do for my kids. And when I pray, I often ask God why I am so mad so often, so deeply. Those mysteries are still lurking in the dark side of my heart. I know even Jesus got angry. Even the Son of God sat there brooding, braiding that whip of cords. But how does anger change anything, or anyone? I have screamed and kicked, and said the nastiest things. I have whipped out my deadliest weapon: silence. But no matter how much anger I display, it doesn’t make my kids respect me more. It doesn’t make my husband see things from my perspective. It only proves that I am selfish enough to make them suffer the consequences of my emotions.
What did those people think of Jesus when he overturned tables and drove them out of the temple? Did they think he was crazy, going berserk like that? Did they come back the next day, set up their tables, and go back to the business of selling God’s favor? Did Jesus’ anger change them? Maybe, maybe not. But it does show me that there are some things worth getting angry about. Like religious men exploiting a person’s honest desire to be good. Abuse. Or human trafficking. Or corruption. Those things deserve the screaming fits of rage that I have unfortunately displayed to my family.
My problems don’t merit a whip of cords. Spilling drinks, refusing to take naps, fighting, and being picky eaters are such trivial matters. Compounded over months and months, sure it can be frustrating. Like paddling against the current, a mother hears “no” over and over and over again. And it’s normal to get mad, to feel like you don’t deserve to be having such a hard time. But it’s not going to change the situation. Last week, Cadence saw me sobbing out of frustration, having to put the baby to sleep while running after her and Dylan to finish their food. I begged her to listen to me, and she was taken aback by the resignation in my voice. And she said, “It’s just hard to be a mommy of 3 kids.” I nodded, and I cried, “it’s so hard!”
There is only one person I can change by getting mad, and that is myself. Anger is not a tool. I can’t use it to change people’s behavior, can’t get them to care more. Only love, kindness, and time can do that. If there is a venue for anger, it’s against injustice. I want to reserve my rage, my whip of cords, to cry out against oppression. Then maybe I will recognize the difference between what’s wrong and what’s hard.