The Other Emotion

I don’t think of myself as a particularly angry person.

I definitely get angry from time to time. I even enjoy it every once in a while, as long as the object of my wrath is safely out of earshot. But I wouldn’t say anger is my go-to emotion.

When I was pregnant, I used to get annoyed at the slivers of negativity people would occasionally wedge into their congratulations. Congrats (but you’ll never sleep again)! It’s a magical time of butterflies (and teeth-gnashing)! Your child will be the center of your world (and the fifth circle of hell)!

It all seemed so negative. So passive aggressive. Why couldn’t they just let me be excited about my baby?

A couple of days ago, Iris screamed herself to sleep at a quarter to six in the morning.

I get it now. I really do. But it’s still passive aggressive, and I still don’t like it. Generally, I prefer the truth, and I do my best to be as comfortable as possible with truth-telling. I am not, for example, a sugar-coater (unless we’re talking about actual sugar). Babies cry sometimes, my baby is treading ever closer to colic territory, and I get it that experienced parents would be uneasy with the soap-bubble enthusiasm of a first-time mom. But passive aggressive barbs weren’t all that helpful in preparing for this part of the journey.

Weirdly enough.

I am making idle promises to myself now that the next time I find myself congratulating a pregnant woman I will affirm that it IS a magical time. I will also tell her that when 5am or colic (or both!) strike and she finds herself having to pass the baby to her partner because she’s so incredibly tired and angry she’s starting to worry about handling her baby a little too cavalierly (ok roughly) thereby HURTING said baby, and the thought of hurting her own child completely freaks her out (but this is all very hypothetical)—to call me. We’ll do coffee.

I wouldn’t actually say that. But I wish there was some acceptable way of saying sometimes the sleep deprivation and frustration will drive you to a dark place, and it’s ok to talk about that in frank, constructive, self-aware ways.

I think it all tends to come out so passive aggressively because we all feel so dang guilty about being angry at children (to say nothing of confused, as the anger and adoration can flip like a switch). It’s confusing and upsetting, and I can understand why it’s so tempting to try to package that craziness in a safe but ultimately unsuccessful dark humor.

That doesn’t change the facts, though.

I get angry sometimes. And I could make all kinds of excuses about how I probably wouldn’t get this angry if I didn’t have the added stress of Carl’s leg and no car and being, in many ways, a surprise single parent, but the simple fact remains that this this is my life and I’m responsible for it.

Hello, life. How sad we both look by 2am.

So I might as well figure it out.

The first part—the acknowledging part—is fairly easy. I know myself pretty well by now, and I’m comfortable with the fact that my mental health is not as robust as that fictitious caricature of the ideal human we all carry inside. I get angry. I get depressed. I have a hard time coping now and then.

If nothing else, writing this post is my attempt to acknowledge that I wasn’t really prepared for this part of parenthood. I was prepared for the sleepless nights. I was prepared for the comparative lack of freedom. I was prepared for eating on the run and having to use all my cunning just to squeeze in a shower… But I never came up with a coping strategy for being angry at my newborn because she won’t stop crying and can’t tell my why.

That kind of slipped my mind.

If acknowledging is the first step, I think I’m pretty squarely in step two: accepting the fact for what it is. Owning it. I am a person fully capable of getting angry at her newborn. It’s hard to say that without rushing in to add I’m sure that’s just part of parenthood, and EVERYBODY feels that way now and then, and I also love her more than I thought possible. But I think that’s just the shame talking. The same shame that keeps people from having more honest conversations about this.

Someday I hope to move on to step three: understanding it.

I’d like to know exactly what ingredients go into this cocktail of irrational anger. I have certain flashes of minor insights: I am almost never angry during the day. It’s fine if my dinner gets cold or I don’t get out of my pajamas for two days. I haven’t gotten mad about blow out diapers or being pooped on (yep, we hit that milestone). I have never NOT been glad to see her sleepy face in the morning. But it’s a lot harder at night—and hardest in that awful window between midnight and 2am. Why? Because I still have the expectation that I will get to go to sleep then. My body expects to sleep. My brain expects to sleep. HOW DARE SHE INTERFERE WITH THAT?

Well, of course, she’s going to interfere with that. She doesn’t have any concept of bedtime (clearly). She doesn’t know that she’s messing with the one thing I feel most entitled to. At some point (like when she’s not a newborn) we’ll have to set some bedtime limits that respect my needs as much as hers, but right now it’s my job to recognize that I had some old expectations I’d failed to realign with my new role.

Things are generally easier when you prepare for them.

My bad.

Understanding the problem flows into the final step: fixing it. Not never being angry again, because that’s an awesome way to set yourself up for failure. If anything, expecting to be angry. Knowing that there will be rough times ahead and doing the work necessary to prepare yourself: not letting the issue get muffled by shame, understanding what situations trigger or contribute to it, having a plan or backup support, developing some coping strategies.

Right now Carl is my coping strategy, and when I couldn’t deal with it anymore that night, Carl held Iris and let her cry until she fell asleep. As much as it kills both of us to see her miserable, he told me the next day how good it felt to have her tiny warmth snuggled against his chest. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of chances to experiment with deep breaths, mindfulness, and mantras but as coping strategies go, Carl is a solid one.

As the zen books say, anger can only exist when we hold more tightly to our expectations than to the way life actually is.

I’m trying to make peace with the way life is.

God knows, it shouldn’t be that hard.

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4 thoughts on “The Other Emotion

  1. Thanks for the honesty! Appreciated! Have you read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year? I think you would find a friend in this book as she writes about many of the same things with the same level of candor. And I expect I will have my angry moments too some day and am glad someone will understand.

  2. I never knew I had a temper until I got married, and then over the next 10 years I developed a volcano inside because I didn’t recognize anger as such or know how to deal with it. I recognized tremendous frustration over unmet expectations, but now (years later) I recognize anger. In the Proverbs it says that only through pride comes contention. I have been trying to recognize the element of pride in me that brings anger to the surface. The zen thought has merit too. I haven’t solved my anger issues by any means, but I now believe that there is nothing wrong with anger. It’s an honest emotion that comes from having our expectations denied. It’s a red flag that we need to respond to with thoughtful purposefulness. If someone makes us angry (in this case your beloved baby), the goal (or so I’ve read) is to learn how to change the situation and/or your expectations to something that is tolerable for both parties (if possible, and the book says it is). I think in the case of a baby, most of the change will have to be in your expectations and acceptance of a very difficult reality: you have a tough baby. Aaron was also extremely demanding, but he was super responsive and fun too, so I experienced both the great highs and lows I think you’re feeling. I’ve read The Dance of Anger not too long ago and would happily share it with you if you want. My best friend during this time in your life (Susie), kept the Child Abuse number posted above her phone to remind her to be sane and sensible. I didn’t feel quite the same depth of rage that she did, but I understood the importance of having a friend to share and pray with. We both thought we’d have gone crazy without one another! Have you got a close friend in your area with a newborn? Company certainly helps dispel misery.

  3. You are so not alone. Have totally been there. That said, please know that this gets better with time, you’re normal and some babies push buttons more than others. Honest rocks and your zen moment is brilliant and insightful.

  4. Loved your post. When my son was born last year, he had crazy bad colic. He was only sleeping in 2 hours increments. It took forever to figure out how to deal with getting so little sleep during the night. First, I tried to do it all on my own. But, I decided I had to ask for help from my husband. After, we tried all sorts of schedules–switching off each time the baby woke up, blocking the night in half, doing every other night. Any way we tried, we were still tired. Hell, I’m still tired.
    And, if I’m honest, at least once a day during that time, I thought about letting the baby cry or pretending to be in a coma so my husband had to do the entire night shift or just calling my husband from a hotel in the caribbean letting him know I’d be back in a couple of days or a week…or once the baby slept through the night.
    Keep being honest. Don’t let the guilt keep you from sharing your experiences with others–we all need that community and whether people admit to it or not, we’ve all been there. 🙂

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