Carmen Lappe explores how we can employ anger as a virtue and shed the guilt of being an “angry mom.”
“Damien, please get down!”
I was having one heck of a time trying to convince my almost-2-year-old son that running laps around the plants on top of the dining room table was not exactly safe. I chased him around and around, losing quite a bit of my dignity in the process since I could not catch him, until I finally lost my cool and got his attention the only way I knew how: yelling.
He finally stopped, and cried as I set him down and told him, “Just go play with your sister.”
As soon as I turned my back to finish making dinner, my cheeks burned hot with shame. How many nights in a row would I need to raise my voice in an attempt to keep the house in order until my husband got home from work? Night after night I’ve gone to bed, tearful and ashamed that I couldn’t be more tender and merciful with my children.
If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it is that children model our behavior. Even when their listening ears are inexplicably broken, their actions demonstrate that they are indeed attuned to our attitudes, beliefs, and values.
I’ve noticed this specifically when I watch my children interact. My daughter Gemma often speaks to Damien in a manner quite similar to how I speak to him. When we offer prayers at bedtime, she’s learning to trust God with everything from deceased family members and friends to the scrape on her knee from daycare.
The flip side, and one of my greatest fears, is that the kids will emulate my behavior when my patience runs thin and anger abounds. The fear that I'm failing them, as well as my loving God, can be paralyzing. St. Paul tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Is it possible to give cheerfully when you hear “Mommy, I’m hungry” for the fifth time in 10 minutes or your son pulls his pants and diaper off when you’re trying to get dinner going and carry groceries in from the car?
I’ve discussed my concerns with one of my best friends, and he’s helped me discover something seemingly oxymoronic: anger can be virtuous. To illustrate this point, let’s take a peek at John 2:13-16:
“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
Jesus’ anger in this scene is completely justified! The money changers (who were gouging the Jews by charging exorbitant exchange rates) and those selling pigeons, oxen, and sheep displayed blatant disregard for the sacredness of the temple. Jesus’ anger is in response to the injustice of His Father’s house being corrupted and used as a place for worldly, commercial activities.
Virtuous anger is a perfectly just response to injustice in the world; but the sinful, unvirtuous reaction of wrath should always be avoided. We can practice this by employing patience and asking for the Father’s help when things are running at a fever pitch (so much easier said than done, I know). Sometimes when things are especially tense and I can feel myself losing control, I will force myself to step back (literally) and just study my children’s faces. I’ll gaze into their eyes, play with their hair, reach out my hand to theirs, or envelop them in my arms. Taking a short moment to recognize Jesus in these tiny humans helps me to center myself. It’s a powerful reminder of how helpless we are without the Father and how utterly dependent we are upon his mercies.
Is the negative behavior of our children an injustice? It may sound harsh, and I’m no child psychologist, but five minutes with my almost-2-year-old whom I instruct not to do something, only to have him give me the infamous side-eye and do the thing anyway, is an exercise in patience, if not futility. As our beloved parish priest would say, “There it is! Original sin!”
Perhaps, then, I can give myself a tiny bit of grace and recognize that my anger is justified when my children are disobedient. Their defiance toward me as their mother is technically and objectively an injustice (when looking at the act itself). What I need is the mercy of God to break through and remind me, “Be patient with them. They know not what they do.”
Though I hope my children forget these challenging times, I also hope they see the reckless, endless love of God mirrored in my motherhood. No matter how often they test my patience or completely disregard something I’ve said, nothing they could ever do could make me love them less.
Years ago, before the birth of my son, I experienced many of these same emotions with my daughter. Toddlers, man! I remember bringing my concerns about being an “angry mom” to my spiritual director, and the encouragement he gave me still resonates: “Your beloved Gemma is still in need of a savior, you know.”
I took awhile for it to sink in, but his comment helped me recognize two things:
I am doing the best I can.
It is not my responsibility to be everything for my children - only Jesus can do that.
We also expanded upon anger and its response to that which is outside our control (read: parenthood). It is precisely in these challenging, toddlerhood moments when I am most keenly reminded of the truth that I can’t do any of this without Jesus’ help. God bless my dear husband, who sees the exhaustion on my face each day and reminds me to call on Jesus frequently throughout the day to help me.
Even when it’s tempting to despair of the love of the Father after a rough week, (Jesus, where were you when Damien was flinging cottage cheese all over the dining room and Gemma was throwing a fit because I wouldn’t let her eat Oreos for dinner?) I know He walks beside me. He called me to this vocation for my sanctification, and so I pray for the grace to trust in His goodness.
“For with God, nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)
So high five, mama. You’re doing the best you can, and I pray you find rest (in Jesus and maybe a well-deserved nap).
Copyright 2021 Carmen Lappe
Images: Canva; Carl Bloch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; copyright 2021 Carmen Lappe, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Carmen is a wife and mother of two working in parish ministry in midwestern Iowa. She has a Master of Arts degree in Sacred Theology and has a special passion for writing about the grace of motherhood. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling with her husband and exploring breweries and baseball stadiums across the country.