I have always thought of myself as a pretty placid person. If I look back over my life I can hardly think of a single time when I’ve shouted at or hit anyone – certainly not since I was a child. Not that I don’t experience anger, but the temperament I am blessed/cursed with is one that tends to respond to that emotion surging through my system by shutting down rather than firing up. And that has been true even in my most intimate relationships. For some people anger gushes out like a geyser at the least provocation. My anger bubbles deep underground and only very occasionally makes it to the surface.
That was until I became a father. I cannot believe how different my experience of anger has been with Tilly. Not only do I experience anger more often, but I am finding it hard to control it in a way that I never have before. Don’t worry, this is not a veiled confession of child abuse, but it is an acknowledgment that I have been shocked by the violent impulses I have sometimes had towards Tilly. I never imagined before I had a child, that someone like me would have to implement strategies to ensure that I didn’t act on those impulses, but that is exactly what I have had to do.
I have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of all this (experiencing intense and unexpected negative emotions can really get you thinking), and I’ve come up with a few contributing factors. I’ll start with the ones that don’t make me look so bad. Sleep deprivation and general exhaustion obviously play a big role. There is no question that I find it harder to be self-controlled at three in the morning on a night that is yet to provide me with any sleep, than I do at the three in the afternoon after an uninterrupted nine hour sleep the night before (I’ve heard that nights like this are possible).
The second contributing factor is the walnut-cracking sledgehammer that is a baby’s cry. Like many evolutionary adaptations the cry of a human baby can be the victim of its own success. It is ‘designed’ to prevent parents from doing anything else until they succeed in meeting the need that prompted the cry. However, in situations where the parents are unable to meet the need (or work out what the need is), the crying can become so unendurable that you start to contemplate anything that might end it. The baby books all say that when you reach this point, you need to leave the room for a minute or two to regain some perspective, and this is, of course, exactly what you should do. The problem is that sometimes you pass this fork in the road before you know it and find yourself picked up and carried along by a tsunami of love, distress, adrenaline and, yes, anger.
The next contributing factor is the one that is somewhat more confronting (but more important to name as a result), and that is the fact that at some level my mind was telling me that it would be ‘safe’ to shout at my baby or handle her roughly because I could ‘get away with it’. Just as people, in their cars, will say and do things that they would never say or do to someone’s face, so too a parent driven to distraction by a screaming baby can convince themselves that giving vent to this anger is ‘okay’, because the child won’t remember, and therefore (so the perverse logic goes) won’t even be affected by it.
The most disturbing factor of all is the possibility that I am doing what so many men do (and it is mainly, if not exclusively, men), and that is channelling anger from other contexts onto Tilly. Men who experience themselves as victims of others’ anger and feel emasculated by this experience, often take this out on their own wives and children. I have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about my own history with anger and how it may play into my responses to Tilly. How much is my placidity really passivity and conflict avoidance that has left me with reserves of unexpressed anger?
So why am I telling you all this? Well, mainly because I have found that talking (writing?) about it helps enormously. Also, because I suspect, though I don’t know of many who talk about it, that most parents wrestle with anger towards their children in some form or other. A friend of mine brought to my attention the work of Donald Winicott, a psychologist, who in an article called ‘Hate in the Counter-Transference’ said that with some clients a therapist needs to be a like a mother, who ‘has to be able to tolerate hating her baby without doing anything about it.’ And also suggests that ‘the most remarkable thing about a mother is her ability to be hurt so much by her baby and to hate so much without paying the child out, and her ability to wait for rewards that may or may not come at a later date.’
In other words, we all have moments when we hate our young children (he gives a long list of circumstances when this will happen). Our goal is to hate appropriately, not taking it out on the child, but also not pretending this hate does not exist. Winicott calls the inability to accept the fact of our hate sentimentality and says that this is an obstacle to the child’s development. He puts it very starkly, saying that in a sentimental environment a child will never learn ‘to tolerate the full extent of his own hate’. If we are able to acknowledge and accept the negative feelings we have towards our children, and find safe and appropriate ways of expressing them (ie writing interminable blog posts about them), then our children are more likely to be able to do the same thing.
So let me say loudly and clearly that I sometimes ‘hate’ Tilly, but I am working very hard to ‘hate’ her well. Let me also say loudly and clearly that alongside these fleeting moments of ‘hate’, anger and hurt, there are many more filled with love, delight and a sense of overwhelming privilege that I have such a beautiful daughter. In fact, come to think of it, I could probably pick any twenty minute period during the day (aside from when she’s sleeping) and I can guarantee that within that period I will feel pretty much every emotion there is towards my girl, both positive and negative. It’s just that this post is entitled ‘Anger’, so I was bound to focus more on the negative.
Note: My wife suggested that I should end this post by assuring you again that I don’t hurt my child.