When You Feel like Screaming…Help for Frustrated Mothers


You have to admit it. Most mothers are guilty of losing their temper and hollering at the top of their lungs. Usually the moment you let loose, you instantly regret it. So on a weekend where we honour mothers and remember all the amazing things mothers do, let’s be realists and address a topic that exists, but few people talk about it.

The title of this blog is actually the title of a book by Pat Holt and Grace Ketterman M.D. (2001)

that I picked up when I was a young mother with a quickly growing brood of children. To be honest, I wasn't a habitual screamer, at least out loud, rather, I screamed a lot inside my own head. You see, I spent a great deal of my time in my head space just trying to cope. I went to bed most nights feeling like a complete failure and obsessed that I was not a good mother, because quite frankly I didn't know how this whole parenting thing worked.

When I was young, I vowed that I was never getting married and certainly never having children. My history made me very skeptical about all prospects of love and happiness. I did not know how to give or receive love, and so thinking about forming a lifelong partnership and bringing children into the world was nowhere in my life plans. I pursued education, and not people, and was quite content until I met a great man who changed my world forever. I blatantly told him that I didn't want to get married or have kids and he was ok with that. How awesome was that for me!!

But as you have likely figured out, I did agree to marry this great guy. Shortly before walking down that aisle though, I went to the doctor who informed me that I would not be able to have children. I'm sure I was the only patient she ever had who jumped up for joy thinking now they had no worries! And so we got married, enjoyed our life just the two of us, and carried on with our studies in graduate school. I was half way through my master’s degree when I began to feel sick. I went to the doctor who told me that I was pregnant! How did that happen? Well, I know how it happened, but seriously, my body wasn't made for babies; my head and my heart weren't made for babies either.

The pregnancy was very difficult with various complications, but I still went to school and my placement in the psychiatric hospital. Though my husband I were well–educated, we had zero education when it came to childbirth and childrearing. We didn't even take pre-natal courses. Neither of us had ever held a baby or changed a diaper. I had all of this head knowledge of child development from my studies but no practical experience. So on July 14th, 1989 we took the subway, yes you read that correctly, to the Toronto General Hospital.

I’ll spare you the birth details and just say that I ended up having a c-section. So high on narcotics, I started my role as a parent! The moment I saw my son, my heart melted. (I like to think that reaction was not a side effect of the drugs. :) ) It was only the second time in my life that I can remember crying. I had become a master of binding my emotions, but this life-giving experience changed me…forever! I had never felt so full of wonder, excitement, and fear all at once. I was now responsible for this little boy. It was up to me to raise him well, to show him love – though I didn't know how - and to lead and guide him into becoming a young man. As we all know, this was my going to be my toughest educational experience to date!

So less than 6 weeks post-recovery, I took the subway to the university with my son in tow. He sat in classes with me, and when I wasn't in class, I studied while feeding him in my office. My husband would drive across the city when his classes were finished, and watch our son sleep in the drawer of my desk while I went off to the library where I had to look up every book or document through microfiche or the card catalogue. (Some of you will have to Google what microfiche means. :) ) And just to clarify…the drawer of the desk was open!

My husband and I both graduated with our Master’s degrees just before our son’s first birthday. It was a crazy time, but a good time. And you know what? We just did it. We didn't think about how hard it was. We had no help, no daycare (couldn't afford it), no parents, no friends or relatives who helped us out. It was just the three of us in a one bedroom apartment in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish lady’s house, with no laundry machines, or dishwasher, or even a bathtub. We were poor financially speaking, but so rich with this little person in our lives.

I felt, however, incredibly inadequate. And sleep deprived. And with those two things combined, well, it makes for some pretty interesting emotional reactions. I honestly think that when you get enough sleep, you can cope with a lot, but when it is constantly interrupted, you become a different person. I'm sure many of you can relate to that regardless of whether you are male or female.

Well, as soon as my son learned to sleep through the night, I got pregnant again, and again… So 5 kids later, I figure I had a good solid 10 years of sleep deprivation. And it’s inevitable that I would get frustrated at times right?

That’s the first key to understanding why people scream. Frustration. When you are frustrated, it’s as if you are pushing against a wall. You know what you need, and what you want, and it is just not happening in this little person (or bigger person) who is lying down or standing in front of you. Whether that’s to stop crying, instantly obey, eat the food, have a positive attitude, show some effort to complete a task, or agree to the ‘house rules’, kids don’t always comply. And the harder you push against that wall, the more that frustration builds, and then boom!

So what is the root of frustration for most moms? Well, it lies within the head space of most moms – it’s the message that plays constantly that “I have to do it all.” Every women yearns to hear: “Wow look at all she does, and she looks so great, her kids are amazing, and her house is so beautiful. How does she do it? I wish I could be her”. We have come to believe that a woman’s identity and value as a person is tied up with these external markers of success. It’s this comparative culture that we immerse ourselves in and it is the fatal fuel that creates our expectation that we must be perfect.

So now what we have are moms who are seriously stressed out and living in fear that if people really knew what was going on in their head space, or behind the closed doors of their apartments or houses, they would be judged and fail. Moms are desperately afraid that they can’t manage this huge job but they don’t want anyone to know. So I'm telling you – I know! We all know! None of us can do everything perfectly. It’s impossible!

So women are feeling pressure to be liked, to be admired, and to be perfect. That pressure builds when the reality of life threatens any of those three elements. So in order to restore order and control, frustration forms and when efforts to control are not met with success, screaming can be the result.

This perception and perpetual expectation that women place on themselves is so damaging to their own sense of self-worth, but it also has another cost – it is damaging to the self-esteem and security of their children. So now we will add in the dimension of guilt…. This guilt is the aftermath from the collateral damage a mother believes she has caused.

The thing to remember is that it’s a rare mother who intends to yell. It is a by-product of the environmental and self-imposed stressors she feels. In fact, emotional outbursts usually begin as a slow simmer, which builds to a firm voice, followed by a raised voice, and then to a yell that the person believes will secure their power over the situation. The mother believes this scream will give the strength to handle the situation, but instead it leaves her exhausted, empty, and ashamed.

There are two other factors that can contribute to screaming, one of which I mentioned earlier. Sleep deprivation and work or relationship stress can ignite a spark into a blaze pretty quickly. So often mothers lash out not because of what the child is actually doing, but because they are exhausted, or are worried about something else, like a work deadline, or an argument they just had with a partner. And the negative energy from their head space is now thrown into the argument with the child. So what should have been a normal discussion or minimal conflict with the child becomes World War III. You really are upset about something else, it’s just that the spilled milk all over the clean floor was the last straw!

Women, we are trying to juggle too much. Too many expectations are pulling for your attention, when the priority needs to be the brown-haired, doe-eyed little one in front of you.

So here are the top 10 tactics from Holt and Ketterman and Mahon to help you lessen emotional outbursts. I hope they will help you restore your mind and spirit and give you confidence that you can be a great mom (or dad or even single person) so that frustration won’t get to the boiling over point of screaming:

  1. We are limited people. It is impossible to do everything.

  2. There are only 24 hours in a day. You need to stop and recharge your batteries or you will be good for nobody.

  3. We are not clones of each other. There are just some skills other people have that we will never be able to do and that is OK.

  4. Simplify your life. Always thinking that you or your child needs to be doing more is a trap. Your child does not need to play every sport or try every extra-curricular activity. They need time to just be kids and play. You need time to just sit on the deck and watch them play.

  5. Learn to say NO to other people’s demands for your time. Your priority is yourself and your family.

  6. We don’t have an unlimited supply of energy. Listen to your body that is screaming at you to slow down and take a break.

  7. When you are trying to juggle so many responsibilities, whether you are a stay-at-home mom, working mom, or single mom, be fully present with your kids by compartmentalizing your day. What I mean by that is when you are attending to your children, take a breath, switch gears from thinking about laundry, your workplace, or custody issues, and focus on the faces in front of you. Too often we are distracted and their small question becomes a huge annoyance because our head space is elsewhere.

  8. Give yourself a ‘time out’. If you feel the frustration building, remove yourself from the situation, sit down and breathe. Bathroom doors were invented for various reasons – this is one of them!

  9. Teach your children responsibility at an early age. Most often children act out or pester you with questions because they don’t know what is expected of them. So educate your children on your expectations of their behaviour ahead of time. Most children thrive on task-oriented behaviours and feel a sense of pride in helping and seeing their efforts rewarded. Moms, you don’t need to do it for them, even if it is faster, easier, or better.

  10. Apologize. We screw up. A lot. Yelling happens. You've said words you wish you could take back. Nothing is more powerful that the words: “I'm sorry.” that comes from a true repentant heart. And leave the excuses out of the apology. Don’t follow it up with: “I've just been really tired lately.” OR “I’m bothered by something at work.” Instead say; “I'm sorry. I should not have said that. I love you. You mean the world to me.” Be honest and be real.

Mother’s Day. It’s a time to honestly reflect that motherhood is the toughest job in the world, not because of the effort it takes to raise great kids, but because we put unreasonable demands on ourselves. So let go of what you have put in your head space about how you should be. Instead give yourself a break. Don’t look at your sister’s post of her perfect home, or lament about your friend’s child who is an all-star. Leave your dishes in the sink, the unfolded laundry in the basket, and the project on your desk and go and hug your kids, tell them you love them, and have some fun! Nothing else matters. Everything else CAN wait!

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