One day, when he was less than a year old, my son turned into a wolf; and I attacked a tree.
Let me explain. That particular morning, he’d woken at 4.15am, howling into the dark, saliva pouring from his jaws. By midday, I put him in the buggy and wheeled him around the park, praying that he would nap. Only, instead of sleeping I could hear him ripping chunks of wool from the sheepskin he was lying on and stuffing them into his mouth. I had pulled enough fluff from his actual bum to know this wasn’t a good idea.
Shaking a little from tiredness and irritation, I pushed the hair hand away from his mouth. Gently at first. Then he giggled and did it again. There was a sly, wolfish grin on his face, as he chewed those bits of old sheep. I pushed his hand away again, a little harder that time. I felt something simmering up my spine. A fuzzy kind of heat, like the vibration of a bass guitar. The low flames of rage, licking up my back. He did it again, his grey, sleepless eyes rolling in his tiny head. I itched to smash the wool from his fingers.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Rozsika Parker dared to write about “the malice, the hostility, the exasperation, the fury and dislike [mothers] feel – maybe only for a fleeting moment – towards their own children,” in her book Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence.
And yet, in those 30 years, have we really become any closer to allowing women to actually explore those ambivalent feelings in a constructive and healthy way? I’m not so sure. Despite the huge leaps in the way certain people are now allowed to explore their mental health, if you admit in public that you sometimes feel a fleeting but powerful urge to punish, abandon or attack your child, then you will be criticised.
Even though what you are describing is an urge you never acted on. What you are in fact describing is a significant and lifelong self-control that prevents you from ever hurting anyone.
Women aren’t just brought up not to express anger, but to deny they even feel it. If that woman is the primary carer of a small infant or children, her rage is so utterly taboo that she might not even admit it even to herself.
And yet, of course we feel it. Of course we are rageful and flooded by ire. Mothers – let me remind you – are humans. And we feel exactly the same range of emotions and responses that all humans do.
A woman cradling a six-month-old baby to her breast has the capacity to feel exactly the same kind of rage as a 17 stone kickboxer who wants to join the Army; as a six-foot football fan who drinks six pints on a Saturday and punches someone outside a chip shop.
The difference is that we are far less likely to act on it. We might not even admit to feeling it. We have normalised and even codified male fury, through sport, war, martial arts, but somehow conspired to pretend that women – particularly mothers – simply do not feel those things. We’ve bleached them out of the photo. Pushed the truth away.
Mothers have so much to be angry about. There are the big things, of course. The systematic shortfall in childcare provision, shared parental leave, affordable housing and supportive workplaces have pushed women into a state of anger that could, genuinely, be avoided if we chose to value people over profit.
But there are also the smaller, pinchier examples. When you are trying to wheel a screaming baby down a rutted pavement in a buggy to get to sleep, answering emails on your phone, your breasts leaking, a man jogging right at you in Umbro microshorts holding a flask of protein shake, having not spoken to another adult for eight hours. Why wouldn’t you feel rage?
Screaming feels like a threat. Stress feels like a threat. People running into you, pushing their fingers into you, throwing their food at you, feels like a threat. Loneliness feels like a threat. And the human brain, in response to a perceived threat, produces adrenaline, produces cortisol and jumps us up ready for the fight. We feel angry. And, frankly, we have good reason.
On that wolfish day, in the park, I teetered on the edge of rage. Standing in that park, with the sun bouncing off my bright red buggy, I also felt eclipsed. People were walking past, cycling, smoking on benches or talking on their phones. None of them even looked at me. Nobody saw the volcanic anger that I was doing everything I could to contain.
Luckily for me, I was never hit as a child and have never hit another person. Physical violence is not in my vocabulary. So instead of smacking my child’s hand from his mouth or screaming in his face, I walked two paces to my left and kicked the shit out of a tree.
My son couldn’t see this. I made very little noise. But in order to throw off that dark, malignant energy, I ploughed my foot into the thick, hard surface of a London plane tree again and again, just metres away from his face. And then, 20 minutes later, the only afternoon stay and play in the whole area finally opened its doors.
I was able to plonk my son in a tray full of dinosaurs, walk over to the corner of the room, and lean my head against the wall. I was around people again, I was visible. The two women who ran the session sang along to the portable CD player. Their cracked voices bounced off book racks and sugar paper and high windows. I breathed out. I was safe. My anger dissolved.