The Perpetual Rage of Motherhood

Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

Back in 2008, Betty Draper, Mad Men’s long-suffering wife and everyone’s favorite “unlikeable mother,” stormed up the stairs after her husband, hollering, “I’m here all day, alone with them. Outnumbered.” (Them meaning their two kids, of course.) The line didn’t hit me then, but over a decade later, trapped at home with a toddler and an infant while COVID-19 raged into yet another wave, her words came flooding back to me. That word, outnumbered, was so much more precise than the other platitudes I’d seen about the unrelenting nature of pandemic parenting: that mothers were drowning, that mothers were overwhelmed. Those words left me and my kids on the same side, a ragtag team of us against the world.

But Betty’s declaration that she was outnumbered pitted her against her children, the seeds from which so much of her anger grows, an emotion so rarely depicted in mothers in pop culture.

Mom rage” is still a fairly novel concept in the parenting world. For many, it exists in the shadows — that secret shame that follows full-blown anger when the expectation is patience and calm. I’m four years into parenting and still find it frightening, the ease and frequency with which I can fall into this feeling. The jarring silence after I’ve thrown the shoes my toddler refuses to wear at the wall. The way my voice is too loud, too sharp, snapping, “Just give me a minute!” when I can no longer handle the four little hands that won’t stop grabbing at me, demanding more and more. That is to say, my surprising rage at the unsurprising fact that my children are acting like children. When the anger passes and my body returns to stasis, I am flooded with guilt over my reaction. I make the empty promise to myself that I’ll never do it again, knowing full well I won’t uphold the vow.

It feels like a gamble each time I tell another mom about this feeling, sometimes met with blank stares and sometimes with relieved recognition. But as it creeps outside those shadows — especially during the pandemic, which has had an outsize impact on the demands of mothers forced to make impossible decisions about everything from their child’s education to public-health measures, while juggling their own work, remote school, and, oh, yeah, keeping their kids safe from a life-threatening virus — I see it more on the screens, and even in the pages, around me.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Little Fires Everywhere gave me Elena, her head tilted up as she roared in anger, her body so desperate for an outlet that she smashes plates on the ground as her children watch from the next room. A year later, Nightbitch, a novel by Rachel Yoder, introduced me to a mother fueled so much by her rage that her mind can’t remain in her body, literally transforming into a dog to escape the feeling. And most recently, Netflix’s The Lost Daughter, premiering last month, offered me Leda, a mother who is frustrated and miserable, “monstrous” even, in her anger.

And at first, these titles excited me. The giddy thrill of seeing something that once felt like an unbearable secret offered up as common.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the less I’m able to recognize myself. Elena’s plate smashing comes at the end of her day alone with four (four!) children, one of whom is screaming and refusing to breastfeed, forcing her to go to the store with the entire brood to get formula only to discover the water has been turned off unexpectedly. In light of that series of events, who could begrudge Elena a few smashed plates and a guttural scream? Though not as obvious, the mother in Nightbitch can also point to reasons for her anger: forced to give up her fulfilling job to stay home with her child, a toddler who refuses sleep, and a husband who is often gone and doesn’t help very much when he’s around. Even in that oft-cited scene in The Lost Daughter, the one that bristles with honesty when Leda hisses “I’m suffocating” at her husband while their daughter wails in the background, I can’t see myself. Of course she’s angry. Who wouldn’t be at a husband who pulls your headphones off, reneges on his promise to watch the children while you work, and forces you into the role of primary parent, a role you never asked for and quite frankly don’t want? These mothers’ anger, unlike mine, is logical, justified even.

But this doesn’t reflect the reality of motherhood rage for me and for many others. So often, there is no narratively convenient “breaking point.” Instead, there’s a series of endless provocations inherent to the daily grind of raising a child. These examples seem to treat mom rage with, of all things, kid gloves. We are asked to empathize, which of course we do, but in turn it feels as if no one is, or can, empathize with us, the real-life moms who cannot point to a thoughtless husband or a household hiccup, the ones who are simply mad at the relentlessness of modern motherhood, a role that demands a constant best while offering little assistance in achieving it.

To be fair, in The Lost Daughter, there are scenes that do tackle this idea. In these moments, Leda’s rage, like my own, stems from the unspoken, ingrained expectation that all mothers should be “natural mothers,” able to handle any fallout — and from the absence of any help or even understanding when you realize it’s all bullshit. These feelings come when that love for your child, as all-encompassing as it is, doesn’t grant you the parenting powers you assumed it would. In flashbacks, we witness Leda’s inability to handle her toddlers when they act like toddlers, not for lack of trying but because she doesn’t have the ineffable, innate ability we’re told all mothers have. When Leda sees that her daughter has drawn on a beloved doll, she curses and throws the doll out the window. Faced with a toddler who hits, Leda tries the only thing she knows — a stern “You don’t hit Mama” — only to be met, as I too often am, with a toddler who laughs in her face and continues hitting her. Leda responds by throwing her onto the bed and slamming the door, shattering a pane of glass. These responses might seem irrational to some — unless, of course, you have also experienced the crushing helplessness that comes with realizing that the “mother instincts” everyone said would save you have so utterly failed.

And maybe that’s it, the true mom rage we deserve to see: the small, everyday moments that don’t build up to anything specific, just a gradual erosion of the myth of the patient, doting mother. A myth that the pandemic has shown us we’ve all relied on for far too long. A myth that perpetuates the unhelpful takeaway that a few days of child care, some self-care time, or a more supportive spouse could save mothers from their rage.

A myth that present-day Leda— decades removed from being the angry young mother — speaks to the fallacy of at the end of The Lost Daughter in her response to Nina, another angry young mom. “Is this going to pass?” Nina tearfully asks, unable to define what this is, the unspoken answer between the two mothers: everything.

Leda deflects at first, refusing to answer, but she ultimately does. “You’re so young, and it doesn’t pass,” Leda tells her, desperate to make Nina understand that she must allow herself to feel the rage or she will explode as Leda once did. “None of this passes.”

The impossibility of motherhood doesn’t pass. In fact, the final ambiguous scene of The Lost Daughter tells us, in motherhood as we’ve made it, nothing ever passes.

And who wouldn’t be angry about that?

The Perpetual Rage of Motherhood