Mothers: Tyrants or Caretakers?

I have been working for some time on this piece – on the danger of a mother’s ‘bad moods’ and the tyranny we can wield through emotional manipulation.  It has been a difficult piece for me. I almost threw it out five times (if you can throw out a Google doc)- but it kept calling me back. Now, as this COVID crisis has progressed, I see a reason behind that calling. 

During the next few weeks, many of us will have the wonderful opportunity to slow down, to drop all the excess, and to focus on what matters most.  We will have a lot of time with our children with many opportunities for bonding, for learning together, and for laughter. But we know that with close proximity often comes conflict.  We can find ourselves drifting into bad habits of toxic interaction and foul moods. Rather than allowing relationships to fray, as often happens in times of stress, we can take this “crisis” as a challenge, an invitation to look at things differently – to be different.   

In writing this piece I had to do some soul-searching and look directly at my own demons. We all tend to avoid such confrontations with ourselves, but for our children, we must be willing to do it. I hope we will find the courage to ask ourselves how we may be harming our children through emotional means – and how we can overcome these manipulations.  

This piece is my attempt to bring awareness to well-meaning mothers of the potential familial-hell brought on by our uncontrolled negativity, sensitivity, and emotional manipulation.  

A Bad Mood

I really want to be a good mother.  This desire drives me to do many things that  I would rather not. It propels me forward to change that diaper, or cook that soup. But despite my motherly ambitions, occasionally, I am just in a bad mood. Unfortunately, my children always notice. Even if I try and hide my agitation, they feel my dark energy. My toddler will come up shyly and give me a hug. My younger son will shadow me and start moping (or even start mopping the floor to make me happy). My eldest daughter will act out emotionally. And I will feel guilty for the gloom I am bringing. I remember well from my own childhood the feeling when one of my  parents came home in a bad mood – a black cloud would hang over our house. Our home would feel a little less safe – children a little less free. The emotional energy of the parents determines the atmosphere inside a home.

Perhaps my bad mood is caused by the disappointment of an unmet expectation, the weight of worry, or, as is often the trigger for me, an internal chaos bucket overflowing – full of noise and commotion. Perhaps the cause is deeper – a misplaced sense of worth or jealousy. These negative ruminations inevitably lead to a snippy and impatient mom. 

The Building of a Child

Recently, passing near our community river-side park, I witnessed a charming attestation of maternal influence. I stopped the car as I saw five cute little ducklings waddling quickly behind their mother as she safely escorted them across the busy street. I don’t speak Duck, but I didn’t hear the mother quacking loudly at her ducklings, instructing them – she just walked and they followed. Our offspring follow us in a similar manner. Our kids are much more a product of our example than our active teaching, no matter how much quacking we feel we need to do. What is normal in the home, becomes normal for our children. As our children age, they will be drawn towards the re-creation of the “normal”  home of their childhood.

All parents know the experience of hearing our own words echoed by our children, or seeing our mannerisms or outlook on life mirrored in our offspring.  After years of chore charting, my kids seem unable to adopt tidy habits. Why? Because I live in a state of “hygienic chaos”. When I look at the state of my own bedroom – with laundry piled here, and books stacked there – I see that there is no amount of teaching that will help my children overcome my own example. My tidy friends have tidy kids – no matter how few chore charts they’ve engineered. Kids become tidy because they are accustomed to tidiness. (Sometimes this tidiness only kicks in after they have moved out of the house and are forced to re-create “normal” for themselves). Now some children will buck the trend, or build up a home that is a reaction to their parents.  Kids can learn important lessons from our bad examples as well as our good. But generally, our children will become what we are, so we need to become a model worth emulating.*

What does this realization mean?  Do we not even bother teaching our children?  Yes. Children must contribute to the family and learn responsibility – even if they fail to incorporate good habits. Teaching children is never a waste.  But since we want our children to become better than we are, our best bet is learning as we teach. We admit that we are also learning with them and ask forgiveness when we fall short.  Instead of demanding they do a chore chart, while laundry piles high on our bedroom floor, we include ourselves in that chart and train ourselves as well. As we become introspective and self-aware,  our children will see that genuineness and learn compassion and resilience. It is much better to be raised by a self-aware, yet imperfect mother, striving to improve, than a woman with a hypocritical facade who sees others faults but never her own.

“Having the attitude that you can learn throughout your life enables you to approach parenting with an open mind, as a journey of discovery.”

Daniel Siegel

Emotional Baggage

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”

Peggy O’Mara

Teaching and modeling skills is important, but raising emotionally healthy children is absolutely critical.  As mothers we have to accept that, because of our own limitations, we cannot be all things to them – and that is okay.   However, we must be safe. We must guard against using our negative emotions to control and manipulate. When we are in a bad mood – which is the state of letting our negative emotions run rampant –  we need to notice them, endeavor to see the cause, and redirect our thinking or behavior to work through them before we may manipulate our children or spouse. 

“Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feelings…when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well…It needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny.”

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms Compiled in A Mind Awake

The Many Manifestations of Sensitivity

What exactly is this “sensitiveness” spoken of in this blunt yet true quote?  When I initially read this quote, I breathed a sigh of relief – no one can accuse me of being sensitive, insensitive maybe, but never sensitive. I pushed out judgement to those I saw as “sensitive” – quick to tears and offense.  But the truth is “sensitivity” manifests differently in different people. “Sensitiveness”, in this context, is an inability to cope with stress or offense. 

Sensitivity can be a wonderful thing if it is channeled into spiritual gifts such as creativity and empathy. But for some people it means we must walk on egg-shells for fear of offending them. Kids learn quickly that they must pretend to love dinner, or accept unquestioningly Mom’s idea for a vacation – for fear they will hurt mom’s feelings. If they do cause offense, the result may be days of friction or the silent treatment before they allow their mother’s guilt-trip to sway them and they grovel before her.  Their mom is always just one misplaced comment away from tears or the silent treatment. But why? Why would a woman act this way? As Lewis says: envy, vanity, and unresolved worth issues are often at the root of such behavior. Without digging deep into the roots of emotional manipulation, suffice to say- many women use “sensitivity” as a means of control. They get their way because everyone is trying to please them and help them suffer less. 

But sensitivity does not always manifest as an offended mother – but also an irritable one. “How many times have I told you to take your shoes off!?” This is my method of sensitive manipulation – irritation. In times of stress, I am incredibly sensitive to disobedience and noise. I don’t dwell in self-pity as some women – I snap into snappiness. As we are currently trying to sell our house, my “sensitiveness’ has been in full force. Trying to keep the house perfectly tidy has been difficult – like living contrary to my nature.  It has been stressful and has pushed me to my ‘good mother’ limits. It is quite ironic that my current prominent source of irritation is my children’s messy nature – something they learned from me. Yes, I must teach them to be responsible for their messes, but my tone does not help.

I don’t go out seeking to manipulate them with my negative emotions, but when my yelling is rewarded with them quickly putting their shoes away, it looks like it is working.  This is a dangerous cycle – one that is destructive to our home’s atmosphere, our relationships, and to their inner voice. 

Sometimes we are blind to how much our bad moods affect our children. There is a saying that every mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.  I would add that every child will likely only become as happy as their mother’s default mood. Our emotional well-being matters to our children’s present and future happiness.

If our children become accustomed to a home full of tension, they may recreate that home for their own children. If a mother makes her children believe they are a burden or a disappointment, they will have to overcome feelings of low worth when they get older.  The dysfunctional home that was built up around them will house them until they can hack their way out of it. Returning to our quote by C.S. Lewis,

….”Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause?”….

What is the cause?  When we have an inordinate response to a child’s action,  it is often because of built up stress or anger stemming from a different source. But then we allow our moods to get away from us and our anger, irritation, or self-pity become our state of being – like a bad habit. If we don’t watch this habit, the wonderful mother we dreamt of being may disappear into a quicksand of ire.

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

C.S. Lewis

Echo Through the Generations

I come from a line of wonderful mothers – but we have a maternal family history of Irritation in times of stress.  I remember being a bit scared of my Grandmother because she often seemed irritated when we visited. We usually lived overseas so I rarely saw her.  I now realize that having a noisy family of nine stay in her tiny house was likely not easy – but she got annoyed at the children a lot. Once I remember her yelling at me for throwing apricot pits at her goats. She didn’t explain why, and since I assumed it was just another bad mood, I kept doing it (naughty girl that I was).  I felt horrible later when I learned her favorite goat had died, from choking on an apricot pit.

I am not blaming my vexed ancestors for my current behavior, but annoyance can become a conditioned response to stress.  We need to recognize it for what it is – a bad habit – and a voice we are anchoring in our children’s psyches. Just as our children often become as we are – we are often largely a product of our parents’ example. But as we educate ourselves and introspect; we can drop our ancestral baggage. (Just as we hope our children will be able to do). 

“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate.  If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions  with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”  

Daniel J. Siegel

If we allow our bad moods to become a form of domestic tyranny, our irritation will be the off-key background music our children grow accustomed to. They will become numb to our constant irritation. Like I imagined that “grandma is just mad yet again”, they will no longer hear any significance in our words – and that is when goats die.

Arresting a Dark Day

A Mother’s Joy, William-Wdolphe Bouguereau

Last weekend I woke up on Saturday and knelt by my bed – I prayed that it would be a good day and I would be a patient mother. However, after several incidents of child-like messines, I could see myself going down the road of irritation.  I saw a bad-mood day before me; I was uncontrollably spiraling. My daughter had tracked dirt in and I started to react. Suddenly, I remembered my prayer from that morning. I stopped. I swallowed my pride and irritation, and gave my daughter a tight hug.  I said, “ I am sorry I have been so frustrated lately. Selling this house is stressing me out and it is not right to take it out on you. Please forgive me”. 

I could feel the tension release in her body. She smiled up at me and said, “It’s okay mom. You aren’t that bad. I am going to really try and be better.” The cloud that had been hovering over our home that morning – breathed out by me  – dissipated as sunlight broke though as a beam of understanding and perspective. I was able to see my daughter for the precious child she was, and the mess for its insignificance. I was able to save her, and myself from a day of dark clouds. What a difference stopping, noticing, and engaging our free will can do!

The Hope is in Recognize our Tyranny

No one is perfect, and as long as we continually admit our errors and attempt to remedy them, we are on the path upward. We have to stop and say – Am I being unfair?  Am I creating a hostile environment for my innocent children? I have found when I am honest enough to say that – the path out of the mood becomes clear. However, if we refuse to introspect and live instead in pretense – we can create “domestic tyranny”. One bad mood can run into another until our “default” is hell.

The more I learn, ponder, and write about motherhood, the more convinced I have become of one wonderful and horrible truth – Mothers shape the emotional health of their children. Who we are, what we do, how we communicate will have a ripple down effect on our children for years to come. This knowledge can be burdensome, but it is a burden we must pick up and carry.   We may want to run away into justification or denial.  We may seek out voices that tell us “we are doing the best we can.” We may retreat into self-pity.  Some days I turn to a bag of chocolate chips for solace.  

We can not let “sensitiveness” cause our loved ones to feel stifled and controlled and destroy our relationships.  We cannot leave our irritated voices as our children’s inheritance. We cannot get in the way of our children’s potential. The path to victory is not paved with avoidance, self-congratulation, or despondency, and certainly not with chocolate chips.  The path is paved with consistent effort, with humility, repentance, and thankfully with forgiveness. Sometimes our “sensitiveness” has a deep source, a trauma left unhealed, for which we may need to seek help to find solutions. Thankfully children are quick to forgive and adapt. If Mom is learning and growing, they will remember our genuine efforts to change. The path is one of hope.  Things will get better if we do better.

All the changed diapers and delicious soups are ultimately insignificant compared to the voice of a loving mother rooted in their minds. The home we build up for our children does not need to be spotless, but it must be emotionally safe, full of love and understanding and guidance. How grateful I am for the maternal love which motivates me to overcome my many weaknesses for the sake of my children, and to one day be worthy of the title “good mother.”  

-Ally

Resources:

We become our Mothers – its science https://www.scarymommy.com/study-women-become-mom-age-33/

*It is important to remember that it is not only Mothers that can emotionally manipulate. Father are also at-risk of attempting to control others emotionally. A father that is quick-to-anger, slow to forgive, or who holds back praise – can be just as destructive a force as a mother with similar qualities. I focus on mothers because that is what I am – and the perspective I write from. (A great movie depicting a emotionally manipulative father and an incredibly powerful mother is The Price Winner of Defiance Ohio.)

13 thoughts on “Mothers: Tyrants or Caretakers?

  1. Thank you for sharing everything you are learning about motherhood and allowing us to grow with you. I’m so blessed to be a random reader of your blog, bc this isn’t a post that someone could send to me or that I could send to the important women in my life—because we are all so sensitive in these ways!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What wonderful timing this particular topic is— I was brought to tears when I read how you asked your daughter to forgive you, acknowledging the bigger reason you were stressed (not her muddy shoes). A wake up call for me to do this in my life as a mother too. Thank you for your insightful writing and the time you take to post your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was an interesting read. It is important to make kids understand that ups and downs are part of life.
    If parents dont teach this ,tbey will never be able to cope with the ‘real’ world- which is not as kind and caring as a loving parent- even if that parent is agitated And upset sometimes.
    Be kind to yourself- just the way you would like others to be kind and considerate to yourself.
    🙂
    Regards.

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  4. “Mothers shape the emotional health of their children.” -this is haunting for me! I agree with your words, Ally, because this too is what I “suffer” from. I easily become irritated with my children and family, and it was also passed on from my parents. Thank you for your honesty and hope. If we do the hard work, we can break the cycle.

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  5. Whoa! Very succinct! I am eternally self-conscious of not mentally manipulating my children in order to make my mothering easier. Some days I get it, other days, I don’t. These are the elements of motherhood that you tend to figure out while floundering through it all. Good piece!

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  6. Wow, way to keep on keeping on! It certainly has gotten scary out there. So are you all providing child care (daycare) for essential workers at the school, am I understanding you right? I’m in the midwestern US and while I don’t have kids my understanding is schools are outright closed. Except of course for the lovely fact that they are still providing meals for students. My state is one of many on a stay at home lock down. It’s not SUPER different from my usual life but what is different is really setting in more than before. Like, what day is it? Nope, still not Saturday or Sunday. Feels like a big long weekend.

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  7. Excellent article! I always enjoy reading you.

    I am at a loss though, I can see how a history of irritable mothers creates another one, but my own mother was always calm, didn’t raise her voice or her hand (and it was the same with my grandmother), but I have done both, which I am so embarrassed and sad about. There is, however, one difference, my parents divorced when I was in early primary school.

    I’m aware, I work on my behaviour, I’m much better these days, I try to repair every time I inflict myself on my children or spouse, but I still struggle to understand, to see where it comes from, how it happened…

    I wish more was said (generally, not you) about the damage divorce causes for children. Everyone skips right past that, going straight to how resilient kids are and how to help them.

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    1. I think you are absolutely right. We fear shaming people for divorce- which is understandable- but it seems it has now been normalized when it is in fact very hard on kids. It almost passes the shame into the children because they are told this is not a big deal – but in reality for them it is a big deal. We, as a society, need to under the trial that divorce is for children, rather than gloss over it for the sake of the parents.

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  8. Thank you for writing this article! I needed to hear it. It is something I’m healing from past hurts as a child. I have to admit I intentionally need to find help and heal my past hurts so I can become the mom my kids need. I know I’m prone to repeating what was done to me. With God’s help we can be different 🙂

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