Seeing Red? The Not-So-Wonderful World Of Mum Rage At Christmas

Behind closed doors, mums are the ones throwing tantrums.
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You’re hosting family and simultaneously trying to ensure your kids don’t kill one another. There are dishes to prep, drinks to pour and your youngest has decided to pour hundreds of colourful wooden blocks out onto the floor. Someone’s brought their dog and they keep trying to snaffle food from the table.

It’s carnage, you are overwhelmed, nobody else is helping and, to be honest, you’ve felt this feeling bubbling away inside of you since the start of December when your life admin list suddenly went into overdrive. Your heart races and a red hot rage boils up.

You keep it together until the end of the day but when someone refuses to brush their teeth at bedtime, you blow like Vesuvius. You leave the room. You slam a door. You go downstairs and cry.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of searing shame that follows an experience of mum rage. It’s something Minna Dubin knows all too well – it even led her to write a book on the topic, interviewing hundreds of women on what Dubin believes is a maternal mental health crisis.

She defines mum rage as “uncontrolled anger that is very common in motherhood”. This anger, she tells me, stems from the stress and overwhelm that comes from “the impossible expectations of modern motherhood combined with a deep lack of support in both our family systems and societal structures”.

Mum rage can rear its head at any time, but it’s no secret that big calendar events – whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Eid or another important celebration – fuel new levels of anger, particularly in those burdened with most of the invisible work within the home.

“Mums are the ones who tend to be doing the bulk of the labour. Cooking the food, but also the mental labour of: OK, who gave my kid a gift? Who do I need to write ‘thank you’ cards to? Did we call this person? Did we invite them?” says Dubin. “It’s all the open tabs that we’re keeping.”

We do it with holidays, too. If you’re travelling somewhere, you might find yourself burdened with most of the organising: the figuring out where you’re staying, the booking of flights, your daily itinerary.

“It’s all the same sort of work, in a way. It’s communication, coordination, scheduling, paying, it’s all of those tasks that mothers tend to do – most of which are invisible,” she adds.

“Both vacations and holidays like Christmas and birthdays and Hanukkah tend to be high-stress times because mum rage comes from overwhelm, stress and lack of support – and during those times we don’t have childcare, so in addition to all the extra labour we’re doing, we’re also not getting a break from being mum,” says Dubin.

Signs of mum rage

It’s no wonder then that our nervous systems go into overdrive. Mum rage isn’t your day-to-day, low-lying anger or feeling a bit pissed off, it’s an explosion that can shake you to the core.

According to Choosing Therapy, some of the key symptoms of mum rage include:

  • feeling overcome with anger or frustration,
  • lashing out verbally or physically,
  • feeling out of control of your emotions,
  • experiencing a sense of being about to snap.

“One of the big ways that you know you’re on the way to exploding is everyone has physical tells – like when I’m going to lose it, my voice drops an octave and I start speaking very slowly and enunciating and my hands come out,” says Dubin.

The author suggests everyone has different physical tells and recommends for people to ask their partners (or a relative or friend) to look out for these tells so you can figure out what you tend to do when you’re about to lose control.

Dubin and her husband have since come up with a code word for when she’s entering this territory. For her, it’s ‘the yellow zone’.

“The partner can’t just be like, ‘you’re about to scream’, because then you feel invalidated, as if your fury is not valid, as if they’re saying you’re crazy,” she explains.

“So you have to come up with a code word that you have agreed to use that doesn’t make you feel bad – and once you figure out the physical tell, your partner can say to you: ‘hey, are you in the yellow zone?’”

Lightening the load

Whether you’re planning a break, organising birthday parties or just trying to get your head around the gazillion things that need doing in the run up to the holidays, one of the things that Dubin says has helped in her own household is stepping back from some of the roles she’d usually take on.

So, with her children’s birthdays coming up in December (and the inevitable parties that come with that), she collated all the parents’ emails together in one place and her husband sent out the invitations and is handling RSVPs.

“When he takes it on, it ends up being more like 50:50 rather than me giving it to him. But then that feels fair,” she adds.

It’s certainly an improvement on one party doing the lion’s share of the work and then buckling – or self-destructing – under the strain.

Of course, in an ideal world, the primary parent wouldn’t have to ask their partner to do these things – because it means the tasks are still on the mother’s mind and they have to be the “CEO”, as Dubin calls it, dishing out who does what.

But the author notes that over time, she’s been able to step back and let her husband take on more. And she admits the stepping back, for her, can be hard.

“Originally, I would have to ask him [to do these things] but it’s been a few years since I’ve stepped back and now he’s much more on top of it, so I don’t have to ask as much,” she adds.

If you’re hoping to avoid an explosion this festive season, it’s important to note that one of the things that causes mom rage is when reality does not match expectation. As a result, communication is key.

Dubin urges parents to talk about the work that’s coming up over the festive season and to break it up or delegate it – for instance, one person might be in charge of food and communicating with family, while another is in charge of childcare. It doesn’t matter how you divvy it up as long as it feels equal.

Society needs to change to help mothers

While conversations in the home can obviously make a huge difference, there’s also a societal shift that needs to happen for us to get to a place where gender roles are more equal.

“The imbalance in the home stems from the larger society,” says Dubin. “Everything in society is set up for the imbalance in the home to exist.

“School ends at like 2-3pm, the work day ends at 5-6pm. The school day has been set up with one parent not working full-time – and of course, it’s the mother. That’s what the expectation is, that one parent is the breadwinner and one parent is the primary caregiver,” she says.

The motherhood penalty is alive and well, especially in the UK. This year, the Fawcett Society said almost 250,000 working mums with kids aged four and under had left their jobs due to difficulties juggling work and childcare.

Another survey, published by The Independent, found women are more than twice as likely to have to quit their jobs due to being overwhelmed with unpaid caring responsibilities.

“I think certain policies help: having really good paid family leave helps and incentives for fathers to take their full family leave,” says Dubin. But perhaps just as crucial is truly valuing childcare.

“As a society we don’t value childcare. Our childcare workers are underfunded because their work isn’t valued societally – and then there’s high [staff] turnover. The devaluation of care work affects mothers and paid caregivers,” she adds.

What to do when you rage

There is much that can and should be done societally to help alleviate mum rage, but until that happens, there are things we can do when we experience these explosions of molten hot anger.

“Modern motherhood is set up for mum rage – we rage because we’re not getting our needs met, and if we’re a mother right now, we’re supposed to not have any needs,” says Dubin.

It’s a vicious cycle that means mums are set up to struggle. In order to try and alleviate some of this rage, Dubin says it’s important to sit down and recognise what you need – and then sitting with your partner, if you have one, or perhaps a friend or relative, to try and work out how you can meet some of those needs.

This could be something as simple as carving out time for exercise, seeing friends, trying a hobby or simply getting some sleep.

And if you do rage, don’t be afraid to reach out to your support network.

“You are probably a regular mum and everyone else is also screaming behind closed doors. Give yourself some compassion and reach out to a mum friend who you trust. Write that message where you say: ‘I’m a horrible mother, I did this horrible thing, I yelled at whoever, I feel terrible’,” advises Dubin.

“If you actually send that text message and you don’t just write it and delete it, you’re putting out a little call for compassion. It’s like saying: I am worthy of care. And then you give a friend the opportunity to take care of you.

“We all want to take care of each other, we just don’t know how to. And those text messages which seem so inconsequential and minimal are actually so important, to have a friend who says: ‘I see you, you’re the best, that kid was being annoying or that husband was being a jerk, it’s going to be fine, everybody loves you.’

“Those messages are really important in terms of getting out of that shame spiral and moving into a place of repair with whoever you might’ve screamed at.”

Mum Rage: The Everyday Crisis Of Modern Motherhood by Minna Dubin is out now (£17 on Amazon).