Can Moms Express Anger (And Have Anyone Take Them Seriously?)

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I get angry a lot. This can range from mild irritation (“Someone used the last of the eggs and put the empty carton back in the fridge”), to middle-of-the-road anger (“I can’t believe childcare costs more than rent”), to full-fledged rage (at people who say things like, “More guns in schools is the appropriate answer to gun violence”). And the thing is, I usually try very hard not to express my anger. I shake my head at the eggs; I shrug at our lack of family-support policies and say, “What are you going to do?” For the gun issue, I try to look for “constructive” directions in which to funnel my anger. Sometimes I feel like if I actually expressed all my anger, people would think I was nuts.

Why do we have such a problem with angry women? When men express anger, they’re seen as forceful and passionate. When women express anger, they’re seen as unhinged. Lest you think I’m being paranoid, this is backed up by research: Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard, describes a study conducted on men, women and anger, and how expressing anger can influence how people perceive you. Spoiler: People perceive angry women differently than they do angry men.

Researchers recruited 210 undergrads to participate as jurors in a simulated trial. The participants initially watched a video presenting a real-life crime—the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife. They read opening and closing statements and reviewed other evidence. Then each participant cast an initial vote of guilty or not guilty. The researchers then had other jurors communicate with them via a series of messages that were scripted by the researchers. Four of the jurors agreed with the initial verdict, and one disagreed. The four agreeing had gender-neutral names; the one disagreeing was given a clearly male or female name. The juror who disagreed then sent increasingly angry or fearful messages about the deliberations.

Participants were asked, at intervals, how confident they felt in their initial decision. And here’s where the male/female anger thing comes in: When the male juror who disagreed became angry, the participants took him seriously and began “doubting their own opinion significantly.” When the female juror became angry, the participants became more confident in their original decision.

Jacobs writes: “This dynamic—which held true for both male and female participants—meant that ‘men were able to exert more social pressure by expressing anger,’ whereas women actually lost influence when they did the same thing.”

So what I’ve felt instinctively—that I should squash any sign of anger, lest people think less of me—is borne out by science. People aren’t convinced of anything by angry women, but they think that angry men must have a valid beef, something that deserves consideration and attention. We think angry women must have something wrong with them. As Jacobs writes, “This research support the results of a 2008 study that found men gain status, but women lose it, after expressing anger. Men are presumed to be angry for a reason, that study concluded, while women’s anger is seen as a reflection of internal characteristics, such as a tendency to get ‘out of control.'”

In other words, if you’re angry, it’s because something is wrong with you. It’s not because your partner doesn’t do his fair share, or you’re ticked about how your career has ground to a halt after kids, or that the number of gun deaths in this country is completely insane. No, if you’re angry, you’re hysterical, you can’t control yourself, you’re crazy and out of control.

I think about this a lot as a mother. I can feel my temper rising as I struggle to get my two small kids—who are trying to trip me, because they think it’s funny—in the house as I’m unloading groceries and planning dinner. I think about it when I write another check to the babysitter and collect a paycheck that barely covers it. I think about it when I read about another school shooting. It’s a struggle to keep my temper, for little reasons and for big reasons. But lately, I’m thinking that the days of pushing down my anger might be over. Moms have a lot to be mad about. It’s time to stop hiding it.

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