This is a true story from my friend, whom I’ll call Kari. She’s 31 years old, happily married, and has three daughters, 4 years old and under. This is about a day when everything got totally out of control.
“Mom, I want orange juice.”
It was just like any other morning.
Last night’s dinner dishes were pouring out of the kitchen sink, the baby was crying, and the toddler had just dropped her breakfast on the floor.
“Ugh. Not again,” Kari sighed under her breath.
She bent down and used her fingertips to sweep the still-warm scrambled eggs off the linoleum floor and back onto the paper plate.
“Nooooo!” her toddler screamed, kicking her legs on the floor.
“I want thooooooose!”
Inside, Kari could feel it. A hot tinge in her chest. A fire that threatened to grow.
“Mommy, can you get me a fork?” her preschooler asked.
“Not right now. Hang on.”
“Oh no, I just dropped my milk!”
And inside, the fire grew hotter.
The crying and the whining and the requests and the needs. So many needs. All the time.
And with each whiny syllable, it was like her daughters were squeezing lighter fluid onto a fire inside her chest. A fire that was spreading. Slowly and silently.
After breakfast, it was time to get dressed. Kari asked the toddler to put on her red skirt. But, there were tears and dramatics, and then 13 minutes of reasoning about the different options—the green shorts and the pink jeans and the frilly skirt. And as each new option was introduced, the fire grew hotter and hotter. It was starting to feel out of control.
Eventually, Kari couldn’t even talk about the outfit anymore. She didn’t even care. Without a word, she got up and walked away. Her daughter cried.
Kari moved on to the preschooler, a 4-year-old who has some sensory issues and hates having her hair brushed. And just like every morning, Kari brushed her hair. And just like every morning, her daughter cried for several minutes afterward.
Again, Kari felt that lava simmer inside her chest. That thick, heavy fire that kept growing. Soon, it was going to consume her.
I have to go to my room. I’m going to lose it.
Kari put the baby in her crib, went into her room, and closed the door. She looked in the mirror. It was 10 a.m., and she hadn’t brushed her teeth or changed out of her pajamas or eaten breakfast or even gone to the bathroom since she’d woken up.
She sat down on the toilet to pee.
And then, banging on the door.
Her preschooler came in, sobbing. The plastic piece had fallen off her Doc McStuffins toy again, and now, it wouldn’t work. Still sitting on the toilet, Kari put it back together for her.
“Please go out of my room now,” Kari told her.
Her voice had risen. Her tone was sharp. Something was different.
Her daughter walked out. As Kari stood up, she pulled her yoga pants up and saw her preschooler in her room again. Kari gulped. The fire inside was licking the back of her throat.
“Mom, it broke again,” the toddler yelled through tears.
“I can’t fix it anymore. Please leave my room,” Kari’s emotionless demeanor had escalated into a yell. It was shrill and desperate. Please, leave me alone, she thought.
The fire was about to explode.
The door closed.
And opened again.
“Mom, it’s still not…”
“Get out now!”
The flames shot out of her mouth. The rage. The fire. The frustrations. The broken toy and the hair brushing and the spilled eggs. All of them exploded out of her. The fire inside that could no longer be controlled was out and raging. Screaming and yelling and shrieking. All of the awfulness, all of the frustrations, and all of the tedious conversations. All of the I-need-to-pee and please-help-me-do-this. All of it was coming out in one furious rage.
Kari’s heart was pounding and she could not stop. Each word detonated out of her mouth like a machine gun being shot at a target—over and over and over and over and over.
But the target was a 4-year-old little girl. That same girl she’d carried in her womb for nine months and taught how to blow kisses and sing songs and eat her vegetables. That same girl who loves to give her butterfly kisses and snuggle at 4 a.m. That same girl who loves riding her scooter and tickling Mommy to make her laugh. That same girl was ground zero for one huge uncontrolled explosion that came from the mouth of her mother.
Kari grabbed the broken toy, walked into her daughters’ room, and threw it as hard as she could onto the floor.
“I am not fixing that stupid toy again!”
Then, she picked up her 4-year-old and flung her body onto her bed like a rag doll. “Stay in your bed, and do not get up!”
And she picked up her 2-year-old and threw her onto her bed. “Stay in your bed, and do not get up!”
Shaking, Kari retreated to her room, slammed the door and collapsed into a ball on the floor. She couldn’t even hear the baby crying. She wailed, totally and utterly uncontrollably. She buried her head in her hands. She shook. The room spun.
After a few minutes, she managed to steady her fingers enough to type out an email to her husband, “Things are bad. I need you to come home.”
In the days that followed, Kari sought help. She called her midwife. She called her therapist. She told her husband not to leave her alone with their kids. She was prescribed Zoloft and started taking it. For the first few days, she sobbed uncontrollably, and it was awful. And then, five days in, she realized something had changed. She realized she felt better again.
“I still have no idea what came over me that day. What I did was not OK, and will never be OK. It was so wrong,” she explained to me as we sat on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom on a Thursday morning, three months later.
“It was terrifying and crazy. When you are at that level of rage, it is totally uncontrollable. I can totally see how moms drive their minivans into the ocean or drown their kids in a bathtub. All your buttons have been pushed, and the babies crying, the kids whining, and the toys breaking—all of these normal mom things—have battered your nerves down to a pulp. And at that point, anything is possible. And it’s absolutely terrifying.”
To this day, Kari still doesn’t know if it was hormones or chemical imbalance or postpartum or ADHD, which she is currently being tested for. She has a history of anxiety and has experienced a few panic attacks in her life. Still, for the most part, she’s been able to carry on like anyone else.
But, some days, mothering three young, needy children is so tedious and frustrating and overwhelming that it feels like her world is going to cave in. And on that horrible morning, those normal mom frustrations compounded into a terrifying, monstrous fire that burned furiously inside her chest—a rage that she could no longer control.
“I couldn’t run away. I’m a stay-at-home mom with three young children. There was nowhere to go,” she recalled.
As a friend of Kari’s, I’ll tell you this: She’s mild-mannered and unassuming. She’s a Christian woman. When you meet her, she seems chill and down-to-earth. She admits her faults and is funny. She seems to be patient and gentle with her kids.
But under the surface, just like with all of us, there are fears and frustrations. And there is a very dark place. I’m sharing this story with you today because I want to be real. Because, I believe, we’ve all been here—in some way.
At some point in motherhood, we’ve all felt that fire inside our chests. We may not have screamed at our kids or flung them onto their beds. But in some way, we’ve all felt that fire licking at the back of our throat. It’s serious.
And you don’t have to do it.
Stop yourself. Take it seriously. Get help. But please, know that you’re not alone.