I am the mom who tries to have it all. I work a full-time job from home with two kids ages two and under. As a result, my life is very tightly wound. One sleepless night, one cancellation from the nanny, or one last minute trip to the doctor can collapse my carefully crafted plans and provoke me to anger.
Recently, I’ve found myself in a protracted battle with my youngest daughter over breastfeeding. When she arches her back and refuses to comply with my feeding plans, rage courses through my veins.
Yesterday, I looked into her eyes and said the words, “Shut up.” I was tired of her whining and constant grunting in dissatisfaction, so in a moment of desperation, I uttered words that I could never have imagined saying to a baby. I didn’t even know I was going to say them until they came out of my mouth. Then in sheer terror I remembered: “Out of the heart speaks the mouth” (Matt. 12:34), and “whoever hates his brother in his heart commits murder” (1 John 3:15).
These days, a lot of mothers (and fathers) struggle with anger. Various Facebook groups for moms—including those I’m part of—often discuss strategies for dealing with “mom rage.” Major magazine publications, too, are giving voice to women’s experiences of rage. They’re providing space for vulnerable and brave conversations and stories of women who struggle in their relationships with their kids.
Though it’s largely assumed that mothers have natural, self-giving love for their children (and we do), being a mom does not preclude real, powerful darkness from growing in our hearts. As Minna Dubin shared recently in The New York Times, “Mother rage can change you, providing access to parts of yourself you didn’t even know you had.”
As a Christian, I see my anger through the framework of brokenness that sin brings to my life. In other words: The Bible speaks directly to my parental anger.
The first time I realized I had committed biblically defined murder against my child was only a few days after we arrived home from the hospital with my oldest. After yet another sleepless night, I looked down into my daughter’s crib and wept with the knowledge that not only was my love for her limited, but evil lurked in my heart.
Even now, I am most guilty of hating her when she is most in need of me, a sad and heartbreaking reminder that the strong do not naturally look out for the best interests of the weak. When my child has sleepless nights, needs extra time in my arms, seems incapable of adapting to my schedule, or feels sick, those are the times I am most likely to rage against her. Those are the times I am most likely to believe that my needs—the needs of someone stronger, older, wiser, and healthier—are more important than hers.
What’s the solution, then? Dubin claims that “couples therapy, individualized therapy, life coaching, [and] anger management for mothers” have helped her, along with exercise, art-making and healthy food. “In toolbox lingo: These things fill up my patience cup.” She also studies emotional intelligence as a helpful tool for understanding her rage and others’. “Repeated aggravations,” she writes, “can dramatically increase anger, so that by the third or fourth rage trigger, the person is reacting on a level 10 in response to a misplaced key or a dropped spoon.”
Dubin is right: We have to understand parental anger as a psychological and interpersonal phenomenon. But that isn’t enough. As believers, we find freedom in repentance.
First, repentance enables us to see ourselves as we truly are—sinners in need of a savior. It’s directional; it moves us away from sin and toward Christ. Paul writes, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinth. 7:10). And Peter urges, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Second, repentance moves us toward reconciliation with the one we’ve offended. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul encourages us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
But how do you apologize to a baby? I’ve come to realize that by the time my daughter is old enough for me to look into her eyes and say “I’m sorry” in any meaningful way, the pile of sins will already be too high and too deep for me to atone for. There is already a backlog of incommunicable reconciliation that needs to happen between us.
As a mother, the guilt I feel over this backlog is crushing. As a Christian, however, it drives me to rest in this gospel reality: The countless acts of rage and “murder” that I’ve already carried out against my child are fully covered by Christ’s blood. Motherhood has brought this wisdom to life in painful ways. On this day and every day to come, Jesus’ blood will cover each and every aspect of my parenting until final reconciliation takes place in the new heavens and the new earth.
Finally, repentance moves me to my knees. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’” wrote Martin Luther, “he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Constant repentance requires constant prayer, so as my daughter gets older and finds new ways to challenge me, I often find myself praying these words: “God, save my child from myself! Do not let her suffer the consequences of my sin, of my hard heartedness. Love her more than I can dare to hope to love her. Speak softly to her soul. Love her first so that she might love you. Shield her from who I am, from my brokenness. Be tender to her in ways I fail to be.”
Ultimately, in seeking to reconcile with my nonverbal daughter, I must first reconcile with the Lord. My sins against my daughter are offenses against God. He created her, imbued her with dignity and beauty, and understands the pleas of her heart when I cannot or will not. In the midst of my anger and guilt, my only hope is in Christ, who covers my shame with his blood.
Hannah Nation is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and temporarily living in the Netherlands. She received her MA in church history from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serves as the communications and content director for China Partnership.