I was angry that my maternal love wasn’t enough to raise children who didn’t fight, angry that I snapped for my son to “calm down,” after a particularly stubborn piece of gum was yanked out, despite knowing how awful it is to be told to calm down. And later, after the kids were asleep, when I told Brett I felt angry about the empty threat, I felt angrier still that he looked up from his laptop to ask, “Why are you giving me such a hard time right now?”
Like so many women, so many mothers, I have plenty to be angry about.
Books such as Rebecca Traister’s “Good and Mad,” Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage” and Darcy Lockman’s “All the Rage” have gained recent traction among readers thirsty to see their anger on the page. The fact that books devoted to female rage keep being written shows that our rage is not simple or universal; it cannot be reduced to a few pithy truths.
“Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger” is one of the most recent of such books, and perhaps what makes it stand out from its predecessors is its very dedication to this rich variety of female rage. The essay collection also shines as a result of editor Lilly Dancyger’s insistence that anger can be instructive, anger can incite political change and anger can be harnessed, but anger must first be seen and heard. As women, Dancyger notes, “our anger doesn’t have to be useful to deserve a voice.”
The authors featured in the collection write about rape culture, racism, illness, abuse, gender identity and family. In many essays, women grapple with rage both as mothers and as daughters. A recurring theme is that of inherited rage, how the familial rage we witness as children affects us as mothers to a new generation.
Lisa Factora-Borchers writes about confronting constant racism as a Filipina American child in predominantly white rural Ohio, and later, how the 2016 presidential election affected her experience raising her own children in Ohio. She considers how inherited anger will affect her children, how she will teach them to “transform caustic racist experiences into an arsenal for protection and healing.”
In writing about the abuse she experienced from her father as a child, Marisa Siegel is determined to ensconce her own son in love and security, while still allowing space for him to work through anger so he doesn’t grow up “steeped in rage.” Siegel’s deliberate turning away from her father’s anger shows that although rage can be passed down, the cycle of rage can also be stopped.
When I feel the center of my chest burn hot, I think of my mother’s anger, which always rose so quickly when I was a kid. I remember her whipping a vacuum cleaner down the stairs, her face all right angles, and I wonder how much of my rage has been born from hers. I didn’t understand her anger then, but now my burning chest makes me certain that she had plenty of reasons to clench her teeth.
Dani Boss finds her anger difficult to access because she was “taught to be a good girl,” causing her rage to become “warped.” When Boss’s stepdaughter offers to help clean the kitchen, the child expresses annoyance that her brothers aren’t doing the same, and Boss urges her to speak up, saying, “Her anger doesn’t have to hide in the pantry.” In this way, Boss does for her stepdaughter what was not done for her as a young girl — she not only validates her anger but also encourages her to express it.
One of the things that makes female rage so historically painful for many of us is the fact that we find this release difficult, because we have been taught, as Nina St. Pierre says, to “swallow it.” St. Pierre views this as something girls are trained to do: "Trained not to rage, we work in code, our bodies the medium. We eat anger and quietly metabolize it to keep you comfortable.”
When my male dermatologist commented on the aesthetics of my post-baby stomach during a full body exam in which I wore nothing but a paper crop top, I swallowed my rage. I did it to keep him comfortable, when I was anything but. Later on, my rage sat like a rock in my stomach when I considered my daughter and how my silence at his office worked to uphold a broken system in which the male dermatologist’s comfort seemed somehow more important than my own.
Forced to stop teaching and hide beneath a desk when a gunman is reported on campus, Megan Stielstra feels not fear, but rage: “I was white-hot and clenched, my muscles seething. Psychologists have long written about anger as a secondary emotion to fear, but I could give a s--- about theory. This was gut-level; my body, my bones.” Stielstra’s fury is compounded by the fact that her 10-year-old son experiences the same lockdown at his elementary school, by the fact that he will forever carry the trauma of the experiences within him. Stielstra’s maternal rage is righteous, logical and just. Although angry women are often demeaned as raving, hysterical, unhinged, Stielstra’s moment hunched under a desk is a moment in which angry is the only reasonable thing to be.
I feel angry often. I’m angry that our kids call for me first if both my husband and I are in the same room. I’m angry that my desire to give the best of myself to my kids’ fights against my desire to give the best of myself to my work. I’m angry that my husband doesn’t feel this same warring of selves. I’m angry that doulas aren’t paid for by insurance. I’m angry that any woman sobs alone and unsupported as she battles postpartum depression. I’m angry that women are forced to work while still bleeding from childbirth. I’m angry that mothers are being torn from their children at the border. I’m angry that child care is unaffordable for many. I’m angry about the shameful mortality rate of black mothers. I’m angry about our nation’s laughable stance on family leave. I’m angry that we’re even talking about birth control. I’m angry that my daughter sees a conventionally beautiful woman on a magazine cover and says, “I want to look like that.”
And because there’s so much to be angry about, often this anger makes me feel hopeless. Helpless. Exhausted. Deeply sad. In her essay that examines the problematic and limiting archetypes of both the sad woman and the angry woman, Leslie Jamison writes about her hopes for the future: “I don’t hope that my daughter never gets angry. I hope that she lives in a world that can recognize the ways anger and sadness live together, and the ways rage and responsibility, so often seen as natural enemies, can live together as well.”
Jamison’s point is crucial. Our anger needn’t flatten us; rather, anger is a natural part of growth. And as mothers, we must stop swallowing our anger, we must give oxygen to it, not because it is necessarily comfortable, but because our anger is powerful in its very existence. This, for me, is what “Burn it Down” does so well — this book doesn’t splash water onto female rage, it stands back in awe at the immensity of the flames.
Sara Petersen is a writer, whose writes essays about feminism and motherhood. She’s currently at work on an essay collection about finding her feminist rage through motherhood. You can find her at sara-petersen.com, and on Twitter @slouisepetersen.