I feel like I am so mad that my face has to just be hideous when I scream and I do feel like a literal monster in that moment (Amira, 38, white mother of two children).

Motherhood and the expectations and responsibilities associated with it (i.e., motherwork; Nichols et al., 2015) can be challenging to navigate, particularly when it comes to emotion. The intersection of motherhood and anger has gained increasing attention given the recent use of the term “mom rage” in popular press outlets (Dubin, 2020). The term “mom rage” has been experienced and discussed by author and mother, Minna Dubin, in her New York Times piece that sparked the author’s interests in the concept, ‘I am going to physically explode’: Mom rage in a pandemic (Dubin, 2020). The rising notoriety of the term is perhaps tied to the idea of raging mothers as they exist in contradiction to dominant discourses regarding motherhood and appropriate emotion expression. “Good mothers” are expected to engage in emotion management (i.e., emotion labor and emotion work; Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993) and scrutinize their behavior to demonstrate continuous patience and serve as role models for their children (Thomas, 2005). The expectation of appropriate mothering emotions derives from gestalt views of motherhood as a uniformly joyous privilege and responsibility (Heisler & Butler Ellis, 2008). “Mom rage” has been applied in popular press work to both characterize mothering anger and to contest the minimization of negative parenting emotions, highlighting tensions between idealized notions of motherhood and the messiness of women’s lived experiences as mothers (Billotte Verhoff & Hosek, 2022; Lois, 2010).

While examinations of motherhood and anger are often centered as post-partum depression (PPD) or anxiety; anger is a salient part of motherwork experiences extending well beyond the designated post-partum period of birth to one year (Rafferty et al., 2019). Anger can be brought on by many factors, including the threat of losing authority, standing, or control over own actions, feeling frustrated, insulted, disrespected, broken rules or norms, and injustice (Potegal & Stemmler, 2010). However, the experience of anger as an emotion is complicated by social expectations regarding emotion experience and expression. For example, the (in)appropriateness of emotions is determined by factors such as the environment in which the emotion was triggered. Through these assessments of emotion, those who share in the event will come to a similar conclusion about the situation (Jaggar, 1989), therefore experiences of “mom rage” will most likely be assessed according to what is deemed socially appropriate in the context it occurred. This could cause difficulty for mothers that try to talk with others about these experiences or seek social support. Additionally, as demonstrated by the opening exemplar, mothers may experience distress when thinking back on their maternal anger experiences and struggle with how to understand their anger given larger social expectations surrounding the (in)appropriateness and (in)validity of their anger. Despite the complexities surrounding anger experiences and expressions, and the potential implications for mothers’ wellbeing, little empirical research has explored what characterizes mothers’ experiences of “mom rage” or the factors that contribute to it.

With maternal anger positioned as socially inappropriate (Thomas, 2005), it is important to explore how mothers understand their experiences with “mom rage.” Anger research suggests that “mom rage” may be best described as uncontrollable episodes of intense anger associated with mothering that are not goal directed and may derive from feelings of powerlessness, injustice, and stress (Potegal & Qiu, 2010; Thomas, 2005). Additionally, “mom rage” is likely to be impactful psychologically, physiologically, and relationally as mothers physically experience their rage and navigate potential stigma (Eatough et al., 2008). Yet, little research to date has examined “mom rage”, differentiated it from anger more broadly, or identified how women understand or make sense of this experience.

Motherhood and Motherwork in the U.S

Despite the personal, social, and relational challenges that accompany motherhood, unidimensional positive messages are often privileged, positioning motherhood as “the most important job in the world” and “the best thing in the world,” though women also acknowledge that it is simultaneously challenging (Heisler & Butler Ellis, 2008). Mothers often experience parenting stress (i.e., the emotional and cognitive strain associated with being overtaxed or overwhelmed by the demands associated with parenting) that then spills into their interactions with their children, decreasing the joy they take from those interactions (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Williamson et al., 2013). This suggests the importance of mothers’ social support and self-care; however, gendered norms regarding emotional support and parenting inhibit mothers’ access to these resources (Wharton & Erickson, 1993). For example, when attempting to make time for themselves, Black mothers recognize the importance of self-care practices but felt those needs could not be prioritized given expectations “to be everything to everyone” (Nichols et al., 2015, p. 179). Not only do mothers have to navigate the expectation that they should sacrifice for their children, “you have to put your children’s needs and their best interest first or you’re really not a good mother,” but often motherwork (i.e., the perceived responsibilities and appropriate performance of motherhood) suggests mothers also must be a center of calm, supportive, and care for their larger family networks (e.g., partners, parents, communities; Nichols et al., 2015, p. 184). These expectations create a context in which mothers must manage their emotions, despite the strains and stressors they themselves are experiencing, and provide support for their families to be a “good” mother.

Concerns about being a “bad mother” and mothers’ experiences of parenting stressors may be tied to the discourses about ideal mothers and motherhood. Discourses (i.e., socially constructed systems of meaning and power) of ideal motherhood in the U.S. are dominated by intensive mothering norms that position mothers as centrally responsible for the emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing of their children (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000; Hays, 1996). These expectations advance what has been described as a traditional understanding of motherhood as sacrifice and prescribe mothers to ground the attainment of their children’s well-being through consistent, attentive, and devoted care that puts the child’s wellbeing and needs above their own (Hays, 1996; Nichols et al., 2015; Scharp & Thomas, 2017). However, the notion of sacrificial motherhood is only one component of the larger social expectations that mother navigate.

Combative Mothering

Popular press and evolving social discourses have contributed to the expectation that mothers compete against one another to prove their capability, worthiness, and success through a culture of combative mothering – not only must mothers be ideal but when compared to other mothers they must also be the best. Combative mothering, or the individualistic notion that mothers are in competition with one another to prove that their approach to mothering is the correct way, has served as the foundation of the “mommy wars” in the U.S. for the past three decades (Johnston & Swanson, 2004; Moore & Abetz, 2016). While these “mommy wars” were initially focused on exaggerated divides between employed versus stay-at-home mothers and contention regarding approaches to attachment parenting, they have since extended to create comparative and judgmental assessments of all motherwork behaviors and ideologies (Abetz & Moore, 2018; Moore & Abetz, 2016).

Combative mothering norms are impactful as they trivialize mothers’ experiences while simultaneously distorting the reality of those experiences. For example, the mommy wars scapegoat women for all potential challenges that their children experience by reinforcing the notion of child wellbeing as maternally dependent (i.e., dismissing the importance of paternal or partner influence), and by centering individualism and privilege. Thus, for mothers to even stand a chance of “competing” they must have access to material resources (e.g., income) to allow them the possibility of “choice” in many parenting behavior debates (Milkie et al., 2015). Critique of both mommy wars and ideal mother ideologies in the U.S. have highlighted the ableist, heterosexist, racist, and classist foundations they derive from. While ideal mother discourses create a dominant view of what constitutes a “good” mother and the behaviors she enacts, it “is an ideology that is primarily achievable by privileged women, who are often heterosexual, partnered, white, and middle-to upper-class” (Abetz & Moore, 2018, p. 268).

Thus, the construction of the idealized mother is rooted in intensive mothering ideologies that contribute to, and perhaps necessitate the continuation of and the traditional view of motherhood as sacrificial despite the impossibility of attainment that exists for some mothers (Nichols et al., 2015; Scharp & Thomas, 2017). Additionally, as women navigate motherhood and the discourse of ideal motherwork, they do so in a social arena which has (falsely) pitted mothers against one another through the comparative and individualistic notions that define today’s mommy wars encompassing all parenting practices. This sociocultural context has implications for (a) how women make sense of and experience their emotions surrounding motherhood as these ideologies engender certain emotions (e.g., blame, shame) and (b) encourage women to internalize perceived failures in measuring up to the ideal (Abetz & Moore, 2018). The impact of these ideologies on mothers sensemaking and personal wellbeing may be particularly exacerbated when they engage in behaviors, such as expressing anger, that are seen as “unfeminine” or “unmother-like” based on gendered social roles expectations (Collins, 1991; Jack, 1991).

Motherhood: Unpacking Gender, Emotion, and Anger

Gender and Emotion

Gendered emotion socialization begins very early, with children aware of emotional experience stereotypes (e.g., men experience more anger than women, women are sad more often than men) as young as the age of four (Karbon et al., 1992). During childhood, parents respond to their daughters’ expressions of anger with disapproval or dismissal (Garside & Klimes-Dougan, 2002). These lessons are further reinforced by expectations in adulthood that women are relational caretakers, creating a perception that not only is anger inappropriate but expressing it is a relational threat (Fischer & Evers, 2010). Thus, despite experiencing anger just as intensely as men, women are more attuned to negative social consequences associated with expressing their anger, impacting both the contributors to and their expressions of anger (Evers et al., 2005). Throughout their lives, women are socialized to understand their anger as inappropriate, and their anger expressions are often dismissed or minimized.

Women’s anger has been linked to powerlessness, injustice, irresponsibility of others, and vicarious stress (Thomas, 2005). Additionally, gendered emotional management expectations result in specific anger management strategies utilized by women. For example, women often internalize or contain their anger within their bodies (i.e., anger storage), attempt to ignore or mask their anger (i.e., indirect anger expression), or deny that they are angry and position their anger as non-normative (i.e., positioning anger as inappropriate; Jaramillo-Sierra et al., 2017). Women prioritize both acknowledging and expressing their anger by engaging in these strategies to the extent possible; however, use of gendered anger strategies can be associated with fallout. For example, if women reach a “critical mass” in their capacity to contain anger it can lead to a failure to suppress or engage in indirect expression. This violation of gendered emotion management expectations is often associated with stigma and dismissal of their feelings because women communicated them in a “hysterical manner” (Cox et al., 2016; Thomas, 2005, p. 510). The emotion management approaches women engage in while navigating their anger derive from gendered emotion beliefs (e.g., perceptions on when and how and emotion should occur) suggesting that the appropriateness of an emotion is in part determined by sex (Sheilds & Shields, 2002). However, failure to adhere to gendered emotion beliefs can be especially risky for mothers as it calls into question not only their womanhood but their capability as mothers.

Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that anger is positioned as a behavioral aberration of mothers and research examining mothering-related anger is often grounded in contexts surrounding clinical or PPD (Vik & DeGroot, 2021) or in connection with maternal violence (Kruger et al., 2014). Anger conflicts (i.e., difficulty managing anger) have been identified as one of the psychometric dimensions of PPD as mothers “sometimes feel they do not have a right to be angry, feel guilty about being angry, or are frightened about expressing anger” (Blum, 2007, p. 53). Anger is influential in better understanding and supporting women through their PPD. However, maternal anger, or “mom rage” as labeled in the popular press, occur and also last well beyond the post-partum period. Despite this, the experience of anger is eschewed because it is associated with a loss of emotional control and a failure of women in their roles as mothers (Staneva & Wigginton, 2018).

Anger and Motherhood

In addition to elevating specific mothering behaviors as ideal (e.g., involvement, sacrifice, supporting both children and family), gendered expectations exist regarding how mothers should navigate and experience emotion (DeGroot & Vik, 2021; Jack, 1991; Nichols et al., 2015). Historically, anger has been situated as the anthesis of womanhood, femininity, and especially motherhood (Theriot, 1996). The emotional expectations of motherhood are tied to the myth of maternal bliss (Johnston & Swanson, 2003), the cultural assertion that:

Motherhood is the joyful fruition of every woman’s aspirations – [perpetuating] systems of patriarchy by attributing any maternal un-happiness and dissatisfaction to failure of the mother. A good mother is a happy mother; an unhappy mother is a failed mother (pp. 22–23).

Thus, the notion of happiness is co-opted in ideal mothering discourse to delineate successful (i.e., happy) and unsuccessful (i.e., unhappy) mothers (Huppatz, 2018). Online community spaces highlight the complexities of opening up about vulnerable topics such as mothering related anger. There is a gendered division of online parenting labor; mothers in heterosexual relationships spend more time engaged in online parenting research than do fathers both because they view it as their maternal responsibility to stay informed on best parenting practices and to connect with other parents for support (Peng, 2022). Mothers often turn to online blogs in their research and on one hand, blogs are an opportunity for mothers to openly discuss their parenting struggles and anxieties while resisting dominant cultural discourses of intensive mothering (Steiner & Bronstein, 2017). However, when mothers share “taboo” topics such as negative emotions about motherhood in blogs, the digital space also enables “mom shaming” as mothers engage in social comparison and criticism one another for failing to meet the standards of a “good mom” (De los Santos et al., 2019).

This context suggests that discussing things such as “mom rage” opens women up to potential stigma as it may suggest that they are “out of control” when it comes to their emotions (i.e., emotional stigma) or that they are questionable or immoral mothers who pose a risk to their children or others (i.e., moral stigma; Zhang et al., 2021). Thus, despite the potential normalcy and validity of their anger, mothers hesitate to share with others or reach out for support. For example, Vik and DeGroot (2021) found that, despite feeling isolated by their decision to do so, mothers avoided sharing about their anger because they already felt shame for how angry they could get and did not want others to judge or shame them as well. These decisions are guided by women’s adherence to what DeGroot and Vik (2021) describe as the flawless performance of mothering:

As [mothers] experienced challenges, they seemed to act and portray their lives as seamless expressions of how easy mothering can be, and indicated that, although their labor, challenges, and daily work are diminished by themselves and those around them, it is all worth it for their children. (p. 49)

While mothers acknowledge these performances of perfect mothering are unrealistic and inauthentic, these perceptions continue to shape how they share and reflect on motherhood. Emotionally, this can contribute to mothers’ experiences of emotional dissonance, decreased self-esteem, and depression as their repression and denial of anger contributes to feelings that they are “false and hypocritical” (Zapf, 2002, p. 245). For mothers, this creates a space fraught with risk and tension. Therefore, as they navigate awareness of the social reprisals and stigma, they may be subject to stigma for acknowledging and expressing their anger and the potential emotional dissonance associated with repressing their anger. Mothers’ experiences are further compounded by narratives that center mothers’ emotional expression and stability as often tied to the wellbeing of their children. For example, expecting women who experience depression internalize the medical advice from physicians about the importance of attempting to manage their emotions “for the sake of the baby” (Staneva & Wigginton, 2018, p. 182). These concerns link their perceptions of emotional control with child wellbeing and further reinforce the notions of happy mothers as successful mothers and unhappy mothers as unsuccessful.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that women’s perceptions of discrepancies between their actual and ideal mothering selves are associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and worry about how others will view them as a “bad mother” (Liss et al., 2013). This can create additional challenges for those mothers who have already been placed at the margins of ideal mothering. For example, low-income mothers who identify their frustration and anger as tied to, in part, trying to live up to the standard of “ideal mother” while struggling to meet the basic needs of their children (Kruger et al., 2014). Thus, the construction of the “good mother” is centered within discourses of intensive mothering and sacrificial love that not only suggest that negative emotions, especially anger, are also anti-mother but limit scholars’ abilities to fully encapsulate the complexities of mothers’ experiences and emotions. How then do mothers describe and understand their experiences of anger in the face of dominant cultural discourses that elevate positivity and stigmatize their anger? Despite the popularization of the term “mom rage” little attention has been paid to examining what “mom rage” is for those mothers said to experience and navigate it. To gain better insight into how mothers experience and understand “mom rage”, we seek to answer the following research questions:

RQ1

How do mothers describe their experiences of mom rage?

RQ2

How do mothers understand their experiences of mom rage?

Summary of the Current Study

To fill these gaps in the literature, the current study draws on qualitative data from 65 mothers in the U.S. with the primary aim towards understanding how mothers describe and make sense of their experiences with “mom rage.” Based on previous research, mothers often hide their extreme emotions (Zapf, 2002), feel guilt and shame when they have strong emotions (Vik & DeGroot, 2021), and are expected to always see motherhood as blissful. When mothers engage in these isolation practices and feel negative emotions (e.g., guilt) this can negatively impact their health and well-being (Zapf, 2002). By examining the experiences of, contributors to, and evaluations of “mom rage” our study seeks to enrich current literature on the intersections of motherwork and emotion, highlighting the need for nuanced understandings of motherhood.

Method

Recruitment and Data Collection

Upon institutional review board (IRB) approval, mothers were recruited through purposive, snowball, and network sampling methods on social media sites using a recruitment flyer that outlined the study purpose, participation criteria, and provided a link to complete the survey. For instance, participants were recruited from social media sites dedicated to mothers, such as a local mom’s group that the second author is a part of, and all researchers posted to their social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and invited others to share on their social media pages. Participants completed an informed consent form and questionnaire on Qualtrics (Qualtrics, Provo, UT) that asked them to answer ten open-ended questions about their experiences with “mom rage”. For this study, we explored two open-ended questions derived from the larger study about “mom rage” and mothers’ experiences and descriptions of a recent (within three months) episode of “mom rage”. More specifically the two primary questions asked mothers to (a) describe what “mom rage” looks like for them, and (b) describe a recent (within the last three months) episode of “mom rage”. As part of the second question, participants answered sub-questions that asked them to describe the event, how they felt during the event, what happened to prompt the situation, and how they felt afterwards. We also collected demographic information about the mothers and the children they described in the “mom rage” episode (e.g., age, race, child sex assigned at birth).

Participants

The recruitment process yielded a total of 65 voluntary participants that described their experiences with “mom rage”. The participants self-identified as women who were biological mothers or legally identified as guardian of a child under the age of 12. Participants’ age ranged from 24 to 52 years old (M = 38.30, SD = 5.85). All but one participant self-identified as a cisgender woman (n = 54), who identified as female. Mothers in this study were predominantly heterosexual (72.3%, n = 47) with additional mothers who identified as bisexual or pansexual (713.8%, n = 9) and one asexual spectrum participant (1.5%, n = 1) and eight participants did not provide their sexual orientation (12.3%, n = 8). The majority were also married (73.8%, n = 48) with additional participants who were single (4.6%, n = 3), divorced (3.1%, n = 2), and separated, cohabitating, engaged, or re-married (n = 1 for each category, total 6%) and eight participants did not provide relationship status (12.3%, n = 8). The mothers in this study were predominantly white (81.5%, n = 53) and held a college degree (Doctorate, 36.9%, n = 24; Master’s, 18.4%, n = 12; four-year degree 12.3%, n = 8; or professional degree MD, JD 6.1%, n = 4). The mothers described “mom rage” interactions with children who were on average seven years-old (SD = 3.43). Most women indicated that the child involved in the “mom rage” experience they described was not their only child (n = 43) and indicated that the child lived with both parents (n = 48) or solely the mother (n = 10).

Researcher Positionality

The authors of this study personally experienced, witnessed, and reflected on the intersections of motherhood and anger to varying degrees. The first author is a childless, married, woman of color who witnesses her own mother and close friends grapple with acknowledging, navigating, and naming their anger. The second author is a heterosexual white married woman and a mother of four children (ages 12, 10, 6, and 2). The authors had not heard of “mom rage” until the first author shared an article that initiated this project. Yet, when the second author heard the term, she recognized it as salient to her own mothering experiences and that of her close friends. Exploration of “mom rage” was prompted by that popular press piece, the authors’ personal reactions to it, and our desire to deeply understand rage and anger from mothers’ perspectives. Although the third author did not analyze the data, her identity as an expecting mother and married, heterosexual woman influenced her contributions to the writing of this piece.

The interview protocol and data collection design were grounded in the authors’ desire to center women’s voices in the labeling of their anger and their experiences of it more broadly. Thus, we were clear to communicate to participants that we did not agree or disagree with the term “mom rage” but wanted to create a space where they could share their perspectives.

During data analysis we were honored to be entrusted with the emotional vulnerability of mothers as they described their experiences. However, immersing ourselves in the data was an emotionally fraught process as we read women’s accounts of their anger, shame, guilt, and stress. As a result, our data analysis meetings often began with discussing reflections and memos on how the stories that women shared touched us personally and how we saw connections and divergences from our own experiences. For example, the second author empathized with participants who often qualified their stories by saying “I really love my children” as if that is necessary to qualify as opposed to normalizing the fact that mothering can be hard and joyous. The first author noted that the pressure of endless patience and perfection was one of the things that she saw her close friends grapple with, and it made her feel as if she would never be “good enough” for the ideals of motherhood. The experiences shared by mothers touched and resonated with us both. As we immersed ourselves in the data, our positionalities and experiences enabled us to empathize and respect our participants’ narratives with (we hope) less judgement and gratitude for their honesty.

Data Analysis

The first two authors analyzed the data using an interactive interpretive thematic analysis grounded in Tracy’s (2020) framework. Participants responses to the first question, asking how they would define “mom rage” ranged from one detailed sentence to several sentences. The responses to the second question and sub-questions, that asked them to describe a recent “mom rage” episode ranged from one paragraph to multiple paragraphs. First, we individually immersed ourselves in the data by reading and re-reading the data and lingering with our participants’ responses. Next, we engaged in a collaborative conversation to discuss our initial reactions to the data as part of primary cycle coding, which allowed us to examine words and phrases in our data to note initial codes. Example initial codes from the first author included, “visualized harm,” “loss of control,” “lack of support,” and from the second author, “kid triggered behavior”, “not being valued/respected,” and “imagined/visualized harm to child.” During this first collaborative meeting we realized that we read responses by question across participants, and in doing so, identified that we were missing the contextualization and nuance of each participant’s total response. As such, we went back to the dataset and individually read across all participant responses and coded our initial perceptions as an additional part of the primary coding processes.

Upon our next meeting we began secondary coding. Example secondary codes from the first author included: “visualized harm,” “mom rage catharsis,” “time sensitive task conflicts,” and from the second author,” “visualized harm, facilitator of mom rage events,” and “loss of control.” The first and second author met four additional times to process the secondary coding, each time refining perceptions, talking about similarities and differences in coding, and began to come to a consensus about the secondary codes. For example, given the similarity across primary and secondary coding related to “visualized harm” we realized this was a theme in the data. Additionally, we conceptualized a theme around events that “triggered” the “mom rage” episode from mothers’ descriptions of their “mom rage” episodes. Through our discussion we realized that one author labeled this as “facilitator of mom rage events” with subthemes (e.g., kids, work, lack of respect), while the other author coded these as individual themes (e.g., work conflict, time sensitive task conflict, unmet personal needs). As such, we realized that these themes explained how mothers understand “mom rage” which addressed our second research question. Finally, we set up a final codebook and re-examined all participant responses using that codebook and had a final meeting to ensure consensus about the code names, descriptions, and exemplars. More than one theme could be present within each participant’s reflection of their “mom rage” experience (Charvat et al., 2021).

To ensure analytic rigor within qualitative research (Tracy, 2020), we engaged in self-reflexivity and transparency as we worked with the data and during our collaborative conversations. To do so, we asked ourselves questions about “What are people doing,” “What do I see going on here” to hone our focus (Saldaña, 2016), and to interrogate our own assumptions and standpoints as we examined the data by asking “what surprised us” and “what intrigued us” about the data (Sunstein & Chiseri-Strater, 2012). For example, we used the term “mom rage” (and provided a definition of the term) in our survey given its use in popular press articles and social media, and we were interested by how some women said the term was sexist, while others found it fitting to their experiences. Hence, we discussed the reactions women had to our choice of the term in our research. Further, we rigorously interrogated our codes during numerous data analysis meetings and engaged in transparency as we stated how we shifted our data analysis approach to examine participants full responses by case rather than by question as part of our process. Analysis procedures also entailed the use of an audit trail (i.e., detailed notes) to keep detailed record of coding decisions and rationales (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). We enhanced our credibility by detailing our data through descriptions, collaborative coding, and engaging in researcher triangulation (Tracy, 2020). Next, we turn to describing these findings and their implications in greater detail.

Results

Addressing RQ1, five themes emerged to describe mothers’ experiences with “mom rage”: (a) losing control, (b) visualizing harm, (c) expressing anger (with physical and emotional sub-themes), (d) reacting physiologically, and (e) experiencing catharsis (see Table 1). In response to RQ2, mothers understood their experiences with “mom rage” through factors that contributed to it and their evaluations of their “mom rage” experience (see Table 2). Overall, these findings suggest that participants’ experiences of “mom rage” are multi-dimensional (i.e., physiological, emotional, psychological) and tension laden. Additionally, findings suggest that dominant U.S. mothering discourses (e.g., ideal mothering, intensive mothering, maternal bliss) are impactful to participants’ sensemaking surrounding their “mom rage” experiences.

Table 1 U.S. Mother’s Experiences of Mom Rage
Table 2 U.S. Mother’s Understanding of their Mom Rage Experiences

Describing Experiences of “Mom Rage”

RQ1 explored how mothers described their experiences of “mom rage.” Mothers’ accounts highlighted five major themes (i.e., losing control, visualizing harm, expressing anger, reacting physiologically, and experiencing catharsis). Of the five themes, only expressing anger contained sub-themes that separated out anger experiences in terms of physical expressions (i.e., physical actions associated with the “mom rage” experience) and emotional expressions (i.e., descriptors of “mom” rage expressions as manifesting in yelling, screaming, and crying). Findings suggest that “mom rage” is a multidimensional (e.g., physical, emotional, psychological) experience for mothers (see Table 1).

Losing Control

A recurrent theme from participants to describe their episodes of “mom rage” was loss of control. Losing control was described as an inability to control their emotions, a loss of logic, and separation of self during “mom rage” episodes. Participants explained that they felt as if they had lost the connection between their mind and body during these episodes. Participants indicated that they knew what they should do in the situation or had an idea of how they wanted to behave; however, they felt that their anger created a hazy barrier between their rational thought and their control in the moment. For example, Whitney, a white mother of two stated, “Sometimes it almost feels like I disassociate.” In this exemplar, the participant recognizes that her behavior in the situation is not helpful, but the experience feels disembodied despite her ability to feel negatively about what she is witnessing in her own behaviors. In other cases, participants described a decrease or loss of their cognitive abilities to problem solve. For instance, Jillian (no race or number of children provided) explained “…[I] stopped being able to logically solve the behavioral issue at hand and resorted to unhelpful power struggles.” In these exemplars, participants experienced a loss of control over the situation and their own emotions or thoughts. This contributed to a perception that they had also lost their ability to identify ways to mitigate the situation for themselves and their child.

Visualizing Harm

Next, participants’ experiences of “mom rage” episodes were characterized by visualizing harm to their children (e.g., spanking). However, participants were adamant in their accounts that they did not engage in the actions of harm they visualized (e.g., spanking, pushing, shaking). Abigail, a white mother of three, encapsulated the description of this theme when she explained that for her, “mom rage” was “an intense feeling of being overwhelmed to the point that I can visualize harming my children (I wouldn’t).” Christine, a white mother of two, again invoked the disembodied component of “mom rage” as contributing to seeing two versions of herself:

There are two of me. One is rational and says “calm down. Just take a minute” and the other one wants to throw her over the deck. I would NEVER do that, but my brain is so raged. In these moments, I very much want to smack him across the face or push him (never do!), but that is the physical feeling.

The intense feelings that participants described during episodes of “mom rage” moved them to imagine interactions where they could psychologically release their rage in physical acts towards their children. However, each time participants indicated they visualized these scenarios; they were clear that their visualizations did not manifest in physical harm towards their children. Previous research has identified that women experience a paradox when attempting to both apply and resist the label of “mom rage” for their maternal anger (Billotte Verhoff & Hosek, 2022). However, the visualized harm and loss of control evident in this study suggest that a paradox and tension may extend not only to the linguistic function of “mom rage” as a label for mothering anger, but to how women experience “mom rage” as well. Participants’ accounts of their “mom rage” indicates that they experience disassociation or loss of control while simultaneously maintaining control (i.e., refraining from enacting their physically aggressive visualizations). While rage itself is often positioned as uncontrolled and dangerous (Novaco, 2010), and women’s expressions of anger are often used to position them as out of control or hysterical (Thomas, 2005), these findings suggest importance nuances regarding how participants experience and navigate their maternal anger.

Both losing control and visualizing harm highlight “mom rage” as an internalized process; anger resulting in a disconnection from self (i.e., losing control) or was enacted through imagined acts of physical aggression (i.e., visualizing harm). These findings closely align with existing research that suggests women are socialized to internalize their anger to better align with gendered emotion norms (Thomas, 2005).

Expressing Anger

A third way participants characterized their experiences of “mom rage” was through physical and emotional expressions of anger. The theme, expressing anger, highlights the ways that “mom rage” was communicated or enacted with those present. Notably, participants’ accounts of their “mom rage” highlight anger expressions that clearly violate gendered emotion expression expectations.

Physical Expressions of Anger. Participants who expressed their anger physically often did so through behaviors like stomping, slamming doors, hitting objects, or throwing items. For example, Jamie, a white mother of two boys stated, “I find myself lashing out at my kids and husband, saying hurtful things I later regret. Sometimes I throw things or slam doors.” In this instance the expression of “mom rage” was directed toward objects, such as doors. However, mothers also described physical anger directed toward their own bodies. Paige, a white mother of three boys, explained how she experienced this during a recent “mom rage” moment:

We were late and I began to yell [and] stomp around the house, and grab necessary items (masks, shoes, etc.) from where they were carelessly left. When we were finally leaving the house, I slammed the door shut and also slammed my car door.

While many mothers indicated that they tried to transfer their rage and anger to inanimate objects (e.g., doors), some mothers did acknowledge that the physical aspect of their rage was directed toward their children in the form of spanking or moving a child physically from one location to another. Tina, a white mother of two boys, described one experience in which her intensive “mom rage” emotions were expressed through actions toward her child:

He screamed and yelled en route to his room, and then he slammed the door upon entry. I re-opened his door and approached him to spank his bottom. My son sat down quickly to make his tush unavailable. I grabbed an arm and leg and swung him up and then face- down to the ground to make his bottom accessible. I then swatted him three times.

Instances where mothers engaged expressed physical anger toward their children were distinct from their characterization of the level of physicality describing their visualized harm. For example, physical aggression with children was described as instances that involved “swatting,” “spanking,” or grabbing children. This contrasts significantly from the intensity associated with visualized harm scenarios (e.g., “slapping,” “strangling”). Importantly, participants were clear that though “mom rage” was characterized by a sense that they were “losing control,” their loss of control existed within constraints.

Emotional Expressions of Anger. Participants also expressed their anger emotionally during “mom rage” episodes. When participants felt emotions during “mom rage” episodes, they framed their expressions of them as intense flooding sensations like crying, yelling, and screaming. For example, Helen, a white mother of two described an episode with her toddler, “I finally screamed, “Stop fucking crying!” And [then I] carried her to her crib and put her in. I spent 10 minutes calming down.” Many participants shared how the intensity of their emotions manifested in physical behaviors. Maria, a white mother of four, stated that her “mom rage” looked like, “Yelling, arms flailing, lecturing in a loud voice, crying.” For both Helen and Maria, their “mom rage” was outwardly expressed in ways that could be seen by others. Yet, participants also described emotional expressions that manifested in more hidden ways. Lisa, a white mother of two girls, illustrated this when she stated:

Most often my rage is yelling and walking out. Usually, it does not get physical. Sometimes I do it behind their backs as well, such as when my 12-year-old says you don’t get it mom” which I translate into “you don’t know shit mom” and I will flip her off and make a face at her behind her back.

In all, these exemplars illustrated participants’ recognition of the need to do something physically or emotionally with their intense anger. Expressions of their anger (physically and emotionally) were identified as central to their need to process the emotions during “mom rage” experiences. While participants were aware of the potential social and personal consequences of their anger, expressing “mom rage” was positioned as beneficial insofar as it helped mothers make sense of what they were feeling. This is perhaps because while internalizing anger is socially positioned as more appropriate for women, it is also accompanied by emotional alienation (e.g., instances in which women experience dissonance, a sense of self-falsity or hypocrisy; Zapf, 2002).

Reacting Physiologically

Participants also characterized “mom rage” as something experienced physiologically in their bodies. In other words, participants felt their rage as a physical sensation that manifested in their bodies through clenched jaws, blood pressure and heart rate increases, and muscle tension. At other times, participants described the physicality of their rage as a consuming and visceral body sensation. For example, Rebecca, a white mother of three, explained, “I think that rage can be blinding. I feel that white searing behind my eyes when this happens.” While Rebecca felt blinded by her rage, others felt that the rage ignited something destructive in them. Georgia, a white mother of two girls, exemplified this when she said that “mom rage” was, “feeling like I want to lash out and hit something, or tear apart something, or otherwise destroy something. Like there’s a fire in my belly.” Finally, mothers also explained that the physicality of their anger also resulted in a change in their outward appearance. In her explanation of how she experienced “mom rage”, Leah, a white mother of one boy, stated:

When I can physically feel myself getting mad at my child.…I feel like I am so mad that my face has to just be hideous when I scream, and I do feel like a literal monster in that moment.

In this way, the physiological layer of “mom rage” created an additional dimension to “mom rage” experiences that the participants endured themselves (e.g., increased heart rates, shallow breathing) and it altered what they saw (e.g., “seeing red,” “blinded”). Additionally, participants felt that the physiological manifestation (e.g., facial expressions, screaming) of their anger transformed them into something monstrous from their own perspective and the perspective of others. However, notable to participants’ characterizing of their physical expressions is the salience of “monstrosity” as a descriptor, which suggests that as participants reflect on how they express their “mom rage”, they view it through a lens of monstrous motherhood (i.e., the Western cultural perception that mothers who fail to meet, intentionally or accidentally, the standards of motherhood or inflict any harm to their children are monstrous beings; Palko, 2021). This creates a context in which mothers experience immense conflict over their “mom rage” expression given the catharsis that follows these monstrous moments.

Experiencing Catharsis

Participants also felt a sense of release of their bottled-up emotions following a “mom rage” episode. Participants explained “mom rage” as a series of events where they engaged in the rage behavior, felt better as a result, but then felt guilty for the display of anger. These experiences were not encapsulated in the “burst” of anger expression but were understood as part of a larger emotional cycle. For instance, Sandra, a white mother of two, explained it as an experience where, “You explode. You feel horrible afterwards, but you also feel better. [sic.] Which is worse.” Similarly, Leah, a white mother of one boy, explained how she experienced this, “after screaming the tension is released and then I apologize for handling the situation poorly and we move on.” Interestingly, not only did participants question the value of this emotional release despite feeling better after the event, but they also acknowledged the guilt they felt afterward and the need to apologize to their children. For example, Sandra, a white mother of two, explained how she felt “lighter but angry with myself for lashing out. No child needs yelled [at]. It’s not fair. It usually has nothing to do with them.”

Thus, “mom rage” experiences were characterized by emotional cycles where the catharsis experienced after the emotional release of their “mom rage” experience resulted in self-criticism and even new, inwardly focused anger (e.g., rage -> relief -> guilt -> shame -> self-anger). In sum, these participants experience a tension between feeling better after “mom rage” events and feeling guilty for engaging in the “mom rage” episode in the first place.

Understanding Experiences of “Mom Rage”

In response to RQ2, as participants reflected on their “mom rage” experiences, they situated their understanding of them through what they felt led to these moments as well as personal and social evaluations of engaging in “mom rage”. As such, how mothers understood their experiences with “mom rage” was illustrated through two major themes with subthemes. The first theme focused on contributors to mom rage episodes and had six subthemes: (a) child behavior, (b) unmet personal needs, (c) feeling disrespected/unvalued, (d) time sensitive task conflicts, (e) work identity conflicts, and (f) physiological factors (see Table 2). Looking across this theme provides insight into how mothering within a patriarchal society, which praises maternal sacrifice and suggests mothers who deviate from sacrifice are “selfish” or “monstrous” (Palko, 2021), contributes to lived conditions that elicit “mom rage” experiences. Sub-dimensions highlight how gendered parenting and division of labor norms manifest to prompt “mom rage”. The second theme explored how participants evaluated their “mom rage” experiences. The sub-themes associated with participants’ evaluations of “mom rage” were (a) failing ideal mothering emotions, (b) stigmatization of “mom rage”, (c) “mom rage” guilt, and (d) “mom rage” child safety concerns.

Contributors of Mom Rage

Child Behavior. In many cases, participants indicated that the “mom rage” episode occurred in response to a child’s behavior. The child behavior ranged from arguing with the parent, sibling conflict, or other behaviors deemed unacceptable by the mother. For example, Valerie, a white mother of two boys, stated that her “mom rage” episode resulted from, “just constant whining/crying all night long, [sic.] exacerbated by my older son swiping toys out of my younger son’s hands.” Caroline, a white mother of one, explained how her child’s behavior contributed to her “mom rage” over time: “A conversation with my 11 [year] old child escalated over a period of an hour; she was increasingly insolent and disrespectful, and I felt myself heating up.” In addition to children’s behavior contributing to “mom rage” episodes, mothers also discussed instances where a deficit in their own needs instigated these events.

Unmet Personal Needs. Participants’ understanding of the contributors to their “mom rage” experiences also had origins in the perception that their own needs were not being met. This perception, coupled with constant engagement with their children and the expectations of motherhood, gave rise to instances of “mom rage”. Allison, a white mother of two boys, captured this as she stated that her “mom rage” derived from, “Being completely and totally drained by nonstop interaction with young children.” In other cases, mothers described how feelings of exhaustion contributed to episodes of “mom rage”. Becky, a white mother of two boys, explained this as she reflected on a recent “mom rage” experience she had: “I know he’s just 7 and I am losing my cool because it’s the end of the day and I am exhausted, and he is over-tired. But I can’t seem to stop the snapping.” As Abigail, a white mother of three, said poignantly and succinctly, “It usually happens when I am exhausted.”

Feeling Disrespected/Unvalued. In addition to unmet needs, participants explained that a lack of respect and feeling unvalued contributed to their “mom rage” experiences. Episodes tied to these factors were typically driven by participants having to do a disproportionate amount of housework or perceiving that their children and significant others were unappreciative. For example, Lillian, a white mother of two, explained that her “mom rage” occurred when her sons and husband did not clean up after themselves. She stated:

They all refused to clean up after themselves. After two days I broke down crying, grabbed my keys, slammed the door, and drove away. I refused to go home for two hours and when I did come home, they finally cleaned up.

Deedee, a white mother of two, described the experience of the shift from annoyance to “mom rage” when she stated:

When I shifted from regular annoyance/impatience to what might be described as “mom rage” it felt like [my daughter] wasn’t just being difficult but like she was intentionally making things difficult for me. Of course, that’s not the case, she’s five and hates bedtime. But in that moment, I wasn’t just annoyed, I was angry, offended even that she wasn’t more cooperative. After everything I do for her, couldn’t she stop being selfish? Couldn’t she stop making my life more difficult? I ended up harping at her the way my mom used to harp at me, communicating that her actions were having a much more negative effect on me than they actually were. I told her to “go the fuck to sleep now.” I felt guilty and apologized afterwards. I felt worse about sounding like my mother than I did about saying “fuck.“ Bad language won’t hurt her as much as making her feel like a bad child or like she’s responsible for my happiness/wellbeing.

Interestingly, in this example the mother’s framing and feelings of guilt stemmed from the ways in which her mother communicated with her as a child and a desire to engage differently with her child.

Time Sensitive Task Conflicts. Participants also experienced episodes of “mom rage” when they were overwhelmed by trying to manage time sensitive tasks. These tasks were often for work (e.g., deadlines) and their personal lives (e.g., getting children to daycare). For example, Vera, a white mother of two boys, shared:

I had to get my 4.5-year-old son ready for preschool, my 10-month-old ready for the babysitter, and get myself ready for work. My son usually whines and cries and doesn’t want to get ready. I feel like I am swimming in responsibilities.

Participants also felt that their tendency towards “mom rage” occurred when they were overwhelmed with managing home priorities and children’s behavior. Sandra, a white mother of two, illustrated this tension when she explained that her “mom rage” often happened when:

…trying to rush to do everything I think needs to be done in the time frame I made up and then a kid cries or a fight breaks out. After multiple attempts to calm a child and stop a fight while trying to maintain an adequate energy level for the housework and dinner you’ve started [sic] you explode.

Work Identity Conflict. Mothers discussed being overwhelmed from trying to maintain work productivity and manage work-family conflicts as contributors to “mom rage”. Claire, an Asian/Hispanic mother of two girls, illustrated this when she described what contributed to her most recent “mom rage” experience:

I was struggling to keep it together to try and handle the issue at work. I ended up asking that the person reach out to another available manager and [said] that I’d follow up later that night. I felt like I failed and was failing on all parts.

Looking across participants’ accounts of what contributed to their experiences of “mom rage” highlights the impact of gendered expectations regarding motherhood and parenting labor. Participants stated that they often felt their sacrifices were expected and simultaneously unrecognized. Not only were mothers engaging in parenthood in a cultural context that positioned their sacrifice as the norm (I.e., maternal sacrifice; (Nichols et al., 2015), but this was further complicated by the perception that they were supposed to somehow manage all the expectations of motherhood while also navigating household labor and work deadlines (i.e., the expectation of performing as a “supermom;” Sperling, 2013).

Physiological Phases. Finally, participants shared that at times they believed their own physiology contributed to “mom rage”. For example, participants described hormone fluctuations, menstrual cycles, and age as factors related to “mom rage” events. For instance, Claire, a mixed Asian/Hispanic mother of two girls said, “I think mom-rage may be more severe at certain times of the month, or due to being in my late 30s.” Other mothers indicated that other biological factors were related to their “mom rage”. For instance, Kristina, a white mother of two boys, explained:

I have not always had Mom Rage. Rather, after the birth of my second child I had severe mom rage, especially after I quit breastfeeding. I am working through and past it now. Hopefully this will be a distant phase in my life, but for me this was NOT normal.

Evaluations of Mom Rage Experiences

The second major way mothers understood “mom rage” was through their evaluations of the personal and social implications of their experiences. This theme was further explained through four subthemes: (a) failing idea mothering emotions, (b) stigmatization of mom rage, (c) mom rage guilt, (d) and mom rage child safety concerns. Further, underlying the participants understanding of their “mom rage” experiences were dominant discourses that highlighted the importance of maternal bliss and idealized motherhood (Huppatz, 2018; Johnson & Swanson, 2003) and the dangers of their anger (i.e., monstrous motherhood; Palko, 2021).

Failing Ideal Mothering Emotions. As participants worked to make sense of their experiences with “mom rage”, they found themselves assessing their behaviors and feelings against social “ideals” of motherhood. As such, participants felt that they did not meet the standard for motherhood they themselves or society at large had set for them with respect to the kinds of emotions mothers are supposed to express. For example, Amber, a white mother of one girl, explained:

I think mothers feel a lot of pressure to seem perfect and happy and like they love being a parent. But it is also really challenging, and moms often do more of the parenting and don’t have an outlet, so I really don’t see people talking about these feelings very much.

In addition to the perceived pressure to be happy and calm, participants also felt like they could not talk about their experiences for fear of being labeled a “bad mom.” Greta, a white mother of four children, exemplified this notion when she shared the following:

Moms do not want to feel like we are less, or that we have issues - we should be strong and not weak - so to talk about it means we have been a bad mom, no one wants to be that bad mom….

Stigmatization of Mom Rage. Clearly, mothers struggle to share their experiences for fear of judgement. This fear of judgement and the knowledge that they had “failed” at a component of mothering also contributed to participants’ feelings of self-worth. In the following exemplar Valerie, a white mother of two boys, explained her reluctance to share her feelings except for with a trusted friend when she stated:

I’ve also never described the degree to which I sometimes want to just scream or throw something. It doesn’t reflect well on me and even though I have at least one friend who would understand, I don’t often share the full story, mostly because I am ashamed.

In a similar way Jenna, a white mother of one child, shared, “I feel that people are ashamed to talk about their shortcomings with their children. Almost as if they aren’t supposed to have those episodes,” which aligns with ideologies on good mothering (Thomas, 2005) and echoes mothers’ perceptions that they are not allowed to have difficult experiences with their children. Participants’ discussions of the social implications of their “mom rage” indicated that they recognized it would be perceived as a moral failing (i.e., moral stigma: Zhang et al., 2021) for anyone who might witness or hear about it.

Participants also explained how the stigma associated with “mom rage” led to the suppression of their emotions, bodies, and needs. Diana, a white mother of one boy, captured this when she said:

Any negative feelings mothers feel about or because of their children is still stigmatized, yet those emotions are as old as motherhood itself. We tell ourselves that we have come so far in terms of gender equality, and yet we don’t even allow mothers to feel a large portion of the emotional spectrum without holding it against them. Mothers constantly need to suppress their emotions, needs, biorhythms, personal tendencies, and so on.

Mom Rage Guilt. As participants suppressed their feelings of “mom rage” and resisted talking to others about it, they also managed feelings of guilt associated with their “mom rage”. Participants often cried and apologized as a result of their “mom rage” episodes, and often felt worse because they believed they should be able to “control” themselves. For example, Lana, a white mother of two, explained that “mom rage” is:

When there is no logic or reality with your children, and you are pushed so far to the edge that your fingertips are losing their grip of the remaining ground just before you fall into a deep hole of “I wish my life were different.” Then you realize you feel guilty for being upset and get it together.

Guilt and worry also manifested itself in concerns about how children would remember these episodes later in life. For instance, Christine, a white mother of two, explained how she felt after a “mom rage” experience, “Awful. I keep wondering if this is what my kids are going to remember of their childhood. An angry screaming mom.”

Mom Rage Child Safety Concerns. A final subtheme focused on participants’ concerns about negative reactions from others if they shared these experiences of “mom rage” with others or if others observed these “mom rage” episodes directly. More specifically, participants were concerned that others would worry about the safety of their children or in extreme cases call protective services if they shared their experiences with “mom rage”. Thus, “mom rage” functioned as a trigger for others to assess women through a lens of monstrous motherhood (see Palko, 2021) in which the lines became blurred between a mother who was angry (which already functioned as a social violation) and one who was truly dangerous. Tina, a white mother of two boys, stated:

Shame! Shame must be the biggest reason. I think a second, and perhaps equal, reason is self-preservation. There is a legitimate fear of being able to trust another person’s reaction---- what if my “mom rage” rises to the level of harmful in the eyes of another? What if sharing about a “mom rage” episode leads to someone making a report to Child Protective Services? We’ve all seen a total stranger correct a parent for spanking their own child (a controversial tactic for many in the world); so, if we can’t all agree that spanking is appropriate, then it’s hard to believe we’d all see eye-to-eye about a spectrum of parenting responses.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that mothers were mindful with who they shared their “mom rage” experiences. In particular, participants indicated that they only shared with trusted family and friends who they believed would be less judgmental or had expressed their own struggles with “mom rage”. However, even within relationships with close friends and family mothers expressed hesitancy to be open about their experiences. Eva, a white mother of two boys, stated this clearly when she said:

I talk to my one sister super rarely about it because I know she experiences it too. But nobody else, despite having lots of friends who are moms. I think my rage is probably bigger and more frequent than theirs and I don’t want them to not trust me with their kids or judge me.

Discussion

In this study, we found that mothers described “mom rage” as a multi-dimensional experience characterized by loss of control and catharsis (see Table 1). Additionally, as mothers reflected on their “mom rage” experiences, they situated their understanding of these experiences through what they felt led to these moments as well as personal and social evaluations of engaging in “mom rage” (see Table 2). The findings provide insight into what constitutes “mom rage” from mothers’ perspectives, highlights the intersections between “mom rage’ and larger discourses on motherhood in the U.S., and suggest the importance of more nuanced examinations of motherhood.

Experiencing Mom Rage

Women’s accounts of their “mom rage” highlighted the importance of rage as a complex and multidimensional experience. In our study, mothers’ accounts of their anger reflected the depth of emotion encapsulated in their experiences. As participants described their “mom rage”, it became clear that it was more than just sub-anger (i.e., a lower intensity level of anger such as frustration, irritation, or annoyance). More specifically, it included a deeper intensity of anger; experiences in which mothers got “swept up” in their anger, felt disconnected from themselves mentally and physiologically, and experienced some level of loss of control (Dutton et al., 1994; Potegal & Stemmler, 2010). While results of this study did indicate that mothers engaged in aggression (i.e., physical manifestation of anger) as a part of their anger expression, and their sense that they in some ways disassociated from themselves (i.e., loss of control), these components of “mom rage” existed in tension with losing and maintaining control. The salience of this tension was especially apparent with mothers’ need to acknowledge that while they did think about or visualize harm, they did not go so far as to enact it. These findings are in line with research related to ideal motherhood which espouses that “good mothers” do not spank or hit their children. Additionally, mothers’ accounts highlighted the importance of exploring the complexities of anger.

“Mom rage” is a multi-sensory experience felt in physical (e.g., stomping), emotional (e.g., crying), and physiological ways (e.g., heart rate increase), which makes sense given that emotions are embodied. Research shows that emotional episodes can be accompanied by changes in cardiovascular activity (Kreibig, 2010) and the internalization of anger within their bodies, and deflecting the anger as episodic (e.g., “this isn’t usually how I respond;” Jaramillo-Sierra et al., 2017). The cyclical nature (i.e., anger suppression, catharsis, and guilt) and intensity of their physical experience of “mom rage”, suggests the importance of exploring motherhood and mothering anger through an embodied perspective (Gabel, 2018). Additionally, mothers’ descriptions of “mom rage” as “out of control but within limits” suggests that they may experience “mom rage” as a form of paradox, tension, or dilemma, providing an avenue for further understanding of how women make sense of and navigate “mom rage” (Stohl & Cheney, 2001; Trethewey, 1999). The complexity surrounding mothers’ experiences of “mom rage” offers avenues for future researchers to explore how mothers manage episodes of “mom rage”, the support they seek for “mom rage”, and how they talk about “mom rage” with others.

Naturalizing Emotion and the (Ir)Rationality of Rage

Historically, anger has been positioned as a mental disturbance and “becoming ‘enraged’ suggests being ‘rabid,’ which connotates a diseased state of mind” (Novaco, 2010, p. 465). When compounded by gender, where mothers’ emotions and anger are hystericized (i.e., positioned as hysterical, irrational, and out of control) as early as pregnancy, social perceptions of the irrationality of rage can contribute to the dismissal of the validity of mothers’ experiences (Longhurst, 1997). Additionally, mothers in this study worried not only that they would be considered bad moms but dangerous ones if they admitted the depth of the anger they experienced (i.e., mom rage child safety concerns, see Table 2). Overall, findings highlight how mothering anger is situated within larger social discourses on motherhood, the importance of naturalizing anger as an emotion, and the impact of “mom rage” experiences on mothers’ personal and relational wellbeing.

Women’s accounts of “mom rage” highlighted the importance of unpacking assumptions surrounding anger and understanding “mom rage” as situated in the broader context of mothering experiences. While mothers in this study noted that their children were often contributors or triggers to their “mom rage” experiences, their anger derived from deeper structures than those interactions alone. For example, mothers’ reflections on the contributors to “mom rage” highlighted the roots of their rage as exhaustion and overwhelm associated with navigating the multiple roles in their lives (e.g., unmet personal needs, work-identity conflict). Previous research highlights the negative emotional, relational, and material consequences of navigating motherhood in the light of intensive mothering discourses (Lamar et al., 2019). Findings associated with this study suggest that mothers’ experiences of rage and anger reflect another dimension through which we can see the impact of mothering within a patriarchal society that places the bulk of childrearing labor on women (Hays, 1996). Importantly, this suggests the necessity of not approaching “mom rage” exclusively at the individual level. For example, exploring “mom rage” by focusing solely on mothers’ anger and rage expressions without considering the social contexts in which they live, and mother may inappropriately place mothers in a position of blame or accountability rather than addressing “mom rage” as symptomatic of larger sociocultural institutions framing their lives (Lamar et al., 2019).

In all, “mom rage” experiences represented a breaking point or boiling over after having attempted to suppress or deny their anger (Thomas, 2005) and ignore their needs for too (Johnston & Swanson, 2003). For women in this study, the combination of the gendered discourses they navigated while managing their emotions contributed to a larger expectation of motherhood as a joyous sacrifice. In this way, mothers described interactions in which they felt they were solely or predominantly responsible for managing their children’s behaviors and wellbeing (i.e., discourses of ideal and intensive motherhood), lifestyles in which their own needs were often minimized or lost (i.e., discourses of maternal sacrifice), and knowledge that they were failing to meet the social standards of motherhood (i.e., discourses of maternal bliss myth and failing ideal mothers). Thus, while mothers often characterized their response to the immediate trigger of “mom rage” episodes (e.g., child misbehavior) as disproportionate to the specific trigger; women’s rage experiences cannot be understood as responses to that event alone but to the larger conditions of their lives.

Rage itself is positioned as a madness and a loss of rationality (Novaco, 2010). Yet, while participants described feeling ‘out of control” and overwhelmed by the depths of their anger during their “mom rage” experiences, the entirety of their experience cannot be categorized as irrational. To understand mothers’ rage experiences requires an acknowledgement of the social conditions in which women must engage in motherhood and the emotion work of mothering, “if we want to deal with women’s distress, we should pay more attention to what mothers are angry about” (Kruger et al., 2014, p. 474). Anger is positioned as inherently turbulent and disruptive, and the anger of women more so as it represents a violation of gendered emotion expectations (Jack, 1991; Novaco, 2010). However, the vilification of anger and subsequent social expectation for women to diminish, dismiss, or suppress it results in a failure to (a) fully understand the intersection between motherhood and emotion, (b) acknowledge the personal and social importance of attending to mothers’ anger, and (c) contributes to societal-level failures to provide mothers with resources and support. Mothers’ accounts highlighted how compounding challenges (e.g., unmet personal needs, task conflicts, feeling under-valued) contributed to their experiences of “mom rage” and provides avenues for further practical and conceptual development.

Finally, mothers’ understanding of their “mom rage” experiences were impacted by pervasive guilt and shame. These emotions following “mom rage” episodes contributed to their perception that they were failing to live up to the ideal motherhood, made them feel as if they would be shamed by other mothers, and thus impacted their ability to reach out for social support as they feared how others would perceive them. The experience of “mom rage,” let alone the discussion of it, made mothers feel as if they were exposed to emotional stigma and as if they would be treated as potentially dangerous or questionable mothers (i.e., moral stigma; Zhang et al., 2021). The desire to avoid being labeled as “that kind of mother” reinforced pressure to lean into maternal bliss myths; however, motherhood is not uninhibited bliss nor universal oppression (Alford, 2019). Additionally, the intersections of guilt and motherhood have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as the expectations placed on mothers have only mounted despite ever-diminishing relational and structural support (Whiley et al., 2021). To fully understand mothers’ lived experience requires that we “call attention to and naturalize the everyday maternal emotions of anxiety, anger, guilt, and grief to show both the complexities of mothering experience and the damaging effects of restrictive understandings of motherhood and femininity” (Huppatz, 2018, p. 163).

Limitations and Future Research Directions

While this study provides insight into women’s experiences with “mom rage”, there are limitations that need to be addressed. First, our study only included the experiences of women. Future researchers should explore the differences in how women and men experience rage throughout parenting. The gendered nature of rage and parenting requires further exploration because of how they may differ relationally and socially. It is important to know how men define “dad rage” as well as how they experience it, and if it does or does not compare to what they view as “mom rage”. By shifting our focus to “parental rage” we may better understand (a) the ways in which male partners (in opposite sex relationships) can support mothers and delve into the reasons why their rage is occurring (b) explore how fathers experience parental rage and how the family unit as a collective can cope and manage these episodes.

Second, the participants in this study were primarily white, heterosexual, highly educated, and middle class. Future researchers should explore parenting experiences from a more diverse population to gain a wider understanding of motherhood, parenthood, and anger across identities. For example, the parenting rage experiences of queer and nonbinary parents, BIPOC mothers, and single mothers are important to explore given the social, relational, and cultural resource and access challenges these social identity groups encounter.

Third, mothers in our study repeatedly discussed how difficult it was to talk to others about their “mom rage” experiences. This is an important consideration as research highlights how sharing experiences and telling our stories help people connect, construct identities, teach lessons, and cope with life’s complexities (Kellas, 2021). For this reason, future researchers can explore how women make sense of their experiences with “mom rage” in their conversations with others, and how others react to their stories and how that impacts maternal well-being, self-esteem, and maternal identity. It would also prove beneficial to recruit mothers through non-mediated channels (e.g., mother-baby in person groups, parent-teacher school organizations, doctor offices) as it can provide access to those less likely to seek out and engage in online mothering community support.

Finally, mothers’ accounts should inspire both researchers and advocates alike to reflect on what the “mom rage” experience brings to light about mothering in a patriarchal society. The findings highlighted several socio-psychological experiences tied to the institutional and cultural constraints created by dominant mothering discourses and gendered discourses on anger. However, further research is necessary to better understand the communicative and social impact of “mom rage”. For example, scholars might engage relational dialectics theory (RDT 2.0) to explore “mom rage.” RDT 2.0 examines the interactions of dominant and marginalized discursive forces in the construction of meaning making (Baxter, 2010). Thus, it provides one theoretical avenue to explore how (a) the meanings associated with “mom rage” function as a form of resistance to or integrate with dominant mothering discourses (e.g., intensive mothering, maternal bliss) and (b) how this might lead to the critique or transformation of expectations around motherhood and maternal work (Baxter, 2010; Suter & Norwood, 2017).

Practice Implications

Despite the negative social positioning of anger, this emotion serves important social functions. Anger highlights displeasure prompting conflict resolution or change, serves as a form of self-defense and self-validation through externalization, facilitates a sense of personal control, and signaling an individuals’ personal state (Novaco, 2010). While cultural perceptions exist on understandings of “good” and “bad” forms of anger (Potegal & Novaco, 2010), gendered idealized mothering discourses position all anger from mothers as bad anger. Not only does this obscure the full scope of motherhood emotions, but it has implications for mothers’ wellbeing and access to social support. Based on these findings, we issue a call for researchers, practitioners, counselors, and others invested in the lives of mothers to consider how rage can be engaged in righteous ways to interrogate the academic, policy, familial, and societal structures that contribute to these emotions and engage in work to support mothers who encounter these experiences.

In particular, the results highlight key spaces for intervention to provide mothers with the necessary support to navigate, sensemake, and create community to manage their experiences with “mom rage.” For example, findings indicate that the contributors to these experiences are not simply tied to child-behavior but to larger social conditions that need to be addressed (e.g., unmet personal needs, work-identity conflict, time- sensitive tasks). This a space through which family members, partners, and close others can intervene to create space and build capacity for mothers’ wellbeing (e.g., identifying spaces/times characterized by conflicting needs and taking or adjusting a task) Additionally, mothers’ accounts highlight the need for a (re)examination of workplace policies and procedures to reflect the needs of working-professional mothers.

Finally, therapists and parenting counselors could provide avenues to help mothers identify resources and systems that enable them to both (a) care for themselves (see unmet needs finding) and (b) identify tools for navigating moments of mom rage. This is especially important given a sociocultural context that praises the notion of a sacrificial mother and disparages all anger (Nichols et al., 2015). In its totality, this study calls for all of us to (re)examine our preconceptions surrounding the role of anger and turn our attention to its roots in larger structural and social conditions of disempowerment that contribute to the complexity of mothers’ emotional experiences. Continued scholarly and public attention to mothers’ experiences provide avenues for engaging with the complexity of rage as both righteous and stigmatized.

Conclusion

We explored mothers’ experiences with “mom rage” and how they understood and made sense of them. We found mothers’ experiences were felt internally, expressed behaviorally and emotionally, and elicited by and through the actions of others as well as concerns about their own identity and self-worth. Anger, particularly for women, is often positioned as disruptive, irrational, and is summarily met with social disapproval. However, we contend that dismissing mothers’ anger fails to acknowledge the full complexity of their mothering experiences and prevents avenues for addressing social and relational pain points for mothers. Additionally, it fails to address underlying causes and contributors of “mom rage.” These findings challenge the notion that rage is inherently irrational and unproductive. In doing so, we seek to normalize these experiences for mothers and counter ideas that signal feeling this way makes them “less,” “bad,” or “dangerous” mothers.