I was yelling at my kids again. It was 2 pm, the beginning of the more difficult half of my day as a stay-at-home mom. Mid-July, ninety degrees, stifling, humid indoor air choking me. I thought of my days as a child in tropical Hong Kong, coming inside from hours playing Four Square and Capture the Flag with my friends, drenched in sweat. My siblings and I would crowd around the tiny air conditioner in the front room of our apartment, drinking in the cool air, pushing and shoving to get a good spot. Only now, in snowy Buffalo, we didn’t have air conditioning and usually didn’t need it—except for maybe the month of July.
So there I was, trapped in the doldrums of the day: it was too hot for the park, I was too tired to encourage my children to engage in any kind of creativity or imaginative play, but I had just enough of a mom-conscience left not to turn on a second hour of television. The two middle ones, red-faced, started bickering again, and that’s when I lost it. “GO TO YOUR ROOM! NO, NOT YET, LISTEN TO ME FIRST! I TOLD YOU TO FIND A BOOK TO READ! LOOK ME IN THE EYE! WHY DIDN’T YOU PUT YOUR LUNCH DISHES ON THE COUNTER? GET AWAY FROM EACH OTHER, AND DON’T COME DOWNSTAIRS UNTIL YOU’RE READY TO BE RESPECTFUL!”
As I write the words, they don’t even seem that bad, not nearly the way the memory feels: screechy, flustered, and irrational. I had an anger problem. I yelled most days, and I knew it was a problem because I felt like I could not control it. Multiple times I vowed to stop, and my even-keel, calm external nature believed I could. But then out of nowhere I would be shouting at my kids again: perhaps for a small offense like not allowing Mommy to finish something I had just started, or perhaps for a large offense like hitting a sibling. It was like a monster within me would suddenly wake, and I just didn’t know how to tame it.
My anger began to color other relationships too, especially my marriage, and the sudden yelling, like a brewing storm that colors the sky gray in no time, broke out swiftly during more than one discussion with my husband. He confronted me about it quite compassionately once, and I told him that sometimes it felt good to yell, that expressing the raw emotion welling inside me was a much-needed outlet. I felt crowded by children (“There’s someone in every room!” an electrician checking our circuit breakers once remarked). I felt rattled, lonely, and trapped at home. Of course I needed to yell. I mean, who wouldn’t scream every now and then in my position?
I tried to justify it, but I was also ashamed.
I finally began to pray about it. For months, I felt like I had no answer. The yelling continued, my kids occasionally cowering at my volume. I developed clinical anxiety, and the yelling felt even better: a lashing out against the tornado of emotions roiling within me. And so there I was in July 2017, shouting at my kids and at God for giving me a life I never wanted.
When I was in college I met with three friends for dinner on a weekly basis, all with adventurous, curious personalities and ambitious spirits. One evening we talked about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My friend Peirce said he wanted to live overseas doing some kind of missionary service and have ten children. He and his wife just opened a Christian hostel for travelers in Tasmania and had their seventh child, so he wasn’t far off. Caitlin and Erica both shared similar dreams at that dinner, minus the ten children, and I wanted the same. As I remember it, my dream went something like this: “Helping people in a developing country, single, probably dying young because I won’t have access to good healthcare. But it will all be worth it because it will be for God.” I remember picturing myself in that jungley country, hair blowing in the tropical breeze, adorned in some kind of ethnic woven cloth, sunburned and happy because I was full of purpose.
As I yelled at everyone about everything that July afternoon, the only part of my dream that I felt like I might fulfill was dying young, and doing so in the climate of the jungle. I had been sick for six weeks: first a cold, then pinkeye, then bronchitis, then pneumonia. I had just finished being flat on my back for five days as I had finally set aside all my responsibilities to try to recover, and this was my first full day at home without help after the long illness. I was recovering but still exhausted, and something wasn’t quite right in my throat after endless coughing fits over the past month. When my kids acted up that day, just being kids, the stress of it all pressed in, and something broke inside me. Once I started yelling, I couldn’t stop, even though I knew it was exacerbating my painful throat.
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion…And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:6,9-11).
I haven’t yelled since that July day. I can’t anymore, physically. My voice is softer by necessity, and I can’t raise it enough to even shout upstairs to call my kids for dinner. I have a constant post-nasal drip down the back of my throat that makes it hard for me to sing, and a persistent sensation of having something stuck in my voicebox that I can’t clear. I’ve been to four Ear Nose & Throat specialists and two allergists, and everyone has a different opinion on why my voice has dimmed: vocal cord dysfunction, asthma, dust and pollen allergies, a deviated septum, over-active sinuses, acid reflux, or perhaps some unusual psychosomatic anxiety symptom. But the strange thing is that treating each of these possible diagnoses with medication has yielded no cure. I’m still unable to read more than a few pages to my kids from their chapter books before bedtime; we’ve moved mainly to audiobooks. I used to love singing to my kids, and I now rotate very quiet versions of three brief lullabyes. No more drifting off to Mommy’s ten-song concerts, to verses five and six of “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Just one verse of “Jesus Loves Me,” then falling asleep in silence.
I’ve had this throat problem now for eighteen months. Some days it’s better than others, but it’s always there. But it’s only since reflecting on this passage in Philippians that I’ve begun to think that this problem, what has seemed only like a burden to me, could be part of a good work that God is doing in me. I hate not being able to read or sing much to my kids: those are two things about motherhood that have made all the hard parts worth it. But I love that I no longer emotionally engage with every disobedience and lack of respect my kids display. I love that I talk less and let my kids work out some of their own problems. I love that I’m less irritated with my husband than I used to be when he can’t talk at the end of the day because he’s so tired. Because now I can’t talk either. I love that I no longer rely on yelling to get my kids to listen to me, and I love getting their attention with quiet fortitude rather than loud flailing. It’s wonderful to know that I am capable of quiet fortitude—even though it’s something that has been forced on me.
Somehow, this irritating burden has brought so much good. It reminds me of when my grandmother really needed to stop driving for safety reasons, but she refused to stop. My parents prayed that she would come to her senses and give up driving, and shortly thereafter her car was stolen. Something was taken from her that she relied on but that had become potentially dangerous, just like my yelling. And with losing the power of my voice, I have been given knowledge of my sin, awareness of things that need to change, and insight into better ways to live—from taking care of my own needs to disciplining my children. This loss has refined and purified my love for my family. It has renewed relationships that at times bordered on toxic because of my own harmful behavior. My congested throat, this ball and chain that weighs me down, has produced a harvest of righteousness in my life.
In Advent we wait in darkness for God’s marvelous light, the light of his incarnation and birth as the baby Jesus. What burden do you sit in the darkness with, waiting for light? Is it possible that God is transforming you with that very darkness, doing a good work you could never imagine?