"I'm so angry right now, I want to slap you both!" I roared at my husband and my nearly 2-year-old daughter as I clenched my fists, then hit my thighs instead, growling as I stormed out of the room. Seconds later, I rushed back into the room. "How can I feel this kind of anger at the two people I love the most?" I clamored, desperately searching my husband's eyes. My postpartum rage was scary — I didn't know what to do with it. Where it came from.
I'd been quietly asking myself those questions since the onset of motherhood. I'm hormonal. I'm in transition. The answers I could easily put my sudden intense bouts of anger and out-of-character anxiety off on came one-by-one. Everything is just heightened because I'm tired and sensitive. I'm about to move my family across the ocean. I just left my home country. I'm not on healthy terms with my own parents. I'm still breastfeeding. I'm burned out. I'm not settled yet. Yet my external circumstances over the months never seemed to quell the question in my mind: what was really going on here?
Not too long ago, I wondered if I should write about the anger that comes along with motherhood. Surely other moms feel it. I wasn't alone, was I? Finding out and then writing about how they deal with it would do us all some good, I thought. Then I came across a link to the article "We Need To Talk About Postpartum Rage — And Why It Happens" by Carolyn Wagner on Motherly. I read her helpful words describing anger not as a feeling, but rather a signpost to an underlying, more difficult emotion.
Everyone expects a new mom to be weepy and overwhelmed. They don't typically expect her to drop f-bombs and scream when things don't go as planned.
"In the case of postpartum rage," she wrote, "I often find that the anger is alerting us to feelings of being overwhelmed, resentment at not being appreciated or acknowledged by those close to us, isolation from our usual social supports, uncertainty about acclimating to our new life as a mom, and guilt related to our perceived failures in mothering."
Bingo. That's 100 percent me.
Further down in the piece, Wagner says, "Everyone expects a new mom to be weepy and overwhelmed. They don't typically expect her to drop f-bombs and scream when things don't go as planned." And that is exactly why, even though I'd heard about postpartum mood disorders, I never connected any of my f-bombing fits of rage to the fact that I could very well be suffering with symptoms of it. I simply had never heard that postpartum rage was a thing, and that it was a symptom of PPD. But that's why I'm talking and writing about it now.
I reached out to Carolyn Wagner, who wrote that article, and who is a Chicago-area therapist specializing in maternal mental health. She affirmed the notion I sensed that it's really important we increase awareness about the anger-anxiety link, because many women go undiagnosed and untreated, which is something I've realized happened to me.
"Some of that is provider misinformation," she tells me over email, "but mostly it's women not knowing that anger is a symptom of postpartum anxiety and therefore not seeking help because they don't have the more typical worry, trouble sleeping, etc. symptoms."
So very me.
Giselle, a 21-year-old mother of a 14-month-old, had a similar experience. She grabbled with feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety but put them off on PMS as she started her period eight weeks postpartum. "A lot of my anxiety stemmed from my past in foster care," she tells me, "which is why I dismissed my PPD symptoms so quickly." She spoke to her OBGYN after her daughter weaned — and the symptoms suddenly left — and was told she had in fact been suffering from PPD. She faced the hard moments with the help of her husband. "I constantly reminded myself that I lived in a safe place, that I was good mom, and really tried to think daily about something positive in my life," she says. "It helped keep me from fixating on the 'what-ifs' of my anxiety." Next time around, Giselle says she'll be more aware of her symptoms and will know how to seek help.
I, myself, was calm and happy through much of the first part of my daughter's life. I imagine most people would have thought from the outside that things were OK. I admit my public image as a mother was mostly curated to show the positive. But I've also had some truly harrowing moments in private where I've felt, as Carolyn Wagner defined rage for me, "outbursts of anger that come on with little warning, are extremely difficult to control, are disproportionate to the trigger, and are ego-dystonic, meaning they don't feel like you."
I've sensed a distinct difference in the level of my anger since having my daughter. I've smacked both her and my husband a couple of times out of that rage and immediately knew it was not from a place of control. I've had to apologize to them for that. I've had to explain to my little girl that how I responded to my anger was inappropriate. And I've had to choose other ways, like hitting a pillow or walking away, to model for her how to effectively respond.
I haven't felt a bout of rage like that in a while now, so I think I'm passed it. I got through it with knowledge I used from years of reading self-help and self-improvement books plus skills I learned in care-home employment pre-baby. But I was alone. Like Giselle, I largely dismissed it and didn't talk about it much. I didn't fully have the language for it. I didn't know I was allowed.
Take away her control of her body, the situation, how she feeds her baby, and then when she reacts with anger, she is labeled as crazy. I've outlawed that word in my office, because I think there are way too many negative connotations.
"We're an anger-denying society," she tells me. "We don't allow women to express anger, because it's not feminine or pretty." She explains that her own Asian upbringing sees anger as connected to a lack of control and discipline. I can relate to a traditional view of women needing to be "meek and mild," and rage doesn't exactly fit into that definition, especially when we're inundated with images of motherhood that are gentle and quiet. Yes, that's a part of it. But there's a whole lot more underlying that we're expected to shut out.
"I see a lot of women," Dr. Mahmoodi continues, "who are disenfranchised or in situations where they are 'set up to fail.' Take away her control of her body, the situation, how she feeds her baby, and then when she reacts with anger, she is labeled as crazy. I've outlawed that word in my office, because I think there are way too many negative connotations."
I've disallowed that word in the way I think about and talk to myself as well. There's a history of mental illness in my family, but I refuse to believe that the barrage of intense emotions I've felt since becoming a mother means I'm also headed in that direction. I'm choosing to let the rage I've felt show me what's lying beneath that needs to be dealt with. Sometimes, my anger is actually highlighting something I'm passionate about.
Anger that leads to passion. Passion that leads to change. My new rule is to give yourself your own permission to really feel everything, but know there's already a village of women yelling out "YOU'RE ALLOWED. INHABIT YOUR SPACE."
The more it's shared, the more likely we can stop the stigma around feeling anger, not just rage. If it was OK to express anger for women, we would likely not reach the level of rage.
From both the specialists I spoke to, there should be no guilt or shame associated with experiencing postpartum rage. "There's tremendous power in authenticity," Wagner tells me as she speaks to this. "When we can own our entire selves and our entire stories, we feel much more secure and grounded."
Talking about it promotes healing. I know after just a few validating conversations for the sake of this piece, I feel so much better about what was going on in me. Mahmoodi highlights this power in solidarity. "Once someone knows that they are not alone, they will be able to share it," she tells me. "The more it's shared, the more likely we can stop the stigma around feeling anger, not just rage. If it was OK to express anger for women, we would likely not reach the level of rage."
I'm so thankful that one of the mothers I follow on social media shared that Motherly article. Her name is Becky, and she owns her own "mama-merch" brand called Mother Like No Other. She's been vocal about her own postpartum depression and what she's doing about it on her Instagram before - to an overwhelmingly positive response.
"When someone else shares their story," she tells me, "it helps to normalize that the feelings you're having are part of the depression, that you're not failing, and that at some point it should pass, especially if that person has been there, too, and are out the other side."
Becky's whole brand is about removing stigmas and encouraging mothers to feel confident in their mothering despite the challenges we all have. "I have received a lot of lovely feedback from other mums saying how it really helps them to read such honesty," she tells me about her posts on mental health. "One person even went on to say that it gives them empowerment, which is just incredible!"
I've definitely benefited from the online community she fosters through her company, and it's inspired me to not hold back from expressing my own experiences online.
When it comes to knowing what to do if you're still feeling a sense of rage years on after becoming mother and you're no longer in the perinatal period of motherhood, I found comfort in therapist Carolyn Wagner's words. "Strictly speaking, postpartum mood and anxiety disorders have their onset in the first year postpartum," she tells me. "However, the basic idea of what causes the rage (and suggestions for managing it) stay pretty much the same regardless of when the onset occurs." I'll be referring back to the suggestions she mentions in the original article in the future, I'm sure.
And to the admittedly upsetting fact that my daughter has seen me in all my raging glory — something I previously thought was a major mommy no-no — there is solace in what Mahmoodi tells me. "I firmly believe that children should see a wide range of emotions from their parents. [Negative] emotions don't damage children. I work with women to see them as teaching moments," she explains. "We go into what it may have been like for their child [when they showed rage in front of their child] and how it was interpreted. The majority of women who have expressed yelling at their children during a bout of rage, or even smacking their kids (we do some checking around safety), feel instant regret. They do the appropriate reparative work, which means they apologized, hugged and kissed, and spoke to their children in a way for them to understand what happened. We also acknowledge that kids can be difficult, but we also have to have the tools to manage our emotional experiences."
It's never fair on our kids to teach them how to manage their emotions without also working on how we manage ours, postpartum rage or not. In fact, this whole experience has highlighted to me how I teach my spirited, strong-willed daughter about her own anger. I find myself now saying to her, "It's okay for you to be angry about not getting to use the tablet now, but it's not okay for you to throw it on the floor." I've given her options for her frustration instead: hit the couch or take three deep breaths. She's only two, but it works. And I can only hope she grows up never shaming herself or trying to hide or dismissing her own anger like I struggled with.
I now have a space for my rage, and what to do with it, and that means it can't control me.
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