Angry and ashamed: How my postpartum rage began
Hot porridge drips from the kitchen ceiling and a fire alarm howls.
But it’s not the aftermath of culinary enthusiasm gone awry nor is it a scene from a surreal night terror where complex carbohydrates flood a small London apartment.
This is the result of anger. My own white-hot anger.
Thirty minutes earlier, I laid my infant daughter down in her cot for her morning nap. She was full of milk, thoroughly burped and in a clean nappy. I am heavily invested in nap times: I want them to happen and I want them to happen not in my arms. This, I am told, will promote good sleeping habits for my daughter. And afford me time to shower alone, clean the kitchen and check my emails.
But my baby doesn’t want to nap – in my arms or anywhere else for that matter. Instead, she wants to scream. I leave her to self-soothe in the cool darkness of her nursery but she doesn’t want to self-soothe. She wants to lie with her mouth open cartoon-wide, tonsils bouncing at the back of her throat as she wails. I go in to pat and rock and check her nappy. But she roars. I adjust the blackout blind. I sing. I shhh. I stroke her head. I reset the white noise machine. The crying doesn’t stop.
I get more and more frustrated. What kind of mother can’t get their baby to sleep?
The screams are now so intense it feels as though the walls are shaking and it takes me a second or two to realize that I smell smoke.
Back in the kitchen a pot of porridge is burning. And suddenly my frustration has morphed into a rolling boil of rage and I seize the pan handle, hurling the entire vessel into the sink. Except it misses, instead bouncing neatly off the side and travels up, up and away toward the ceiling where, on impact, it releases burning porridge across the clean, white ceiling.
“Oh that?” I say, months and years later when people ask about the stain I’ve yet to paint over. “God I was so livid one day…”
And I might retell the story, but cloak it in an ‘I’m mad, me’ veneer, seasoned with an eye roll that makes the entire episode more palatable. That means I don’t have to reveal what I felt was the ugly truth: I had suffered with postpartum depression (also known as postnatal depression) which made me experience extreme, frightening rage that I felt completely unable to control.
Porridge-gate was just one of many instances where I exploded with anger in the months after giving birth to my first and only child. I screamed into pillows. I kicked a hole in the garden fence. I would yell “FUCK THIS” a hundred times a day. I literally shook my fists at the sky – at a God I don’t believe in. I was furious and I didn’t know why.
Statistics on postpartum depression vary. The NHS states that more than 10 percent of women experience postnatal depression while the American Psychological Association put the figure at up to 1 in 7. Common symptoms of which include low mood, feelings of apathy, a lack of energy and increased anxiety.
But rage is a less common symptom. It is certainly less spoken about or admitted to – possibly because it comes from fear, resentment, isolation or exhaustion.
“It can appear in fleeting moments of sheer frustration when stuck in traffic or when you are woken up for the fifth time in the middle of the night to feed,” explains Chelsea Robinson, a therapist, matrescence coach and postpartum doula. “It can be yelling at your child for something so small or a screaming match with your partner. No matter what, chances are you feel out of control, powerless over it and don't understand where it came from so suddenly.”
What causes postpartum rage?
“Postpartum rage is connected directly to feelings of helplessness and stress that has stemmed from having a perinatal illness,” says Annie Belasco from PANDAS Foundation a UK-based organization which provides free support for every parent, carer or network who may be struggling with their perinatal mental health. “Lots of factors can contribute to the build-up of stress and tension that can present itself as severe frustration and anger. It can occur at any time.”
Sally Bunkham, communications and development manager for PANDAS, experienced postpartum rage while caring for one of her baby daughters who was ill with extreme colic and was in constant pain for four months.
“Night-time was the worst and the lack of sleep hugely impacted me and my ability to function,” she recalls. “I was ragged with exhaustion and angry all the time. I lashed out at my husband and friends. It felt like nothing they could say or do could save me from the exhaustion. I was so tired that I even hallucinated, which contributed to my anger.”
For Bunkham, this rage was so far removed from who she ‘really’ was and how she would normally cope with stress.
What are the symptoms of postpartum rage?
Anger comes in many guises but postpartum rage can manifest in the feeling that it is overwhelming and out of control. Those who suffer report a physical temper – kicking inanimate objects or upending tables. They typically shout or swear more and can lash out at people close to them.
“The anger that I felt became uncontrollable: [I was] screaming inside my head, into pillows,” says Bunkham. “That wasn't enough, and I started to release my anger through scratching myself. I began to realize it was self-harm. The self-harm element scared me even more and made me feel worse as a mother than I already perceived myself to be.”
While her husband was growing increasingly concerned for her health, Bunkham was struggling to understand what was happening to her.
Why is so little known about postpartum rage?
While the discourse on postpartum mood disorders is gaining a wider audience, postpartum rage is not something that is widely covered by the media, deeply researched or even discussed among friends or colleagues.
The trouble with postpartum rage is that it comes with a side order of shame.
Writer Nell Frizzell has never been diagnosed with postpartum illness but writes extensively on maternal rage in a forthcoming essay – with particular focus on the danger of keeping it an outlawed topic.
“I got so angry sometimes it felt like I could tear bark off a tree with my teeth,” she writes of her experience of early motherhood. “Or melt spoons with my eyes. These feelings, particularly when experienced by mothers, are so taboo that we are warned off describing them. Instead, we have to present the same old, wipe-clean, unchipped picture of motherhood that is nothing but gurgling smiles, selfless sacrifice and benevolent calm. Which harms people, of course. Because they will get angry. And they will feel rage. But they will not feel able to control it; because they’ve never been allowed to talk about it.”
How long does postpartum rage last? And how can it be eased or cured?
“It is hard to say how long postpartum rage might last as there are so many unique factors that contribute to a woman's mental health,” explains Robinson. “However, some women report that outbursts of anger tend to decrease once their baby begins sleeping through the night, they've established a formal routine or they feel more confident in their role as a mama.”
Robins explains that postpartum mood disorders can last months or even years if left untreated.
“The challenge with rage and anger is that there is so much shame associated with it, that admitting it feels like an affirmation of failure to the new mom. This only complicates a mother getting connected to the most clinically appropriate support as soon as possible.”
Robinson admits that there is no magic cure or quick fix for postpartum mood disorders but stresses that seeking help is the first step.
“Oftentimes antidepressants or antianxiety medication will be prescribed to help a mother alleviate the symptoms more quickly,” she says. “In addition, talk therapy and support groups by a licensed professional with specific training in maternal mental health are also advised as a space to process her experience and gain skills to better manage her triggers and responses.”
Robinson believes more sleep, support, connection with other mothers and adjusting expectations will all help to reduce feelings of isolation that are so common in women suffering with postpartum rage.
“Most importantly, a mother should remind herself that experiencing postpartum rage does not make her a bad mother or mean that she's failing,” she says. “This is not anything she has chosen for herself nor that she is doing to bring it on herself. It happens to many women; we just don't talk about it enough.”
“Postpartum rage is a frightening subject and we would urge anyone who is feeling or experiencing symptoms of this to speak to their GP early on,” says Belasco.
“I saw my GP and sobbed throughout the appointment,” says Bunkham. “I was diagnosed with PND induced by exhaustion and I felt relief, for my feelings to be labeled, for me to be labeled. I realized that if I was poorly I could get well again.”
She slowly recovered.
“Over time, without medication (though I had a prescription should I need it) and with acceptance and some self-care I started to become well again,” she says. “My baby's health improved, I got more sleep, and I began to enjoy my parenting journey. I am a good mother, that was never in question, and I started again.”
My own postpartum rage eased with the help of time and Citalopram. But before that I was also lucky in that I felt safe enough to vocalize my feelings to my husband and to my doctor: I was afraid of the unknown and the uncontrollable. I was tired. I was grieving my old life. I felt guilty for not being more grateful to be a mother and instead seeing each day as a collection of problems I didn’t have the ability to fix. I felt like a failure for not being able to stop my baby crying. My sense of self was threatened and I reacted with anger. Saying all of this out loud really was the catalyst for change.
I never did paint over the porridge stain. I can’t say I ever looked at it with fondness and I can’t say I was always honest to those who asked about it. But it always served as a reminder not of what I’d done, but what I’d overcome.