I feel like society normalizes feeling overwhelmed, insecure, and stressed as a new parent. While our society is more compassionate towards these vulnerabilities, there is much less acceptance when it comes to our anger. Postpartum rage is a common occurrence during the first year with a baby. It can show up as a symptom of postpartum depression, but it can also show up on its own. Unfortunately, since there is so much stigma about anger (especially anger towards an infant), parents hesitate to reach out for help. For this post, I’d like to open the conversation about postpartum rage. I’d like to normalize this anger, explain the ways it can show up, and strategies we can use to feel better.
What is postpartum rage?
Postpartum rage are short or lengthy bursts of overwhelming anger. Parents feels completely out of control, and struggles to get their temper under wraps. Everyone expresses anger differently; however, common signs of postpartum rage include:
- physical expressions of anger (e.g. throwing items)
- violent thoughts
- inability to stop thinking about the upsetting situation
- difficulty getting their emotions back to state of calm/neutrality
There is no one issue that triggers postpartum rage. Sometimes it’s the baby waking up at the middle of the night for the third time, other times it’s your partner forgetting to do the dishes. This can make it really hard for parents to predict when they will become upset. Or worse, they feel a lot of shame that a simple event, like forgetting to do the dishes, caused them so much distress.
When postpartum rage comes out, it’s extremely difficult to manage. For many parents struggling with this issue, they face a backlash of overwhelming emotions once the rage has subsided. This often includes guilt, self-hatred, shame, helplessness, or hopelessness. These reactionary thoughts and emotions can keep us spiraling in a low place well after the anger has passed.
Anger as a secondary emotions
Working from an Internal Family Systems‘ perspective, I know that anger comes from a protective intent. It is often an impulsive act or last-case resort in responding to another issue. For many parents, postpartum rage is a result of feeling overwhelmed, resentful, isolated, uncertain or guilty. Unfortunately, these are all very common emotions during the postpartum year.
It’s easy to feel resentful of our single friends who can go out at night or sleep in on weekends. Many of us feel resentful towards our partners who have the option to get away from the baby for several hours a day to attend work.
A sense of isolation during maternity leave can feel debilitating. We are stuck at home with our insecurities, and only the company of a (demanding) baby for entertainment and companionship. The impact of isolation has become exponentially harder during the pandemic when activities like baby/mom groups, gyms, libraries, and other resources are no longer available.
The first year with a baby is full of so many overwhelming anxieties. From the baby’s first cold, to poor latches, and low weight, there are ample opportunities for a new parent to feel distressed. When we have had time to breathe, or if we have older children, we are more confident in our approach to parenting. We can forgive ourselves more easily after making a mistake. However, when we are vulnerable (e.g. being a first-time parent), the guilt and overwhelm can take over whenever we make mistakes.
Anger allows a safe option to cover up these underlying and more vulnerable emotions. It is an instinctive coping mechanism. Anger gives us a quick and fast way to release all of our pent up feelings. Once those feelings are released, we have more space to manage life, or we can push aside our resentment for one more day. In order to have anger soften, we have to work with these underlying issues. This can take time and trust with a therapist. After all, who actually likes acknowledging that they feel resentful or incompetent? Once these underlying factors feel more at peace, our anger will slowly start to shift. It no longer needs to take over in order to protect you.
What you can do on your own
Not everyone wants, is ready to attend, or can afford consistent therapy. Exploring your own underlying emotions is a unique journey. It will lead us to understanding your vulnerabilities, where they stem from, and what these parts of you may need from you in order to heal. However, if this is not an option for you today, there are things you can do independently.
- Pay attention to triggers. Write down when your bouts of anger happen, and start paying attention for commonalities. Is it a specific person that gets you going? Is it a certain time of day? By noticing when you are most likely to get angry, you can have more options to problem solve or work around this trigger.
- Recognize your body cues. Your anger will often show up in the same way somatically. Take a moment to think about the last thing that really pissed you off. How does your system respond? Does your body start to tense up? Does your mind start to race? Do you notice if there is a certain location in your system that carries the most activation? Once we are aware of our somatic cues, we can start to respond to them faster. Similarly to knowing our triggers, it’s helpful to know our bodies. For example, if your heart starts to race and your hands get clammy, that can be a wake up call to have your partner take over while you take a break.
- Evaluate your expectations. A lot of our guilt comes from high expectations of how we ought to be as parents. Consider if these standards you’re setting are fair. The best way to consider if you’re setting yourself up is to ask if you’d push these same expectations on a friend or loved one.
- Address loneliness. It can be incredibly challenging to ask for help or voice to others that we are feeling isolated. Yet, if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, we need to stay connected. As human beings, it is in our nature to be social. This does not mean you have to plans everyday; however, scheduling a weekly check in with a friend, or going on a regular walk with your neighbour may be enough to shift out of the loneliness.
- Prioritize sleep. I have written earlier posts about sleep hygiene, and I encourage you to try out these strategies. Your little one may be waking up several times at night, in which case, I recommend coordinating with your family members to have at least 4-hours of consolidated sleep. This allows you to have the opportunity to complete one full sleep cycle. It’s okay that this deep rest comes at 6 PM. As long as you are having these four hours daily, your mental health has a chance to be less distressed.
- Make time for your own interests. You can be an incredible parent AND be your own person. It’s easy to lose ourselves in becoming parents. All of your interests, hobbies, and passions get dropped to the wayside to focus on your little one. While this is normal at the start, we want to ensure you create some balance. This little person will always be in your life, and it’s important you don’t lose your good habits (e.g. self-care, exercise, extracurricular activities, time with friends) while parenting. When you carve out some consistent time for your own interests right from the beginning, it can be an easier habit to maintain long-term.
- Reduce your to-do list. Sometimes, in the sake of being productive and managing all of our expectations, we create a lengthy lists of tasks to accomplish. Postpartum rage is often a result of feeling overwhelmed, and one of the simplest ways to manage is to look at what can be dropped from your list. I get that we’d love to have a pristine household, be incredibly fit, have time for work, and manage a full social calendar. However, it’s not possible to achieve all of these needs at once. So consider what needs to be prioritized and what you’re willing to be flexible on.
Postpartum rage can get better
Postpartum rage is awful and it’s incredibly common. Unfortunately, for many of us, we carry so much shame in getting triggered. Postpartum rage is one of the many postpartum mood and anxiety disorders that can take place in the first year. As Postpartum Support International wisely tells all parents in this phase, “You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well.”