Postpartum Rage is Real and No One Wants to Talk About It
“Postpartum rage” are two words that when put together make a lot of people really uncomfortable. How could you feel rage when you’re postpartum and enraptured with your life as a new mom? It seems impossible. But it’s not. Postpartum rage is a lot more common than you may think. It’s actually one of the most surprising symptoms of postpartum depression – and it’s very real.
Postpartum Rage is Real
I can still remember the first flash of white hot burning rage that shot through me postpartum like it was yesterday. After a hospitalization in a mental health unit that did nothing to help and actually caused a lot of my PTSD symptoms, I was assigned to an outpatient psychologist. She was useless. And as we were sitting in her office, trying to set some goals for my recovery I remember thinking that I could actually kick her in the face. This wasn’t hyperbole or an exaggeration. I was ready to jump across her desk and hurt her.
Passing it off as a symptom of extreme sleep deprivation, I figured that if I could solve my insomnia, the intense anger would take care of itself. There’s probably a lot of truth to this, but it doesn’t change how that I felt like a pot of boiling water about to explode. A few weeks later I was trying to get my tiny newborn to sleep so that I could get to bed and breathe my way through a panic attack. He quietly finished eating and I began to burn with anger. He hadn’t fallen asleep immediately. How dare he? I remember holding him and looking at his tiny face as I yelled “why aren’t you sleeping!! WHY THE HELL WON’T YOU SLEEP??”
Feeling Like a Monster
I was stunned at my thoughts and behavior. What could ever possess me to yell at a baby? My little baby. And the anger, the rage was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was as if it was coming from my very soul and ripping my body apart as it made it’s exit. Every inch of me burned with explosive power that rocked me to my core. It left me feeling like a monster. I was so ashamed, exhausted and depleted. I said nothing to my husband – and he then became the target of my rage.
The strain that postpartum mood disorders put on any relationship can’t be overstated. Despite my husband being the most supportive, caring man I’ve ever known, the weight of my illness very quickly created a huge gulf between us. Into that space I poured my anger and negative thoughts. I HATED the fact that he got to leave the house every day and go to work. Mornings were the worst time for me because of the impending isolation. His relative “freedom” became something I resented, deeply.
When he wouldn’t get home on time in the evening, my rage would burn. Whether it was a delay on the commuter train, bad weather, delays at the office or whatever – I kept score. I remember one evening in particular I was waiting for him to get home so I could go to a yoga class. He was late – which is nothing new for him – and my rage was bubbling. He came in the door and I unleashed a verbal tirade. How could he? How dare he? Didn’t he understand what it was like for me to be stuck at home, sick and alone? A huge fight ensued that came very close to being physical.
A Surprising Symptom
This was hell on earth. For a girl that hated confrontation and often liked to sit on things for a day or two before addressing them, the change in my personality was terrifying. Because rage is seldom talked about when we’re discussing postpartum depression, and there’s even more shame attached to it than feeling hopeless or sad, it flies under the radar. When I finally found credible information online I was more than surprised to read that postpartum rage is a real thing. It was yet another symptom on my laundry list of “weird changes in my mood since having a baby” but just the knowledge that I wasn’t alone provided some relief.
We don’t do a very good job of asking moms the right questions about their symptoms. Most screening questionnaires might touch on feelings of “irritability” when asking about mood, but this falls incredibly short of accurately identifying and normalizing moms’ experiences with rage. In my mind, “irritability” is my being a little extra chippy in the morning before I’ve had breakfast or getting mad about sitting in traffic. Irritability isn’t my punching a hole in the wall or planning to attack my husband because he forgot to buy milk.
This is rage and it’s a completely real symptom of postpartum depression. No one is talking about it because good moms and good women aren’t allowed to feel this way. Instead we’re taught to hide it, along with our other symptoms, because if we let the mask slip who knows what other dark secrets may spill out? But we can’t let fear keep us silent because that’s when our stories hold the most power over us.
Managing My Anger
As I worked towards recovery, my intense rage began to dissipate. Once I was on the right medication these bouts of anger became something that would happen every few weeks instead of every day. I also learned to recognize the anger for what it is – just another symptom – and not a reflection of who I am. There are still times when I will get a white hot bolt of rage shoot right through me and I’ll snap at my son. But I don’t think of these as being a problem, rather they’re just part of being human. And that’s what I am – decidedly and imperfectly human.
Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.