What 'postnatal rage' could be trying to tell you

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Before Amanda* gave birth to her first child, Max*, two years ago, she had an idyllic view of what motherhood would be like.

"We'd go for walks around the park, meet friends in cafes, and I'd play peek-a-boo and sing him lullabies until he went to sleep."

But the reality was very different. Max didn't sleep much and wasn't an easy baby, and Amanda struggled to cope.

"He made me so angry I just wanted to throw things across the room," said Amanda. "I was worried one day it would be too much and I'd hurt him. I had moments where I really understood how mothers can harm their children. I was scared I was turning into a monster."

Amanda assumed she was having trouble adjusting to motherhood and that she wasn't good at it.

"I thought I needed to try harder," she shrugged. "I felt so ashamed that I could have these angry feelings about this tiny defenceless creature who trusted me so implicitly.

"When he looked up at me so trusting, I just felt like the worst human on the planet."

When Amanda confided in her sister that she was struggling, her sister suggested she speak to her doctor about her feelings. This was the first step to Amanda feeling much better.

Amanda was suffering from postnatal rage.

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Postnatal rage isn't a disorder in itself, but it is a common symptom of new parenthood. Therapist Carolyn Wagner wrote that it is an "anger so intense it feels like it shouldn't even be called just 'anger'. The kind that sneaks up on you and before you know it, you are exploding."

Carolyn says she tells mums she's treating that she doesn't believe that anger is a feeling in itself.

"I believe that anger is a sign post," she writes, "a big old red flat alerting us to a difficult feeling. A feeling that we really, really don't want to feel or deal with, so we push it away and 'feel' anger instead. The more intense the anger, the more intense the underlying feeling."

Carolyn says in the case of postnatal rage, that anger can be alerting you to the fact that you're feeling overwhelmed, resentment at not being appreciated or acknowledged by those close to you, isolation from your usual social supports, uncertainty about your new life as a mum, and guilt about your perceived failings as a mother.

Dr Erin Bowe, clinical and perinatal psychologist and childbirth educator, says postnatal rage is "fairly common" but statistics are hard to come by because many mothers won't admit to having it.

"Our standard assessment tool for postnatal depression (that most pregnant and postpartum women will be screen with) doesn't actually ask about anger or rage at all," she says.

So how do you know if you have postnatal rage?

"Women generally know it if they have it," says Erin. "There will be an explosion of emotions, often at night when they are repeatedly dragged out of sleep, or triggered by feeling out of control, touched out and unappreciated.

"Rage is often followed by severe feelings of guilt, shame and secrecy."

Erin says postnatal rage can exist in concert with anxiety or depression, although it's not typical, and is often tied to lack of sleep.

"There's a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture device!" she says.

Erin says a "massively overlooked" factor in postnatal rage is birth trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Even among health experts, people are screening for depression and anxiety but not looking closely at the impacts of traumatic birth," she says. "One in three women will experience birth trauma.

"Anger is one of the hallmarks of PTSD, and yet we still seem to associate this as being something that is experienced by veterans rather than new mums…Constantly being dismissed and feeling pressure to 'enjoy every moment' of motherhood is enough to make anyone feel enraged."

As with all mental health issues, the first step to healing is to ask for help.

"Take a breath and know you're not alone," says Erin. "Then tell someone. Ask for help. Your GP is a good place to start. Be sure to ask for a referral to someone who has specific skills in perinatal mental health."

Erin adds it's important not to panic if you have experienced a few episodes of rage.

"[Experiencing some anger] is very normal and doesn't mean you necessarily have a mental illness or you're not coping," she says. "Sleep deprivation and the postpartum hormonal crash leads to a whirlwind of extreme emotions.

"If it's persistent beyond those early weeks and interfering with your life and relationships, then seek support."

*Names have been changed.

If you're struggling or want to talk please contact PANDA.