I’ll always remember the terrified looks on the faces of my colleagues as I screamed full-force at an empty bottle and writhed around in a puddle of spilled milk while sobbing.
“Trust me,” I said while catching my breath after we finished filming the scene for “Life After Birth,” our video series on the brutal realities of new-mom life. “Moms will get it.”
A few moments earlier, we’d been spit-balling how best to depict what I describe as the rage-inducing isolation of maternity leave. I warned them that I had a thought based on personal experience, but it would get messy ... and a little dark.
WATCH: The isolation and rage of having a new baby. Story continues below.
Still, I don’t think the video producers expected me to suddenly morph from a calm woman screwing a lid on some breast milk — to a wildling.
But I, and many moms, know: postpartum rage is real, fast, and scary. Even a year after I had my son, it would come in overwhelming spells that I (mostly) kept bottled inside.
I’d sit in bed, shaking with rage because my husband couldn’t get the baby to stop crying without me, tears rolling down my face, chest constricted, feeling absolutely, utterly, alone.
Anger is a common symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety
Anger is a common, but often overlooked, symptom of postnatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression and anxiety. In fact, 2018 research from the University of British Columbia found that women who experience either of these disorders are also likely to experience feelings of anger.
But the commonly used assessment tool, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, doesn’t mention anger. Researchers suggested women should be screened for anger in the postpartum period, in addition to depression and anxiety.
While there is more general awareness of postpartum depression and anxiety, anger and rage has not been as studied, Dr. Katy Kamkar, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and member of the Canadian Psychological Association, told HuffPost Canada.
So, women experiencing this anger may feel isolated and alone.
“It’s very important for mothers to know that, yes, it can be very common, that they are not alone. Anger is a very normal emotion that people can go through for a variety of reasons,” Kamkar said.
‘I could hardly breathe’
For Morag Wehrle, a 39-year-old mom in Vancouver, the rage would come in sudden bursts after the birth of her second child. A combination of depression during her pregnancy, and the stress the arrival of a second child had on her first-born, added to her feelings of being overwhelmed, Wehrle said.
“The smallest setbacks or irritations would fill me with a boiling hot rage and constrict my chest until I could hardly breathe,” she told HuffPost Canada.
“My head would pound, my throat would ache, and my voice would come out in a howl. Later, I’d collapse in guilt and self-remonstration about what a terrible person and a terrible mother I was. It was a brutal cycle.”
Wehrle had experienced postpartum anxiety with her first child, so she thought she knew what it looked like and would recognize it if it happened again.
“Turns out, it looked entirely different the second time, which no one had told me could be a possibility.”
WATCH: We need to start talking about postpartum depression. Story continues below.
Jessica, a mental health clinician who asked for her last name to be withheld for privacy reasons, said that she should have recognized sooner the signs that she was suffering from a postnatal mood disorder. But the Barrie, Ont. mom of two was mad, not depressed, after the birth of her first child.
“I was getting super angry, boiling under the surface when I was overwhelmed or frustrated. It was the intensity of the anger that was not normal,” Jessica told HuffPost Canada.
“By the time I put together what was happening I was in the middle of it all. I also didn’t want to admit I wasn’t in control and keeping it together as I felt like I should be able to.”
Anger is normal. Out-of-control anger isn’t.
Anger can be a normal reaction to new-mom life, Kamkar said.
Sleep deprivation, your expectations vs. the reality of motherhood, trying to develop an emotional bond with the baby, the juggling of responsibilities, hormonal changes, and the physical pain after giving birth can all contribute to feelings of anger in the postpartum period, Kamkar explained.
When those feelings increase, or you start feeling that you can’t control your emotions and they start interfering with your daily responsibilities and ability to care for your child, that’s when it’s time to ask for help and seek evidence-based treatment, she added.
“And the earlier on we do it, the better it is,” Kamkar said.
She explained treatments can include cognitive-behavioural therapy, medication, and working on a variety of skills and strategies for emotional regulation, such as: finding balance, seeking support, setting realistic expectations, and setting time for self-care.
And in the moment, when you feel the rage taking over, it’s important to remember to take things not just day by day, but sometimes hour by hour, Kamkar said.
“And remind yourself: what are the positives you can show gratitude for?”
It doesn’t make you weak
After speaking to her doctor, Jessica opted for medication and worked on her coping skills. Now that she’s just given birth to her second child, she said she hopes she will recognize the signs early, communicate her needs, and seek out help and support instead of pushing through like nothing is happening.
“I know what I need to do to feel better if I get unwell, which is usually using coping techniques and recreation and leisure outlets, which is super important to maintain my wellness,” she said.
It was a public-health nurse who eventually recommended Wehrle visit a postpartum support group. Meeting other moms who were also struggling helped her realize she wasn’t alone, she said, and hearing their stories and sharing her own became critical to her coping strategy.
She’s also recently taken up running.
“If I can feel the rage coming, I know I need to get out and pound the pavement,” Wehrle said.
She wishes other women could know that postpartum anger isn’t your fault and doesn’t make you weak.
“Becoming a mother is a painful, difficult process that is equal parts love, joy, grief, and loss. Rage can be part of the process of letting go of the person you used to be, the life you used to have,” she said.
For me, I didn’t even realize the anger was a symptom of my postpartum anxiety until I started taking a low-dose medication when my son was two, and suddenly felt so much more at ease. Not only was the all-consuming anxiety under control, but so was my inner temper. It was like a weight had been lifted.
I try not to think about how my first few years as a mother might have been different if I’d sought treatment sooner. All I can do is encourage others to be aware of the signs, and remember you’re not alone.