Anger Is a Potential Postpartum Reaction

6 min read

“How do other mothers manage? I only have one child but I’m exhausted.” This was Emily’s comment two weeks after delivery. By the third week, she reported, “I’m suddenly feeling down. And I find myself just so irritable and even angry. That’s not me.”

Some women, like Emily, may describe it as coming from nowhere. While new mothers seem to be increasingly comfortable with recognizing and acknowledging depression, it is much less common to recognize anger. However, anger may also follow delivery, showing up as irritability, frustration, anger and even rage. Such anger may stand alone or be part of postpartum depression. Additionally, it may also be associated with anxiety.

Their arousal of anger may trigger tendencies to feel guilt, shame and powerlessness, especially for women who are predisposed toward such tendencies. Additionally, these feelings may further contribute to feelings of isolation that may trigger conflicts with others.

Causes of postpartum anger

For some, anger may be a natural reaction to the tasks of mothering that may have been overshadowed by the fantasies of mothering. This makes perfect sense. Anger is very much about thwarted expectations and it is often the case that anticipating parenthood is dominated by those images of positive and rewarding interactions with an infant.

Meeting the tasks of early motherhood is indeed challenging even though motherhood is celebrated as a joyful and even defining event for women. The miracle of new life is viewed as a time that should foster excitement and gratitude. And yet, this moment also entails disruptive sleep, hormonal changes, an increased demand on emotional energy and even a challenge to the nature of the parents’ relationship with each other. As such, it is common that a mother may experience challenges to her mood.

In general, some of the causes include:

  1. Changes in hormonal levels.
  2. History of depression, anxiety or anger.
  3. Changes in sleep patterns — insufficient or disrupted sleep as well as poor quality sleep. Anger may also arise regarding the infant’s sleep pattern (Ou, Hall, Rodney, et. al., 2021).
  4. Emotions aroused related to having and caring for a baby.
  5. Body changes.
  6. Lifestyle changes regarding socializing, use of leisure time and physical activity.
  7. Changes in the relationship with partner and others.

New mothers may find themselves angry during feeding, with physical discomfort sometimes associated with breastfeeding. They may be angry at not feeling rested when they’re forced to get sleep in two or three-hour increments.

Some may become angry with a partner whom they experience as not providing sufficient help or seem overly demanding of their reassurance as a way of dealing with the arrival of their child. And others may become angry with their other children as well as with the new infant.

For some women, having a child can arouse negative feelings regarding past and present issues with their own mother. They may have difficulties setting limits with a parent’s involvement or irritation regarding their support.

123rf Stock Photo / peopleimages12

A new mom feeling overwhelmed

123rf Stock Photo / peopleimages12

Factors that may increase the potential for anger include

There are numerous factors that leave a new mother more vulnerable to anger following delivery. These compete with and interfere with the capacity to channel focused attention and energy on the task of positive parenting.

  • A history of mental illness.
  • A lack of support.
  • Having had a difficult pregnancy, labor or delivery.
  • Having a child with special needs regarding a health condition or disability.
  • Challenges of caretaking that might include breastfeeding difficulties, a baby with colic, sleep difficulties or other issues.
  • Life issues such as the death of a loved one, losing a job, going through a divorce, or exacerbation of a chronic illness

Coping guidelines

It’s important to engage in the following activities as a way of dealing with postpartum anger. Remember that by doing so you will be even more able to identify what you need. This in turn will help you to be even more attuned to what your infant needs as well.

Acceptance of feelings. It’s important to remember that your feelings are part of your being human. And that whatever feelings you experience make sense, given the factors that might trigger them. This includes being aware of any tendency to try to hide them.

Reflection. Take a moment to pause and reflect on identifying triggers as well as patterns to your reactions. Recognizing such patterns is helpful for identifying specific needs and desires that you experience as being thwarted.

Engage in self-care. This might include breathing exercises to calm yourself and appropriate physical exercise that might initially only include walking. This may include spending some time alone engaged in activities that are soothing and relaxing — even if it is for only a few minutes. Mindful meditation may also be helpful, especially when coupled with self-compassion exercises.

Accepting help. Part of dealing with the stressors of parenting includes asking for help and accepting it. Doing so is not a sign of weakness.

Set limits and boundaries. Setting limits and boundaries requires awareness regarding your energy and capacity for parenting, home management, work or socializing. However, be aware that difficulties surrounding the need for approval, or the need to please may undermine your capacity for setting them. Additionally, perfectionism may also interfere with setting realistic limits and goals for yourself.

Connect with other moms. Whether you connect in person or online, these connections can offer you ideas for specific parenting issues as well as general support. These connections are invaluable for reminding you that you are not alone.

The role that others can play. It’s important that family members as well as therapists be sensitive to recognize these reactions and can address them with the new mother.

At times, the intensity, pervasiveness or duration of postpartum anger may call for seeking professional help. Know that when you do so, you are acting in your best interest and that of your child.

Postpartum anger is more common than most people might realize. While it can arise for various reasons, recognizing and accepting it are key to coping with it. Doing so also requires remembering that there is no reason to feel shame or guilt about experiencing anger. It’s helpful to view such anger as a message that key desires or expectations are being thwarted.

There are a variety of strategies for coping with it, which include talking about it with other moms or a professional. This is especially important to help new moms realize they are not alone with their anger. Most importantly, recognizing, accepting and discussing postpartum anger is a way of responding to rather than reacting to anger.

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