Maternal anger takes most women who experience it by surprise. I’m not this person, we say, after feeling a shocking swell of rage during one of those inevitable moments of frustration we all face as a parent.
I never thought I’d be “that mom” who yells at her family, we say, after snapping and yelling at our toddler.
I don’t recognize myself when I feel like this—and I feel like this more than I want to, we say, when we realize that our anger isn’t a temporary, one-time thing but an undercurrent in our day-to-day, an undeniable presence like a shadow.
The truth is, anger—real, fist-clenching, heart-racing, uncontrollable anger—is so much more common among mothers than many of us think. And it’s time to talk about what “mom rage” is, where it comes from, and what we can do about it.
What maternal anger is
Maternal anger is one symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety.
One in 9 women experience some form of postpartum depression or anxiety, but anger may not be the first symptom we think of—we’re far more likely to imagine PPDA as persistent feelings of sadness or numbness.
“Women are more informed than ever about what to be on the lookout for after baby arrives: sadness that lasts beyond the first two weeks, difficulty sleeping when baby is sleeping, intrusive thoughts, excessive crying and trouble bonding with baby, just to name a few symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety,” as clinical therapist Wendy Snyder notes. “But there is one symptom that still receives very little attention: postpartum rage.”
Here’s what moms should know about postpartum rage, and why it’s so incredibly common but often overlooked.
Maternal anger is a symptom of anxiety well beyond the postpartum period, too.
Anxiety is practically written into our job description as parents: We worry about our children’s health, their development, their happiness. We also worry about ourselves, both as parents and as individuals: Am I doing this parenting thing right? Am I too much defined by motherhood—or not enough? Am I still myself?
Anger is one way in which parental anxiety tends to express itself. This is especially the case if we don’t have a regular way to release our worries and fears—self-care rituals that sustain us, a supportive partner, an understanding friend group or a rock-solid therapist.
“Motherhood is one of those knock-you-over-the-head-with-a-2×4 experiences that tends to bring us face to face with our issues,” notes clinical mental health counselor Margaret Sky. “For example, many parents have deep-seated fears about something terrible happening to their children. This fear can manifest as anxiety or even as anger. When my toddler ran out into the parking lot recently, I instantly felt flooded with rage, but beneath the anger was fear and anxiety.”
Maternal anger can be a stress response to our kids’ negative behaviors.
“When your child is experiencing a meltdown, you can become very frustrated…and most of the time it just doesn’t come out in a very healthy way,” says Brandy Wells, a licensed social worker specializing in childhood mental health. Our emotional reaction to our child’s tantrums, meltdowns and negative behaviors is a stress response that can look and feel like anger. This anger can even become a cycle, where your child’s behavior triggers your own emotional stress response, which in turn triggers more tantrums and negative behaviors.
“Get in touch with how you react to stress in general, but especially in front of your child,” suggests Tomi Akitunde, founder of Mater Mea. “When someone cuts you off in traffic, are you yelling and hitting your steering wheel? Are you and your partner prone to huffing and puffing when confronted with an inconvenience? Do you talk about your feelings or keep things bottled up until you explode? Kids pick up everything—and that includes these cues on expressing emotions.”
Here’s what moms should know about the relationship between maternal anger and negative behaviors in our children.
Maternal anger is a symptom and an expression of grief.
We are all grieving losses on so many levels during this pandemic—we miss our parents and our friends, we miss our old lives, we miss our sense of security, we miss our old social supports. We miss the experiences we should have had. We miss childcare. When you think about all the changes the pandemic has caused, it’s normal to feel grief.
Maternal anger is an all-too-human response to the many ways our society fails moms.
Ever notice how anger is sometimes triggered by seemingly small things—that are really connected to much bigger things? You’re not really furious at your toddler for eating their breakfast too slow. You’re anxious and exasperated because of the chain reaction that gets set off when your toddler fights you over eating breakfast: You’re late getting out the door, which means you’re hustling for time just to be late for day care dropoff, and late for work, where you already feel stressed, unsupported and under fire as a working mother. It’s not about the peanut butter toast.
Inaction from our partners can also trigger rage that seems out of proportion—until you consider the context. Your tearful fury when your partner drops their dishes in the sink while ignoring the dishwasher two inches away isn’t actually about the dishes. It’s about the mental load of motherhood. Among the thousands of other ways you’re seeing around corners every day, you can’t be the only person in the house who remembers to load the dishwasher when you’re also the only person in the house who pays attention to when you’re about to run out of dishwashing detergent. You’d have to be superhuman not to be angry about the level of invisible labor moms shoulder.
This lack of support for mothers is a systemic issue, and the pandemic has brought it to new extremes. “We’re asking all parents, but it’s especially moms on the front lines, to try to do 24/7 child care without a break at the same time that they’re trying to often hold down a job,” says parenting expert and clinical psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D. “So, is there more mom rage? How could there not be?”
What we can do about maternal anger
We can’t ignore it away. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We need to acknowledge and name anger. It’s an emotion that so many moms feel, for so many reasons, in so many ways—and our first step in dealing with anger in a healthy way is to name it.
Rebecca Eanes, author of Positive Parenting, suggests that taking ownership of our own emotions is the key to processing anger in a healthy way: When you feel angry, say, “I’m feeling angry right now, and I need to calm down.”
Talk about it
“Many of us struggle with knowing what to do with our anger,” according to couples’ therapist Vienna Pharaon. “We either see red and then release it without any pause, or we shame ourselves out of expressing it at all.”
As one mom who wrote for Motherly about her experience with postpartum rage put it, “Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the anger? I mean, it’s embarrassing—I get it. No one wants to post a picture to their Instagram feed captioned, “This is what it looks like after you scream at your kids!”
Moms, we need to be able to talk about our anger with other women in a judgement-free way. We need to be able to talk about our anger with our partners in a constructive way. And we need to be able to model a positive response to “big emotions” like anger for our children.
Sit with it
“Allowing our emotions to be what they are has a wonderful side-effect; we start to realize our emotions aren’t as scary as they once seemed, and that they don’t have to run the show,” notes Sky. “Often, our undesired emotions lose power and strength when we’re not denying them or feeding them, but simply observing them without judgment.” Rather than pushing anger aside or under the rug, allow it to be what it is—and then move to heal it.
“It can be helpful to keep a journal about your emotions and responses,” says Eanes. “Just by bringing awareness to the things that cause you to feel angry, you take away some of its power. We are often armed with our triggers in childhood. For example, if you were told often to ‘quit crying’ as a child, then hearing a child whine or cry may bring up uncomfortable feelings for you, perhaps even sadness. Anger is often the mask that sadness hides behind.”
“Before we are angry we are ALWAYS something else,” Pharaon writes. “Think of anger as a secondary emotion. Before we feel angry we might feel abandoned, embarrassed or betrayed, but because we tend to go from zero to 100 so quickly it’s hard for us to actually connect to our pain.”
“Find whatever it is that helps you calm down in the midst of a heated moment,” says positive parenting author Katie Mertes. “This will be different for everyone; it could be taking some deep breaths, stepping away from your child, or taking a break.” If nothing else, keep this list of calming phrases for moments of anger tucked away in a note on your phone so you can read it when you’re hiding in the bathroom silent-screaming into the towels.
You can also work on reframing angry thoughts to defuse and redirect anger, suggests Eanes. “For example, if you often think, ‘My kid whines about everything!’ then those words will fuel your negative emotions. However, if you consciously choose to replace that with a more positive or accurate thought, then the anger has space to dissipate. Try ‘My child is having a hard time and needs my help.’ With consistency, you’ll begin to automatically think gentler thoughts, and your responses will be more positive.”
“Remember, if anger is less like the weather, which comes and goes, but more like the climate—”I feel like I am almost always angry”—then it might be helpful to talk about what’s going on with a qualified mental health professional,” says psychologist Kellie Edwards.”So often past experiences can trigger emotions we can’t quite manage and we can feel stuck in automatic reactions. It doesn’t have to be that way and you don’t need to go through that alone. Seeking help with difficult emotions is a gift to you and your family.”