Many moms have heard of the signs to look for—the sadness, hopelessness and emptiness that set in when you develop postpartum depression. Then there's the trouble sleeping, change in appetite or trouble bonding with your baby. Sometimes your doctor will ask you if you've had any of these symptoms at your postpartum checkup. But when's the last time someone asked a new mom if she's been feeling angry?
A new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) says anger is something that should be on our radar when it comes to screening for postpartum mood disorders.
About one in seven moms develop postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that's more serious and longer-lasting than the baby blues (which typically go away in a week). Women with PPD tend to feel depressed and tired—some even have thoughts of suicide. Another one in 10 moms experience postpartum anxiety, which involves feeling anxious or worried, often about the well-being of their babies, to the point that it interferes with their daily lives. But researchers from UBC have found that women who experience either of these conditions are also likely to experience anger. And up until now, anger has been completely overlooked.
The research analyzed data from 24 qualitative and quantitative studies from the past 25 years and found that not only were women who suffered from a postpartum mood disorder more likely to report feeling angry, they were also likely to describe it as intense rage—often triggered by something that, in hindsight, seemed insignificant.
"We see anger as a distress signal," says one of the study's co-authors, Christine Ou, a registered nurse and PhD student in nursing at UBC. "Anger is indeed a normal emotion that we can all have, but being prone to anger can indicate there's something going on that needs to change." She adds that there is some evidence that shows that if a woman is both angry and depressed, the depression can last longer and be more intense.
The things that moms are angry about postpartum aren't earth-shattering. Some feel trapped or helpless as they shoulder so many new responsibilities caring for a new baby while their own needs are left unfulfilled. Others find the reality of motherhood and the supports they receive don't live up to their expectations. And many feel guilty that they aren't the picture of the idealized self-sacrificing mother that's upheld in our society.
What's more surprising is that no one's thought to look at anger as a red flag for postpartum mood disorders sooner. Ou has a theory as to why it has been overlooked: "Culturally, we often aren't comfortable with the emotion of anger because it can imply that you're not in control—especially for women." And women who've just had babies are expected to be particularly blissful.
But it's time for that perception to change so that women who are feeling rage in their new roles can get help. "It's very hard for women who are feeling depressed to even recognize that they're depressed. Having this anger may also obscure women from going to talk to their healthcare providers because they think 'I don't feel sad; I feel angry.' However, we want to say postpartum mood problems don't always look like a sad, withdrawn mood," says Ou.
She and her co-author, UBC nursing professor Wendy Hall, hope that postpartum anger will be recognized as an emotional reaction in its own right and not only as an accompaniment to postpartum depression. "It's possible for women to just have postpartum anger as opposed to postpartum anger and depression," says Ou. "And both carry consequences." Not only can it cause distress for the new mom, it can lead to conflicts in her relationships and difficulty in raising her child.
So if you're feeling angry, talk to your doctor about getting help. Postpartum anger, like depression, is something no woman should have to go through alone.