Anger is a legitimate and common aspect of postpartum depression and anxiety. Many new mothers experience troubling and persistent anger after the birth of a child. This previous blog post discusses anger and PPD/A in more depth. What I’m concerned with here is approaching that anger. In my own experience rage can rise in an overwhelming torrent. It can be unexpected and uncontrollable. I have felt anger at my child for causing extreme sleep deprivation; I’ve felt anger at my partner for not being supportive in exactly the way I might have liked; and I’ve felt anger at myself for not being a perfect mother and for all of my perceived failures. Anger is a part of me that I have been forced to become more familiar with and I still have a lot to learn.
I took my son to see Pixar’s new animated movie Inside Out this morning. It was an unexpectedly profound story that depicted a slide from joy to depression in a young girl from the perspective of her anthropomorphic emotions. I’ve never seen a children’s movie that so eloquently delved into the complex realm of the emotional landscape, and I’m impressed that Pixar took on the topic of depression, sadness, and anxiety in such a direct way. If there’s any evidence that mental health issues are moving into the mainstream this is it! It was a movie that hit close to home for me, and I suspect that anyone who has suffered through PPD/A or other forms of depression will shed a few tears if they go to see it.
Of particular relevance to this post is the character of Anger–a volatile and reactive creature who lives in a state of perpetual aggression and is likely to shoot fire out of the top of his head if overstimulated. It’s a character that many of us can recognize in our PPD/A journeys. But Anger is not just a hot head. He’s also necessary. In Riley, the movie’s protagonist, Anger helps her to be a better hockey player, serving as motivation for energetic and focused play. In our daily lives a burst of anger can alert us to aspects of our environments that are troubled and need attention or give us the burst of energy required to complete an important task. So when anger arises in the context of new motherhood we should be careful that we don’t dismiss it as a purely negative emotion and then stuff it back down where it can fester and cause pain.
If you’re anything like me you may have trouble identifying building anger until it’s too late and you’ve already lost it. Anger seems to come out of nowhere to control our minds and actions before we have a chance to react in a measured way. We would like to remain serene, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We yell at the people we love the most, and we resent ourselves for it later. While we can’t always prevent angry outbursts from happening, sometimes they can be derailed. Having a physical object to help you redirect your anger can be a great place to start, and it’s an excellent way to help kids deal with their big emotions as well. A chime or small bell can work well for this. When an anger event is beginning it can be helpful to have a strategy for naming and recognizing the overwhelming emotions. Ringing a chime can be an auditory signal to take a step back. In Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids she recommends repeating to yourself that “this isn’t an emergency.” This is powerful advice. As much as you may be triggered by your screaming baby, your sleep deprivation, or your toddler who won’t put his shoes on, these things are not emergencies. They don’t require the fight or flight response that anger elicits in our bodies. Having an Anger Chime can help to remind you to take a few breaths and approach your problem again when you’re more calm.
Mastering anger in ourselves also helps our kids to learn that anger is a completely acceptable emotion that needs to be approached with care and mindfulness. I’ve read Steve Smallman’s book Scowl to my son and he absolutely loves it. The very grumpy owl in the book has a Grumpy Branch that he sits on whenever he’s feeling angry. It’s a way for him to take a time out to regroup and identify his angry feelings. My son and I built a Grumpy Branch for our own house that we hung from our mantel. Now if anyone is starting to succumb to throes of anger they can go sit on a comfortable cushion underneath the grumpy branch until they’re in control enough to productively confront their emotions. It’s also kind of silly, which is helpful for diffusing anger.
There are a million ways that you could approach the idea of the Anger Chime or the Grumpy Branch. The fundamental thing is to acknowledge that your anger is telling you something and it’s important to treat it as the legitimate messenger that it is. Also remember that anger is a very normal part of PPD/A. I promise that you are not the only parent who has screamed at their child in a fit of rage or thrown a plate at the wall. When you’re confronted with extreme stress and have no way to decrease the pressure anger can function as that pressure release valve. You feel temporarily better when you throw the plate, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem or make the anger go away entirely. Having a safe retreat space to go to when you’re angry can help. Respecting your anger is truly a form of self-care, and one that is too often overlooked.