I Was Prepared For Postpartum Depression. I Wasn't Ready For The Rage
At first, all was well. And then it wasn't.
Before having my son, I never wanted kids. (I still don’t.) So, when I got pregnant, I assumed I’d get postpartum depression. Frankly, I figured it would hit before I even birthed the thing. I have a history of depression and anxiety and have been medicated in the past, so there was no way, I reckoned, I was getting through this without a relapse.
Then, shockingly, I was fine. Not thrilled. Not happy. Not without deep-seated remorse. But fine. Yes, I cried a lot. And had meltdowns when I was too tired to function. And asked myself daily, “What the fuck did I do?” But in my view, that was all to be expected. For a year and a half I marveled at how not-depressed I was while caring for this baby I didn’t want.
And then the tantrums started — first his, then mine. I don’t need to describe a toddler’s tantrums to anyone who’s ever experienced one; suffice it to say, they were bad. Think hitting, hair-pulling, flailing, wailing, the works, multiple times a day, every day. Once he beaned me so hard with a milk cup he drew blood.
Things are kind of a miserable blur after that. We’d take strolls in the sunshine and I’d ruminate on how stupid it was to get knocked up and fantasize about a 120-week abortion. I’d replay the decisions that got me here over and over and over: how after my breast cancer diagnosis I was so confident my eggs had been sufficiently scrambled by the chemo that I didn’t bother with condoms; how it seemed the universe was telling me I had to keep this miracle baby even though I knew I didn’t want to. I saw friends with their happy families and it hurt my heart. The soundtrack of my life was the mingling of Max’s and my cries and a relentless chorus of What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?
And then on top of it all, like a sparkler in a shitty birthday cake, was the rage. Max would start tantruming, and within minutes — sometimes seconds — the anger would well up inside of me. First: a surge of adrenaline, tingling in my arms and fingers and belly, and a wild racing heart. Then a boiling heat would bubble in my chest, claw up the front of my throat and fill my head to the brim. I could feel it rising, burning the backs of my eyes, tightening my scalp, but I was powerless to stop the deluge. It was like standing in front of a tidal wave and watching it crash down on me.
The first thing to go would be my patience. Next: my capacity for rational thought. I couldn’t conjure up the good advice I’d heard, or that trick that worked last time. Whatever you’re “supposed” to do when a kid is freaking out on you, I wasn’t able to do that. My hands balled themselves into fists, fingernails digging into sweaty palms. I lost control of my movements, swatting away whatever object he was wielding like a weapon, throwing things, knocking plates off the table. Sometimes I’d grab him too hard and it would scare me. Sometimes I would scream into a pillow while he wailed in his high chair. One time I punched a wall. My hand was swollen and bruised for a week. Usually I cried, at least a little.
When each crisis passed (meaning I figured out or gave into whatever he wanted, or he forgot what he was mad about and calmed down), the first thing I’d feel was always embarrassment. Often I was embarrassed because I could see myself in the eyes of my husband, who was dealing with two raging lunatics. I knew I was making his life worse, which perversely amplified my anxiety and made me even less able to function. He never shamed me, but still I was ashamed. Ashamed for being out of control, for losing my temper and my common sense. And I was tired. So, so tired.
Recently, I looked back at my journal to see if I could identify when everything went to shit. It was as clear as excavating a layer of ash from an asteroid strike. Max’s tantrums started around 19 months, in May of 2021. In June, my tone changed drastically. I wrote four times over the next six months, tracing a steady decline in my ability to cope.
Maybe the thing I hate most about having a baby is how pathetic it makes me feel. This morning Max was pulling me somewhere. I apparently wasn’t going the right way. He lost it, cried, hit me. I reprimanded him. The situation spiraled. Trying, failing, crying, hitting, repeat. In the process I told him, “I fucking hate you, in case that wasn’t clear” and called him — bizarrely — a “shithead terrorist.” (I wouldn’t have said these things in front of Mike. I had no trouble saying them alone.) After what felt like an eternity and was probably eight minutes, I gave him Cheerios and all was well. … I was so worked up, so angry, so resentful, so frustrated at his unwillingness to calmly communicate his needs and his resorting to physical violence that I was on the verge of exploding. I felt powerless and defeated. Crushed, exhausted. Humiliated because my husband had to come save me, pat me on the head and grant me reprieve to rest and repair my fractured nerves. Yet all that really happened: a baby acted out because he was hungry. And I was a fucking idiot.
The last two months with Max have been rough. Daily tantrums. For the last couple weeks I’ve been depressed about it a lot. Quick to anger, short of patience, shutting down emotionally. At times I’m as bad as he is.
I honestly don’t understand how people do it. He breaks me so fast. … It’s so humiliating. I’ve started [saying? admitting? realizing? accepting?] that I hate him and I hate this.
Yesterday was one of the worst days. With Max. Possibly of my life. … The anger, anxiety, sadness, humiliation, guilt — I can’t remember feeling so bad in so many ways at once.
That was my rock-bottom day. The entry documents what was by then a familiar series of escalating nonevents that ended with me slumped against a wall, clutching Max in my arms, both of us sobbing, until my husband stopped the work call he was on to wrest the writhing child from my anxious grip. He looked worried for the baby’s safety. Rightfully so.
I didn’t write at all in December, when, after four months (back) in therapy, I finally went (back) on antidepressants.
The Prozac is working.
That last entry feels so long ago. I started meds about two weeks after that, like five weeks ago, and it’s definitely helping. I’m much calmer and steadier. I can weather Max’s tantrums much better. I have more patience and a better attitude and I haven’t cried in…weeks? Could it be?
It’s almost funny, looking back, how obvious it was that I was depressed. A bit embarrassing, too. I’d catch myself being lighthearted and jovial around my husband, or handling a tricky situation with aplomb and feel stupid for not fixing what was so clearly wrong with me sooner. But at the time I couldn’t see it. I thought, of course I’m angry — my kid sucks. Of course I want to walk us both in front of a bus — I made a huge mistake and I can’t unmake it. I thought, these are the consequences of my actions, and I will live with them, until I don’t.
In hindsight, what I had been experiencing was not a normal reaction to how much parenting blows. But I wanted to know: How much rage is normal? Because there’s no way I’m the only one who gets this mad — I Googled it.
I called Paige Bellenbaum, founding director of the Motherhood Center in New York City, where they specialize in treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, or PMADs. Many experts think PMAD is a better, more accurate term than the old standby, postpartum depression (PPD), which can feel limiting in the experiences it describes.
“Soooo, mom rage is really a thing, huh?” (I like to start interviews with really thoughtful, hard-hitting questions.)
Bellenbaum replied, simply: “Absolutely and totally and completely a thing, yes.”
I told her how much it had caught me off guard. Anger has never really been my go-to emotion. Did I get pissed off? Of course. Annoyed? Often. Irritable? It’s basically my default setting. But this rage thing was new for me and I didn’t like it. What’s more, I didn’t recognize it, or recognize that it was a sign of the depression I thought I’d evaded.
Bellenbaum told me that while there’s a lot of overlap between the symptoms of generalized depression and postpartum or perinatal depression, “one of the symptoms that differentiates the two is that in postpartum depression, you can see that intense rage, irritability and frustration that so many new mothers experience.”
Well, shit. That would have been good to know.
If you’re angry all or most of the time, she said, and it’s clustered with other symptoms — hopelessness, frequent crying, a sense of doom, constant worry, intrusive thoughts of putting your baby in the microwave or other terrifying imaginings — that could mean you have a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder.
In fact, research finds that anger — even seething, burning fury — is commonly reported by women dealing with PMADs and is a largely overlooked sign of perinatal mood disorders. It may even show up on its own, without the sadness and anxiety that might otherwise throw up a red flag.
But being full of rage doesn’t mean you’re suffering clinical depression or anxiety. If you’re having moments of anger and intense irritability, it might just mean that you’re a woman with a child in the world.
“I have so many moms say to me, ‘I totally yelled at my toddler last night, I feel awful, I'm so ashamed,’” Bellenbaum said. “Of course you yelled at your toddler last night! You worked all day and your kid painted with a permanent marker all over the wall. In what world does a mother say, ‘Oh that’s a really nice picture, maybe next time you can use an erasable crayon’? No! You're insanely pissed off at this ridiculous thing that your kid did.”
Bellenbaum stressed that sleep deprivation alone can make anyone quick to snap, kids or no kids. In the case of new parents, “we're talking about major deprivation. We're talking about the fact that no matter how prepared you are for motherhood, nothing prepares you for the reality.” And, she added, on top of it all, many women feel like they’ve been robbed of their sense of self and are literally grieving the loss of their identities.
As she talked, it was like hearing my internal monologue repeated back to me, but more eloquently, and with fewer f-bombs.
“Having a baby sucks, man. They don't talk to you. They don't say thank you. They can't communicate. They've turned your world upside down as you know it. They've taken away your freedom, your autonomy. And if you're a first time parent, the understanding is, they have taken my life,” Bellenbaum said. “We can feel angry, and we can feel that the baby is responsible for all of this.”
She continued: “Not only is it normal, but it's healthy to look at your baby and say, ‘You are the cutest thing I've ever seen — and I feel like I made the biggest mistake of my life. That is the ambivalence of motherhood. It goes with the territory. And that doesn't ever go away.”
The rage doesn’t ever go away either, not completely, she told me, but for many women without a mood disorder it might peak at periods of tectonic hormonal shifts, such as the first two weeks postpartum or when weaning off breastfeeding. Or it might rear its head when everything is just too damn much, say, in the midst of a pandemic when you’re acting as parent, teacher, medic and more. And sometimes it’s just easier to fume than face more complex emotions like loneliness, disappointment and regret.
I suppose you could say I got a head start on the ambivalence of motherhood, having gone into the whole parenting thing knowing I didn’t want to be a parent. But I was blindsided by the anger. It frightened me, and consumed me, and I thought I deserved it. I thought I’d be angry forever.
Did I have postpartum depression? Obviously yes, but also technically no. It’s complicated (according to my therapist). I have a personal and family history of depression and likely had a preexisting mood disorder that was supercharged by having a kid. And my diagnosis came later than the standard window for postpartum depression. But as my psychopharm half-joked, being the parent of a toddler should have its own syndrome.
“Clinically, perinatal depression can onset at any time after conception all the way up to one year postpartum,” Bellenbaum said, “but we treat women with two-year-olds, four-year-olds … you will not find that scientifically written anywhere, but we still consider that in the realm of perinatal mood disorder.”
Now that I’m on antidepressants, I feel like a completely different person: myself. It’s not a version of myself I ever expected to be, or am entirely comfortable with — someone who dives under restaurant tables to recover dropped toys, who finds Cheerios in her pockets, who asks, “Has he pooped today?” and “Is it OK if I take a shower?”, who bends her professional life around daycare dropoff and pickup, sends the occasional funny kid video and claps wildly when her boy says a new word. But it’s a better version of me than the one I was a year ago.
Now, when I feel the rage bubbling, I can take a beat, take a breath, be frustrated and furious and totally fucking overwhelmed to a more reasonable degree. I can see the tidal wave and take to high ground.
When we spoke, Bellenbaum told me, “If I'm having a great day and I got eight full hours of sleep last night and I have my coffee and nothing bad has happened today to ignite my irritability, anger and rage, maybe I could sit there and watch my child have a temper tantrum for 15 minutes, screaming ‘I hate you’ and throwing things at me and then open my arms when they're done and have that perfect parenting moment. But 99% of the time I'm not there.”
I’m right not there with you.
Amanda Schupak is a freelance science and health journalist. She has written for The Guardian, HuffPost, the New York Times for Kids, SELF, Popular Science and more. She lives in New York City.