‘I was a charging, brutal, half-animal’: The ugly truth about postnatal rage

Women's writing for Women's Day: For many, the postnatal emotional landscape is long way from candy floss trees and cotton wool flowers

I suspect a lot of women experience ugly rage, but few speak of it in public, because we’re all supposed to be Mary Poppins

I suspect a lot of women experience ugly rage, but few speak of it in public, because we’re all supposed to be Mary Poppins

 

No one really talks about the darker side of life after having a baby. Some lucky ones don’t experience it. For others, it’s simply because they’re in denial. They’ve been raised on a narrative that tells them should just get on with it; that their mothers did before them, and that if they don’t, they’re somehow less of a woman. 

Of course these messages are never delivered as explicitly as that. They’re passed on in micromoments; small, seemingly insignificant situations in life where words spoken don’t disappear into the ether as others do. These are the words that deliver the most unwelcome messages; the words that hang around long enough to pollute the psychic terrain of a woman already beleaguered by copious negative thinking.

It can be a sentence as simple as: “We didn’t have epidurals in our day and we coped just fine.”

To a mother suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after a horrific labour, words like these bulldoze through the precariously held boundaries of her self-esteem. Words like these tell her that, had she brought enough strength with her to the labour ward, her experience would have been easier.

Words can devastate. Words can silence a woman. 

The postnatal emotional landscape is not made of candy floss trees and cotton wool clouds. Despite what you see on adverts, the soundtrack isn’t a soft lullaby, and rarely are daily domestic scenes so tranquil that they blur softly around the edges.

It’s so much uglier than that. 

Which isn’t to say it isn’t more beautiful, too, because it is. There is not, and there never will be, a love as deep as the connection between a mother and her child. Were it not for the sheer depth of this love, many women today simply couldn’t deal with the demands of raising children. It is the single saving grace of modern motherhood.

But let’s face the truth: many women today are frequently alone. The village is gone. We’re in a world where it’s expected that we soldier on, that we have jobs as good as our men, and still hold it together at home. We must be nurturers, good wives, star employees and homemakers. We must look great. We must be constantly in service.

Is it any wonder that we’re burning out? 

Perinatal mental illness – including postnatal depression and perinatal anxiety – are clinical conditions experienced by up to 20 per cent of women (Royal College of Midwives in the UK). The torment /stress I talk of is something common to many women exhausted by a newborn. 

My emotional state post-baby number two was, and still is, a bit ugly. Some women recount heart-warming stories of little or moderate difficulty with the demands of motherhood. Unfortunately for me and the people in my life, I do not belong in that category.

My emotions made me a harder person to love; they were less noble than the average woman’s.

I started to curse like a sailor after having my second child. I admit that peppering the odd sentence with a choice expletive wasn’t alien to me before I had my second, but by f**k was I worse after.

I could not control my urge to express myself through coarse, ugly, inappropriate language. It was my defence against what I was experiencing at the time, which was a combination of raging hormones, swollen, blocked, sore breasts, significant weight gain, hair loss, and mood swings that would make a pendulum appear static. I was a hot mess; a charging, brutal, half-animal.

There were times when my rage amused me, like when I lost my keys for the second time in a week while in my local shopping centre. The first time I’d lost them, they were behind the counter of the coffee shop I’d been sitting in for over an hour. After I fumbled around in my shopping bags and revisited all the shops I’d been to, and checked my bottomless pit of a handbag, and then baby’s changing bag, I decided to ask the staff in the coffee shop. But it was pointless, I thought, since they knew me and would have come over and handed back my keys as soon as I’d walked away from them. It was pointless, but I had to please my mother, who insisted they had to be there.

“Ah yes, here you go,” the barista said, when I asked her had I left my keys on the counter.

“Thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth and white knuckles. What I really wanted to say was: “You b*tch. Why didn’t you just give them to me? You saw me leave them there and instead of handing them back you just waited for me to lose my sh*t. You wanted to see my last nerve flailing about on the top of my head like the rod on a bumper car. Didn’t you, you little cow?”

I mean, who talks like that? Who thinks like that? Over some keys? A postnatal woman on the edge, is who.

The second time I lost my keys I’d also been to the coffee shop, so it was the first place I hit up, naturally.

“Did I leave my keys here?” I was civil, affable even. 

“Again?” she grinned. Like a complete b*stard.

I later found my keys at the bottom of my very large shopping bag. Needless drama, fuelled by a visceral, all-consuming, hormonal RAGE.

But those are my lighter episodes. The uglier ones are harder to speak of. I suspect a lot of women experience ugly rage, but few speak of it in public, because we’re all supposed to be Mary Poppins.

I can’t carry the weight of that expectation. 

My four-year-old chews loudly. I can’t cope with it on a normal day. And in a sleepless, burnt-out, irritable mood, I definitely can’t cope with it. Before school one morning, he was eating breakfast biscuits beside me on the couch. It was torturing me. I looked at his dimpled four-year-old hands, his innocent face, harmlessly watching PJ Masks on the television, and I told myself to cop on. But the chewing got louder. I was simmering. I was really, really simmering. I couldn’t move because I was feeding the baby.

“Stop chewing so loud, okay?” I asked.

He looked at me momentarily and continued watching his programme. 

His chewing got louder. 

“Please, stop chewing so loudly. Please.”

He looked at me like I was asking him something in Russian, and continued watching his programme again.

The chewing continued.

“I’m going to take that bloody biscuit off you if you don’t SHUT UP.”

I could hear myself shouting while he jumped out of his skin. Then he turned to me and said: “Mammy, I don’t want this biscuit now.”

My heart sank. My pig-like aggression frightened him so much that he’d rather not eat than eat the wrong way in front of me. I started crying. Then the baby started crying. Then I thought my head might blow off.

“I’m so sorry, my love,” I managed to say through the noise. “No one should ever shout at you like that, especially not me, okay?

“You’re mean, mommy,” he said. 

“I did a mean thing, I know,” I said.

I’ve had better mornings than that one. 

The guilt gets into places you didn’t even know you could feel. As a mother, my chest can hurt in ways and places it’s never hurt before. It feels like heartache – but with the heat of rage and the coldness of emotional numbness. It’s nausea that’s not perceptible enough to stop you eating, but enough to make you feel generally dissatisfied. It’s mental chatter so fervent that you catch yourself saying the odd word out loud, even when no one is around you. It’s confusion from having to rush here, get there, pack this, fold that, clip this, lock that, change this, rub that, pick up this, drop off that, in a never-ending cycle of service.

In the process, you layer undealt-with emotions like guilt, self-doubt and anger on top of one another until you’ve got a lead pyramid bearing down on you.

Then you blow up because he took the family toothpaste on his work trip, even though you told him to buy a travel kit. You fathom the sheer selfishness of it. “He thinks he’s more important than EVERY ONE of us! He actually does. Why the hell are his teeth more important than OURS? WHY?”

You leave a message you know will scare the bejesus out of him.

“Urgent. Call me as soon as you get this.” 

You miss two of his calls to teach him a lesson. Then you put the gloves on and call him back. You have a massive shouting match over the phone.

“It’s just toothpaste,” he says.

It is so not just toothpaste. It’s a giant metaphor for how he thinks, or doesn’t think, about your struggle. Everything everyone does is.

No one gets it. That’s how it feels. 

Please, let me tell you now, I get it. I see you, I hear you, I am you. Maybe I’m worse, a little rougher around the edges for sure, but I’m in this too.

I’ll get through this momentary madness and then I’ll miss it. Because I know what I’m doing is the most important thing I will ever do, and that I will never experience love as potent or as pure as the love I give to, and receive from, my babies. And, let’s face it, is there anything funnier than the face of a two-year-old when you answer a toy phone in your best Scottish accent?

There isn’t. 

So, do two things: accept the madness and, please, for the love of our loudest chewers, know you’re not alone. 

Here’s a list of my favourite sanity-saving strategies:

Self-Care: A term coined in the eighties, and still alien to pretty much all typical Irish mammies, it is a modern-day essential. There is nothing hipster or pretentious about it. Neglect it for long enough and you’ll pay the price. Go to the spa. Do yoga and/or meditation. Read fantasy novels. Pound the treadmill. Do what it takes. Self-care routines are beautifully enhanced with mantras such as “I matter.” Imagine, we must remind ourselves that we matter. That happens when our needs are continuously placed on the bottom rung of the family priorities ladder. Sad, but true. Say it again: “I matter.”

Regular reality checks: Martyrdom doesn’t just go unrecognised; it slowly ebbs away at your self-worth. If you consistently put yourself last, so will all the other people in your life. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that nothing can go on without you. If you find it hard to ask for help, resolve to get better at expressing your needs using tools such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: This is a solution-orientated form of therapy, and doesn’t require hours on a couch unpacking repressed conflicts from the past. At the risk of sounding glib, it really is perfect for time-pressed moms. CBT posits that the crux of most people’s problems lies more in what they are telling themselves in the present moment than trauma brought about by things that happened in the past.

Talk: We’re a nation famous for it, but some of us still hone in on the weather. Open up to someone you feel can ‘contain’ your rawest feelings without making you feel like you’re as mad as a box of frogs. If you don’t have such a person in your life, consider a form of talking therapy. I’ll use this as another segue to mention CBT, because it worked wonders for me and, because of that, I can recommend it.

Contacts

If you feel your emotions are more complex or painful than you can handle, know that there’s help.

Contact your GP, or make use of these free, voluntary support networks.

Post Natal Depression Ireland: pnd.ie or 021 4922083
Cuidiú: cuidiu.ie or 01- 8724501
Parentline: parentline.ie or 1890-927277
Nurture: nurturecharity.org or 01-8430930
The Samaritans: 1850-609090

Share your your story

If you can identify with Audrey's story and would like to share your experience with other readers, email no more than 300 words to magazine@irishtimes.com with "My story" in the subject line. Please include your name, and contact phone number and we will publish a selection of responses.

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