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Why postnatal rage is the last taboo of modern motherhood

Katy Biddle lay on her bed next to her screaming ten-week-old daughter and, with every fibre in her body, fought the urge to scream the house down herself.

Her eyes closed, her body tense, the young mother felt anger bubbling up within her, a feeling that had become all too common since she had given birth.

Then she did something which now makes her blood run cold.

‘She was screaming and screaming and I couldn’t stand it any longer so I took the bed cover and pulled it over her head just to make her shut up,’ says Katy.

‘At that moment, the thought crossed my mind that it would be really easy to smother her.

‘Thankfully, within seconds, the logical part of my brain took over and I removed the cover thinking, “What have I done?” That moment haunts me.

I still feel terrible guilt, and I’m so glad sense kicked in.’

Katy, 26, from Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, and a devoted mum to five-year-old Jamymah, may shudder at the memory.

But the terrifying anger she felt that day is one many mothers share — yet few ever dare discuss.

One study in 2018 by the University of British Columbia found that ‘postpartum rage’ was a very common symptom of postnatal depression (PND), yet, as with regular depression, it has been woefully overlooked in research.

Anecdotal evidence suggests as many as 75 per cent of new mothers may experience it.

‘Symptoms of postnatal depression can range from severe panic to anxiety and anger .

. .

but anger is something we don’t like talking about,’ says Michelle Bradley, author of Pangs: Surviving Motherhood Mental Illness and a mother of three who suffered depression after each of her pregnancies.

‘There’s a real stigma because as a new mum, people think, “How can you be angry with that gorgeous little baby?” Yet there were times with my own depression where I was so angry I could understand how mothers do awful things like throwing their babies out of windows.

‘It’s not the baby making you angry, of course — it’s the hormones and lack of sleep. Around three-quarters of mothers admit they have felt real rage, yet they don’t recognise it as PND.

Sadly, neither do doctors, so new mothers just think they’re losing their minds. It’s very frightening for them.

Cortisol levels in the last weeks of pregnancy can be two to three times higher than normal. Some studies suggest this helps the brain and lung development of the foetus and makes mothers more attentive after birth.

But other studies indicate high cortisol levels might also cause some postnatal mood disorders.

For Katy, the episodes of extreme anger were a culmination of months of stress, which included her boyfriend emigrating to Australia shortly before she realised she was pregnant.

She then spent many days in hospital throughout the pregnancy thanks to severe morning sickness.

‘I was so sick I couldn’t work in my retail job, and I began to feel anger towards my baby, but also towards myself and the whole world, even those I loved.

‘I’d wanted to be the first to buy a lovely girlie outfit for the baby, yet my mum bought one before me. I cried and shouted at her until I could barely breathe — I’d never felt anger like it — and Mum was shocked.

Deep down, I thought that once the baby was here it would be fine. But it wasn’t.

When Katy was discharged from hospital, her anger only increased. She says: ‘My anger would build from absolutely nothing to huge rage within seconds.

I was once singing a lullaby to her and she wouldn’t stop screaming, so I got louder and angrier until we were both screaming.’

The turning point came when Katy realised she could have killed her baby.

Terrified, she knew she needed help. ‘In that moment I put her in the pram and ran to my GP’s surgery where there was a health visitor clinic,’ she says.

‘I started sobbing and couldn’t stop for two hours. But the health visitors reassured me I wasn’t on my own.

I was referred first for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — which didn’t work — and then dynamic interpersonal therapy, which makes you look back at your childhood.

Therapy made me realise I had every right to be angry myself about my past.

I’d grown up with an angry father. Also, my sister had been ill when I got pregnant and I felt the pressure to cheer everyone up with a baby.

It didn’t help that I didn’t have a partner to share the load.’

Katy was taught coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness exercises where she had to think of three things she could hear, see and feel to help ‘ground’ her in the moment.

She’s much less angry now.

She says: ‘I didn’t think exercises like that would work — but they do.

I feel so guilty my daughter’s first two years are a blur. When I see videos or pictures of us together, I can’t remember being there.

Now, I’m in a good place and adore my bright, cheerful and beautiful little girl. But postnatal rage is so taboo, I thought I must be the only person in the world who felt like that.

In fact, she’s far from alone. Account manager Laura Kenward, 36, was ecstatic when she became pregnant with daughter Eadie five years ago, and throughout pregnancy and birth there was no hint of the postnatal anger that was going to consume her.

‘I enjoyed the first few months of her life,’ says Laura, who lives with husband Colin, 38, an accounts manager, in Orpington, Kent.

‘I was determined to show how well I was doing.

People kept saying “you look really well”, but already I was comparing myself to other women. When I saw the Duchess of Cambridge come out of hospital after giving birth, I thought: “How do you look that good?” 

‘I was still so sore and bleeding a lot.

I felt like my body wasn’t my own and resentment began to creep in. I started thinking, “This is not how I wanted motherhood to be.

” ’

She began to lash out at her husband verbally. ‘As soon as he walked through the door from work, I’d yell at him,’ she says.

‘The slightest thing would set me off — perhaps Eadie’s bottles had not been washed or the dishes needed doing.

‘I’d resent Colin for leaving me alone with the baby.

If she’d had a little bump or a little choking incident, as babies often do, I’d scream, “Our baby nearly died today and you weren’t here!” Colin was shocked. He tried to calm me down but sometimes I’d scream and cry that life was unfair.

Laura realised she needed help when her daughter was around ten months old. She says: ‘I was sitting in the bath sobbing and thought, “I could win the lottery right now and I still wouldn’t be happy”.

I went to see my GP and, after a long chat, she prescribed me anti-anxiety tablets. Within six weeks of taking them, the anger began to lift.

‘Although I’ve tried to come off them since, I can feel my mood changing when I do. I’m 15 weeks pregnant again now and, even though it’s planned, I’m terrified of what this pregnancy might do to me.

I hope not to be on the pills for the rest of my life, but I’ll keep taking them while I need them.’

Researchers in the 2018 study found new mothers could experience postpartum anger without suffering from depression, although there was some evidence that if a woman is both angry and depressed, the depression can last longer and be more intense.

‘Anger can be a reaction to broken expectations about what mothering will be like,’ says Christine Ou, who co-researched the study. ‘Mothers may feel frustrated or judged if, for example, they’re formula-feeding instead of breastfeeding.

For those who don’t feel depressed but still feel inexplicable postnatal anger, there are treatments available apart from medication. ‘Talking therapies can also work, as can reducing caffeine and sugar in your diet as they can both lead you to feeling hyper-alert, jittery and on edge,’ says author Michelle Bradley.

‘Simply doing some deep breathing, phoning a friend, or learning to meditate can help. But women shouldn’t be afraid to seek professional help.

It’s not a failure.’

Solicitor Emma Mulholland felt like a ‘monster and a freak’ when she kept losing her temper after having son Thomas, now three.

‘After losing one baby to miscarriage, I was so happy that everything was going right with this one and had a fairly serene pregnancy, but the birth was a catalyst for my anger,’ says Emma, 36, who lives with husband Richard, 35, an HR systems specialist, in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

‘I ended up with a traumatic forceps delivery and lost a litre of blood.

I felt very angry towards everyone, from the charity NCT for not preparing me for this to the midwives who didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

‘When I brought Thomas home I was absolutely petrified and felt totally unprepared.

I felt a sense of detachment and anger — not just towards my baby but towards everyone. Sleep deprivation and hormones made things worse, but even little things could set my anger off.

I’d lose my temper with Rich, ring my mum in tears and I lost count of the times I shouted “Stop screaming!” at Thomas as he was wailing. I really felt I was losing my mind.

The problem came to a head when her son was four months old. She says: ‘I had Thomas on the bed next to me and he was crying his eyes out,’ says Emma.

‘Richard was sleeping in the spare room and I lost it, screaming, “I can’t do this any more!”

‘It was midnight but I just took off into the cold December night in my pyjamas and slippers because I needed to run away. I was walking up and down for about 20 minutes and only really went back because of the cold.

I knew then that I needed help from my GP, yet even that made me angry. I felt such a failure.

Emma started on anti-depressants in January 2017 and took them for two years. ‘They did help take the edge off my postnatal anger but even now, I can flare up in almost a childish way.

The guilt is intense. You wonder if your baby will remember you screaming at them.

‘I still have feelings of self-loathing, and instead we must learn not be ashamed of struggling with motherhood. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.

You’re not a monster. You’re a mother doing her absolute best.