New mothers are expected to embrace motherhood with joy, anticipation, and a natural aptitude for childrearing. But the reality for many is far from this blissful ideal.
As many as one in seven new mothers experience postnatal depression, a deep and lasting depression with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, guilt, and anxiety during pregnancy or at any time up to a year after the birth of a child.
Now researchers are calling for women to be screened for a new element of postpartum mood disorders: anger.
“We know that mothers can be depressed and anxious in the postpartum period, but researchers haven’t really paid attention to anger,” explains Christine Ou, nursing PhD student at the University of British Columbia and lead author of an integrative review analyzing 25 years of research on postnatal depression.
Despite this lack of research attention, Ou and colleagues found anger to be a significant feature in postpartum mood disturbances, particularly in women who had experienced episodes of depression before, or after, the postnatal period.
For many new mothers, this anger appears to be associated with the mismatch between their idealized expectations of motherhood and the reality they’re experiencing. Unmet expectations can come up in many ways, including their own ease or ability to care for their infants, and the support they receive from their partners, families, and the healthcare system.
Many also report anger as stemming from feelings of powerlessness and loss – of self-identity, body characteristics, independence, personal space, freedom, sexuality and career.
So why has postnatal anger been historically overlooked? Ou puts it down to the fact that, in many cultures, anger is not seen as a socially acceptable emotion for women – particularly new mothers.
But given maternal anger has been linked with parent-to-child aggression and a greater risk of emotional problems in children, Ou is calling for healthcare providers and researchers to pay greater attention to postnatal anger in order to understand and manage that risk.
And for the rest of us? Acknowledging that motherhood isn’t all sweetness and light might give new mothers, and their partners, the opportunity to identify and prepare for feelings of anger and depression, and seek the support they need.