By: Dr. Tanya Cotler, PhD, CPsych
Many women, particularly in certain cultures and societies have an entrenched belief that mothers are all-capable perfect patient heroes (think groomed hair, dinner on the table, clean house, maybe an apron on, repeat clean house, smiling makeupy face). Never feeling anger is one piece of that mythical perfection. This message that anger should be warded off or pushed down has existed for many women since they were little girls. For this reason, when anger is felt- shame surfaces. The truth is, anger gets a bad rap. Anger is among the 6 basic human emotions felt from infancy. It’s felt by every human being and is often a very important feeling. Similar to the idealization of motherhood, the notion that anger is shameful is also misguided.
In my psychology practice I have termed the anger mothers commonly experience as the “agency roar”. Countless patients and peers of mine have described the experience of anger as a mom as a particular or unique beast- gripping and intense: this anger feels seriously scary for many and when expressed it is often tied to a feeling of being out of control or helpless. It also feels scary because it tends to rear its head during this phase of major identity change and vulnerability.
The term agency roar refers to what I believe is the process and underlying root to the specific anger felt by moms. In addition to actual hormonal and physiological changes that may fuel anger, there is also a psychological process that contributes to the feeling.
One way to understand anger in general, is as a feeling experienced when one is attempting self expression or more so, when one feels injustice about them or around them. Anger boils up when a person feels invisible or misunderstood; when one feels that s/he or someone they care for is not being respected or not mattering. Put simply, anger often surfaces in an important effort at self agency. In an effort to stand up for oneself, make oneself heard and one’s own needs known.
So why does this roar of agency show up particularly strongly post partum or in motherhood?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk largely known for popularizing mindfulness, has talked extensively about the cry that comes “from deep within our hearts” as “from the wounded child within”. He explains that “Healing this inner child’s pain is the key to transforming anger, sadness, and fear”.
When a woman becomes a mother she does not instantaneously disconnect from her self pre children. More so it’s not only her adult persona that she brings with her to motherhood but also the child part of her, and all parts of her identity from before this pivotal transformational time. She brings along the child who had her own pains, losses, failed attachments and fears. The adolescent with confusions, embarrassments and insecurities and so on. These various inner parts of a new mother are likely very vulnerable and easily triggered to the surface particularly during this phase of transition and heightened sensitivity and unknown.
For many of us, often unexpressed feelings and needs from early on can stay buried deep inside us. One of the key ways these deep needs find expression is through anger. Anger acts as a stop sign. It’s a signal- it’s there to alert you to pay attention to what’s looming ahead or rather in this case to what’s lying beneath. The anger is indicating that what’s looming is usually another very big feeling, often times a feeling that’s difficult to cope with. Like deep hurt, sadness and old angers.
The anger felt as a mom can be triggered by present day versions of early experiences that act as triggers. Anger can be the alarm bell when your partner comes home and you feel resentment for not being appreciated or understood; anger can be the stop sign when you’re inundated with feelings of overwhelm cueing old feelings of being helpless and anxious in a big world; anger might signal anxiety felt in a present day scenario of trying to hang with a new mom crew and deep early feelings of rejection getting trudged up. Anger can surface in the context of feelings of isolation or loneliness from primary supports as well as from shame over not enjoying all aspects of mothering as expected.
Ultimately, anger becomes the ticket- the way- to express all these really complex emotions. Anger becomes the “voice” or agency. Sometimes the only way a person feels they can be heard.
So what can you do?
If you remember nothing else from this article please know you’re not alone. Practice self compassion, talk to someone nonjudgmental whether another mother friend or a professional. Listen to your anger as your cue- your sign- that your inner child- that parts of you are needing to be heard. Ultimately remember that in mothering you still deserve to be mothered, so try to mother yourself and find the people who can mother you. You deserve to feel you matter. You deserve to feel held. And only in mattering can you patiently, and presently hold your children.
By: Dr. Tanya Cotler, PhD, CPsych
Why is it so hard for me to decide what to make for dinner since becoming a mom?
Mothering and parenting often involves a barrage of daily decisions, many of which we don’t even notice. How often do you wish someone else (maybe your partner?!) would figure out who is wearing clothes three sizes two small and what the kids are going to have for dinner? Or what about when your child asks if they could go out for lunch or stay at the park after school and you feel like they are asking you how to initiate world peace?
The difficulty with making these sometimes basic decisions is that as mothers our every day routines require decisions. All the constant choosing and deciding wears out the primary decision maker (for many that’s mom!)
Below are some of the reasons decision making is compromised:
- One of the symptoms of depression, and specifically postpartum depression, can be difficulty making decisions. When someone is struggling with depression and feels things are more hopeless or they themselves feel helpless- this often translates to seeing minimal options available or feeling that your power or your agency over your choices is missing.
- Anxiety: there is a lot of research to support how anxiety can actually inhibit decision making by disengaging the prefrontal cortex- the area of the brain specifically responsible for executive functioning, planning and judgment as well as flexibility in decisions. The prefrontal cortex allows for “calm” decision making- it removes the intensity of emotion from decisions by quieting the amygdala (the part of the brain that runs on raw emotion and instinct). The research shows that anxiety seems to interfere with being able to limit distractions, making it difficult for the person to weed through the muck so to speak. Distractions can be physical but also emotional such as thoughts or worries. Anxiety numbs some neurons in the prefrontal cortex that are specifically involved in choice making and accordingly anxiety selectively shuts down mechanisms needed for clear choice making.
- Motherhood as a period of change and loss: During a phase of life when you are inundated by so many changes (hormones, physiology, psychological, relationships etc) and losses (relationships, identity, expectations and hopes) it can be unbearable to add to the exhausting list of changes and losses. With every decision comes a loss, as well as one more thing to think about and one more thing to grieve -or at least one more thing to adjust to. Simply put, the decision- even just what to make for dinner- feels like one more thing to consider when the mind is already overwhelmed with making adjustments.
- Guilt: with guilt often comes an increased difficulty decision making. This is because part of what complicates decision making is the sense of “loss.” As described above, with every decision there is something you “gain” and something you “lose.” If someone is already feeling worried or concerned about wrong doing, or not being good enough it becomes harder to decide anything else for fear of making more mistakes.
- Insecurity and lack of trust in oneself or fear of feeling exposed or judged: With so much noise on how to mother, combined with the general idealization of motherhood, many mothers fear they will fall short or won’t be able to measure up to the expectations held out for them. This can also affect decision making. The more one feels insecure about how they are performing in their mothering role, the less likely they are going to be to rely on themselves for anything. Every decision feels like a challenge when you feel you can’t trust yourself.
- The tendency for the mothering one to take the primary role with the emotional load or otherwise termed emotional labor. The mothering one’s mind is often responsible for the executive functioning of parenting (think of it as mom as the organizer, planner, thinker, holder of all detail from who needs socks to what’s for dinner to program registration and more). This role can often keep a mom up at night running through her to-do list fearing what she missed or will miss. The perpetual cycle from “emotional labor” to anxiety to sleep deprivation to anxiety to emotional labor and back again, makes it inevitable that decisions are increasingly difficult for many moms. It’s just too much for the mind to compute constantly!
- Decision Fatigue– Mothers are constantly needing to decide everything from bedtime routines to what to wear (themselves, their children, their partners!) It can become exhausting and utterly depleting to be in charge of any additional, even minute, decisions like what’s for dinner. Decisions require conscious thought and attention and even when invisible (or we aren’t cognizant of it) our brains go through a process of weighing pros and cons and thinking through. An element of expending energy occurs with every decision whether we want it to or not. Taking this together, more decisions mean diminished energy reserves and willpower impacting future decisions.
There are ways we can mitigate these difficulties making decisions. If we learn from prominent leaders in our world- one trick when in a position of power and high decision making power- is to minimize other competing decisions which may be of less importance.A quick look at some business or world leaders (I.e Steve Jobs or Barack Obama) and you can see how many leaders openly talk about wearing the same color scheme everyday or limiting wardrobe to few pieces to minimize daily choice and allow more space for bigger decisions.
Of course in addition to limiting the number of less crucial decisions what’s also required is some advanced planning. For example, having a daily menu of meals that rotate each week.
Also important is to ask for help and to attempt to share decision making power with others you trust such as a partner. Like in any business partnership, this requires dividing roles. If you feel that a lot of the “mental labor” is falling on you, talk about it with your partner. Perhaps your partner becomes in charge of wardrobe while you are in charge of meals. And maybe you divide seasonal ownership over activities registration or doctor appointments.
Ultimately if you are struggling with decisions try to identify which of the many possible reasons might be contributing to your decision difficulty and then try to plug in some solutions or help accordingly. All this needs to be couched in the fact that no one can do this alone mama, we all need help, and with help it’ll feel easier.
by Maya Hammer, M.A., Counselling Psychology | www.mayahammer.ca
We all know about the “baby blues”, a common experience of emotional ups and downs in the first week or two postpartum. Many of us, however, have never heard of the “baby pinks,” or The Highs, a feeling of intense happiness or euphoria following birth.
Symptoms of postpartum hypomania include:
-being very active
-decreased ability to concentrate
-impulsivity, e.g., shopping
-decreased need for sleep
These symptoms can be triggered by childbirth and usually subside after 6-8 weeks postpartum. In some cases, however, postpartum hypomania is an early indicator for bipolar disorder, depression, or psychosis. Therefore, it is very important to seek treatment if you or a loved one you know is experiencing.
Pregnancy and childbirth can trigger mental imbalance because of physiological changes such as stress, dysregulated cortisol, increased inflammation, decreased serotonin, and hormonal fluctuations. In addition, psychosocial factors can impact mental well-being including disrupted sleep, the demands of caring for a baby, lack of support, life stress, marital difficulty, or trauma. Genetics plays a part too: a personal or family history of mental illness, in particular bipolar disorder, predisposes a woman to prenatal and postpartum mental illness.
It is important to seek treatment immediately if you notice unusual behaviour in your partner or loved one. Treatment can involve:
1) mood stabilizer medication
2) therapy to stabilize mood and regulate daily schedule
3) support and education for partners and families
For further reading, check out these resources:
A blog post on postpartum hypomania and mania
A mom’s experience of hypomania induced by anti-depressant medication
A study on the prevalence of postpartum hypomania
And another study demonstrating that hypomanic symptoms can be used to correctly diagnose postpartum bipolar disorder.
As well, check out an article in Today’s Parent, and Maya’s appearance on CTV Canada AM talking about the baby pinks.