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The Agency Roar: Anger in Motherhood

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.