Postpartum Support: Beyond Depression

Historically, there has been a lack of attention to the full range of women’s emotions.  The typical woman is presented as having a limited response to stressors or negative experiences: she is sad, helpless, and inwardly focused.  Anger, in contrast, may be seen as unusual and/or inappropriate for a woman.  This may be especially true for women during the postpartum period, as the emotion of anger suggests there is something to be angry about, which starkly challenges stereotypes of new motherhood.

There are a number of reasons why it is important to protest those stereotypes and recognize women’s experiences of anger during the postpartum period.  For one, normalizing the response is important in helping women to recognize their own emotions and feel less isolated.  Unless it represents a chronic and debilitating pattern, anger in and of itself is not pathological, and may be an entirely appropriate response to a negative occurrence.  Expression of the emotion can be constructive and help to remedy aspects of a new mother’s life that may be working against her.

The reasons for feelings of anger postpartum are numerous and surely varied for each woman.  They range from societal (insurance company frustration, hospital bureaucracy, poor maternity leave policies at work) to relational (not enough support from friends or family, waking up constantly while your husband sleeps through the night, having your instincts questioned by the pediatrician) to the personal (poor birth experience, negative feelings about body/appearance, sleep deprivation, lack of time for self).  The list could go on and on.  I once had a client who denied her own angry feelings for months after her child was born.  One day she was in the library, and found that her stroller could not fit down an aisle.  It was the last straw for her, and she began to feel overcome by an incredible amount of rage and frustration that she could no longer ignore.  She realized then that she needed an outlet.

Be it therapy, mom’s groups, or talking with our own mothers or sisters, being able to express the frustrations, injustices, and indignities of motherhood can be crucial for our mental health.  It also can be the first step to creating societal change, helping us organize and question why we and our babies are not better supported.  It can validate other women’s experiences, sending the message “It’s not you, it really is just that tough sometimes.”  Finally, it can serve to help us enjoy all the amazing aspects of parenting because we are not carrying suppressed negative emotions.

One of my main goals for the therapy room is make it a taboo-free zone.  Women are so often shocked when I tell them that their feelings or experiences, be it anger or whatever else, are not uncommon.  Because we are so trained to keep a smile on our faces, make it all look easy, and not make others uncomfortable, we may have the illusion that we’re the only ones faking it.  The struggle is real, mamas.  As real as the love and joy and delicious chubby thighs.  By moving toward authenticity and the acknowledgement of our full range of emotions we can achieve greater fulfillment as well as push for changes that can improve our experiences as mothers.  Maybe a campaign for wider library aisles?

Dr. Erika Yamin is a clinical psychologist with a long-term focus on women’s reproductive mental health (issues relating to pregnancy, motherhood, postpartum, infertility, adoption).  She has extensive clinical, academic, and advocacy-based experience in this area, and previously worked as a birth doula.  Erika completed her doctoral coursework at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and her master’s degree at the University of Chicago.  She sees her work as a tremendous privilege and is continually awed by her clients.    

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