The Agency Roar: Anger in MotherhoodApr 15, 2021
The Agency Roar: Anger in Motherhood
Women throughout many cultures have held onto the deeply entrenched belief that mothers must be all-capable perfect and patient heroes (think: groomed hair, dinner on the table, clean house, maybe an apron on, repeat clean house, a smiling face, probably with makeup on).
Central to this mythical perfection is the notion that mothers should never express (or feel!) anger. The message that anger needs to be warded off or pushed down has existed for many women since they were little girls. Anger is classified as a negative emotion with negative consequences which is why shame can surface when it is felt.
When classified in such binary terms, anger gets a bad rap. The truth is, though, anger should be appreciated for its pivotal role in facilitating environmental exploration and motivating goal attainment (Sroufe, 1995; Stechler and Halton, 1987) as well as in defense of one’s personal integrity (Modell, 1993). Anger is felt by all human beings and was first identified as among the six basic human emotions felt from infancy (Ekman, 1999). Since then anger has been one of the most debated emotions due to both issues in identifying it during early development and understanding its function and meaning. What is now better understood, however, is the primary role of anger as motivationally determined.
What is experienced as anger can be molded over time through interpersonal experience and cultural opinion, giving rise to differentiated versions of anger including competition, resentment, envy and jealousy for example. This is supported by neuroscientific research of the involved neuroanatomical structures (Panksepp and Biven, 2012).
In my psychology practice, which focuses heavily on perinatal mental health, the topic of postpartum anger comes up often. There is minimal to no research on this anger experience with the exception of a really important study by Christine Ou (2018), published in Birth magazine. Ou found anger to be a significant feature of postpartum mood issues – which is consistent with what I have heard from mothers experiencing anxiety and depression postpartum. It is critical that we normalize this anger because the addition of shame as a result of anger can increase the intensity of symptoms and lengthen the course of the depression or anxiety. Ou highlights issues of powerlessness at the heart of the experience of anger as well as the mismatch between expectations and reality.
I have coined the term agency roar for the experience of anger in motherhood. Countless mothers have described their experience of anger as a unique beast that’s gripping, intense and scary. Many have said it feels out of control or helpless. It is particularly scary because it tends to rear its head during this phase of major identity change and vulnerability.
As discussed, one way to understand anger in general is as a result of self-expression, in an effort towards goal attainment or in response to distress – when one feels injustice about them or around them. In other words, anger boils up when a person feels invisible or misunderstood and/or that s/he or someone they care for is not being respected or treated as though they matter. 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 postpartum or in motherhood?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk 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 herself pre-children. 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 vulnerable and easily triggered to the surface particularly during this phase of transition and heightened sensitivity and unknown.
For many of us, 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 – 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; the stop sign when you’re inundated with feelings of overwhelm cueing old feelings of being helpless and anxious in a big world; a signal for 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 – and the vehicle – to express all these really complex emotions; it becomes the ‘voice’ or agency and, sometimes, the only way a person feels they can be heard.
So what can you do?
Remember that anger is felt by every human being and is often a very important feeling. Similar to the idealization of motherhood, the notion that all anger is negative or shameful is misguided. Practice self compassion, talk to a nonjudgmental friend or professional. Listen to your anger as your cue – your sign – that your inner child needs 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.
Tanya Cotler, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Toronto, Canada, specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health and parent-child attachment.
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