ANDxhaling through gritted teeth, I surveyed the kitchen floor, which was now covered in splinters of pale wood – miniature utensils and tiny saucepans scattered in between. With a flicker of annoyance, I reached for the broom; I had spent two hours on Christmas morning assembling that toy kitchen set and now it was smashed to smithereens.
My daughters, then one and three, stood in silence by the dining table and guilt engulfed me like flames. “Mama, your leg is bleeding,” said my three-year-old. I looked down to where a splinter was sticking out of my right shin. I don’t know what had triggered that moment of rage, all I can remember is scrabbling around for things to throw: sticky tape, a slightly moldy satsuma, and then spotting the kitchen set, raising it high above my head and hurling it to the floor, so hard that a tile had broken. What I do remember is that the impact was delicious, all my pent-up tension freed in an instant.
This happened during lockdown, a period of intense volatility, which involved containing two small children in a hot flat while writing a book, and managing my second bout of postnatal depression with medication.
However, in spite of the exceptional circumstances, my rage wasn’t a new thing. It had appeared after the birth of my first baby and I’d put it down to exhaustion: six weeks after delivery I’d started writing a 90,000-word book, breastfeeding while typing with one hand, and living on Tracker bars, toast and more coffee than should be legal. It was enough to make anyone irritable. But the rage was more than irritation.
Most new parents are made aware of the likelihood of postnatal depression and the symptoms to look out for: tearfulness, loss of energy, trouble sleeping and low mood, all of which are difficult to distinguish from the typical experience of having a baby.
But what is never mentioned is the rage. The volcanic eruption triggered by a misplaced pen lid, a sock on the floor, an innocent inquiry about what’s for dinner. It’s irrational anger that takes a split second to swell in your stomach, surges into your chest and blow with a force that bursts blood vessels in your cheeks, bring sweat to your brow and make you scream so hard your throat is sore for days.
Postnatal rage is such a taboo that it’s almost impossible to find information about it. My solace came from a tight circle of mum friends whose admissions of rage came in private messages with blushing emojis.
A day after the toy-kitchen incident, I decided I needed help. The shame was so overwhelming that I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in loved ones, so I called my friend Matt, a no-nonsense American, who I occasionally turned to as a sounding board. “You need anger management,” he said, immediately. “I’ve had it, and it works.” The concept seemed comical: the subject of Adam Sandler films, rather than something anyone I knew had ever undergone. Still, I searched online and came across a psychotherapist who had overcome her own anger de ella, so I emailed her, hoping she might be less judgmental and more empathic towards my own situation.
Filling in the evaluation questionnaire made me tearful but confident that it was the right approach, and so began a 14-week programme. My therapist reminded me of Una Stubbs; warm and smiley. She guided me through humiliating memories to pinpoint the sources of my anger: being bullied at school, abusive teachers, family conflict and racist abuse online. Together we concluded that anger had played a crucial role in my life. My anger had enabled me to persist and thrive in an industry in which I’m a minority, it had driven me to highlight injustices and it had alerted me to toxic influences in my personal life. But I also learned that feeling anger and acting with anger – or, in my case, outbursts of rage – were two different things.
The goal of the program is not to go from aggression to passivity but to achieve assertive communication, which requires identifying sources of anger and stress, and if possible, avoiding them altogether by drawing firm boundaries. This meant asking a particular family member not to come to our home again. It meant deleting social media from my phone and ignoring unhelpful conflict. It meant taking two-minute breaks on the landing during raucous bath and bedtimes – all of which have created a calmer and happier environment for my family.
Managing anger is hard. It involves undoing learned behavior and takes physical effort to fight physiological instincts, but the practical nature of the program allowed me to apply the methods on a daily basis, albeit not always perfectly. No growth is linear, but you never undo progress made.
Having completed the programme, I still check in with myself regularly. Every Thursday morning, I ask myself how I’m feeling and a couple of times a day I consider what my emotions are, which is one of the easiest ways to notice anger and allow it to dissipate. Gone are the sore throat, the burst blood vessels and the hot prickly skin. And the last thing I threw? A birthday party for my youngest daughter.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. The charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and ChildLine on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism