My journey through postpartum anxiety and rage was a long and twisty one, as most women’s recoveries are. There were lots of starts and stops, things that seemed to be working and then didn’t, things I tried multiple times before they stuck, and many times I thought I’d finally turned the corner only to slam into a wall.Ultimately, I found my groove and embraced the mindset shift around anger that was the key to my recovery. When I realized that my anger was not something to feel shame about or try to control, but rather was placed in front of me as a way to access the actual hurt and pain I was experiencing but trying to avoid, things quickly started becoming clear and I was able to begin doing the deeper work that was necessary to heal.

But recovery still wasn’t that straightforward. Once I started doing the work on myself, I realized that there were some ways I’d been interacting with the world around me that were no longer compatible with my new way of viewing myself and living the way I needed to live in order to maintain this newfound sense of balance. No matter how much internal work I did, if I didn’t make some external changes as well, I wasn’t going to be able to reach my goals. There were three key things I needed to let go of to reach the next level of sustained recovery:

Fear of others’ reactions to my boundaries

One of the biggest things I learned while healing from postpartum rage was that I had really poor boundaries. There were so many things I was saying yes to that were actually not in my best interest. Things that made me uncomfortable; things that put me in situations that were more stressful than I could reasonably manage at the time; things that pushed my kids beyond their limits, leaving me to manage the inevitable meltdown; things that left me feeling exhausted at a time when I had limited energy to begin with. And in doing this, I was exacerbating my rage.

I had to first understand why I was saying yes to these things, and what I quickly discovered was a deep sense of fear. I was afraid of how others would respond to me if I said no. It wasn’t that I was confused about whether or not I wanted to say yes. I very clearly knew, and felt, that saying no was in my best interest. But I feared the reaction I’d get, so I’d been saying yes.

At first, I tried not saying no outright, but rather explaining my hesitations, hoping they’d pick up on my anxiety and give me an out. “I’d like to go but it conflicts with bedtime and we’ve just been having so many sleepless nights, so I’m worried about that.” Or “It’s really hard for me to manage the baby on my own right now and my husband wouldn’t be available at that time, so the thought of going makes me nervous.” Those explanations were met with eye rolls, or a litany of reasons why I was making things hard than they needed to be, or stories of how so-and-so is managing just fine with her baby. I wasn’t heard and was left feeling even worse.

So I switched tactics and just started flat out saying no. “Thank you for the invite, but we won’t be able to make it.” I realized that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation. If I felt something wasn’t in my best interest, or the best interest of my husband and kids, I could simply say no. Yes, people had some big reactions to this. And they still do. But that reaction has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. It took some time to learn to let the reaction bounce off of me, and sometimes I still struggle with it, but in the end, the peace of mind that comes from knowing that I can set and uphold boundaries to protect my emotional wellbeing is absolutely worth it.

The desire to please others

Very similarly related to the fear around reactions to my boundaries, was my desire to please others. I was overextending myself not just by saying yes to things, but by holding myself to impossibly high standards in an effort to be the “perfect” wife/mom/daughter/friend/neighbor. Halloween treat bags for preschool? Sure! I’ll do a handmade craft to include in each bag! Sunday dinner at our house? Absolutely! I’m going to make a three-course meal and a dessert from scratch. Oh, and I’ll deep clean the house first. I knew there was an easier way, but I didn’t take it because I wanted to show everyone how much I cared for them by doing it the hard way.

But that wasn’t what people wanted. They didn’t want to come over for dinner and see me completely on edge, snapping at every little thing because I was stretched so thin. No one really cared if the brownies were from a box. What they actually cared about was spending time with me and my family. When I look back on it now, I cringe at the thought of how hard I was on myself.

In order to make space to care for myself emotionally, I needed to let some of these expectations go, and realize that others will either be happy with me or they won’t, but I couldn’t continue bending over backwards in ways that were detrimental to my wellbeing. And those who would choose not to be happy with me, or choose to focus on my flaws, aren’t really people whose opinions I should be too concerned about anyway.

My image of what motherhood would be like and what I’d be like as a mom

This was a big one. I’ve wanted to be a mom for as long as I can remember, and that dream became an even more central part of my life when my husband and I first began trying to have a baby. Lots of tears, heartbreak, and a round of IVF later, as I watched my belly grow, my motherhood fantasies were pretty out of control. I had a VERY clear picture of how I wanted to do things. A VERY clear picture of what I thought it would feel like to be a mom. A VERY clear picture of how my days would be structured, how our home would be run, how I’d balance work and motherhood. I chased those fantasies for many years, trying to mold my reality to fit them.

With each additional child, it became harder and harder to stick to this rigid plan. And the cost I paid to do so kept rising. Until it was just too much to bear any longer. To recover, I had to let go of the motherhood experience I was fixated on in my head, and embrace the motherhood I was actually experiencing. No, the house wasn’t going to be clean all the time. No, I would not always find time to cook. No, we weren’t doing homemade baby food. No, I wasn’t going to get up an hour early to get myself ready first in the morning. But yes, I was going to prioritize rest. Yes, I was going to find time for therapy. Yes, I was going to admit when a day had been too much and ask for help. Yes, I was going to remember that it wouldn’t be this hard forever.

By letting go of my idealized image of motherhood, holding boundaries even when it was scary, giving myself grace, understanding that I wasn’t going to please everyone every time, and accepting that things were going to look a little (or a lot) messier than I’d imagined, I was able to make space for my recovery. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

 

 

 

Carolyn Wagner is a psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health and the founder of The Calm Mama Method. She helps moms who struggle with anger find calm by learning to tune into the messages their anger is sending and transform it into healing. Carolyn is passionate about serving the world by supporting moms. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband, three young children, and Boogie, their beloved black lab who does her best to stay calm amidst the chaos.