Right after I delivered my gypsy-eyed daughter by emergency cesarean section, I remembered I needed to call the phone company over a mistake in the bill. Hopped up on pain medication and sobbing tears of frustration, I yelled at the customer service person "you can't do this to me. You are overcharging. It's not fair."
My husband heard my screaming from the hall, came into the room, and gently took the phone away. "I'm sorry, my wife just had a baby, and she's exhausted and worn down," he said. "We'll get back to you at another time."
"Estelle, you need to calm down," he said.
It would not be the last time he told me that.
Everything was a trigger for my rage. I yelled at a nurse who woke me in the early morning to take my blood pressure. And when the social worker at the hospital came to do a routine check on new moms, when she asked me if I felt depressed or unable to care for my daughter, I felt attacked and shouted back, "what are you talking about? I can take care of my daughter. How dare you ask me that." She quickly left, closing the door behind her.
I was also mad at the clumsy lactation nurse who tried to force me to breastfeed, despite saying that my nipples were all torn up from giving my daughter colostrum.
I didn't realize it, but my unrelenting anger was a scary symptom of postpartum depression (PPD). Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that 1 out of every 9 women suffer from symptoms of postpartum depression during the first three months after delivery.
Many chalk it up to a woman's raging hormones and life stresses (like, maybe producing someone out of your body?). I'm not the chillest person around, but I'm usually reasonable. The anger was an indication of my fear of being isolated in my new life as a mom, and my fear of being a failure at mothering, beginning with my inability to breastfeed, and because I came to motherhood in my mid-forties, which is later than most.
Though I was grateful, that the hospital allowed my husband to stay with me while I recovered, I think he began to regret making that decision each time I lost my temper.
I became livid at any interruptions; and my husband's constant tap, tap, tapping on his computer as he caught up on work, drove me insane. The unrelenting rage I felt at the slightest provocation—as though my eyeballs would explode—felt oddly empowering, as though even if I were out of control, I could still control others with my anger.
But the night terrors overwhelmed me, making me feel like I was drowning in a sea of emotion. I'd had them before I gave birth—mostly about medical mishaps during childbirth—but now they were back with a vengeance. My new dreams were of people in parks pulling my baby's stroller away from me. I'd wake up my fists balled ready to fight, the adrenaline coursing through my body.
I knew I needed help, so once I was home I met with a therapist. Without judgment, she helped me realize that what I was going through was normal, and I wasn't insane. She reminded me that though the emotions I felt were terrifying, it didn't mean I was a bad mother, just a stressed-out new one, and I needed to remember to breathe.
Then she encouraged me and my husband to deal with the situations that made me angry. So if his tapping on the computer bothered me, he took it to another room. We also noticed that if I was tired or sleep deprived, I would get stressed, so we made sure that visitors only stayed a short period of time. Plus, we were selling our home—another huge life change—but I hated a revolving pool of strangers coming through the door, potentially bringing in germs that the baby could catch, so we took it off the market for a few months.
Once I felt acknowledged and supported, and as I healed over the next few months, and relaxed into my new role and life, I was able to let go of the rage, that had been consuming me.
The morning I woke up from a night-terror-free-sleep, glanced over at my sweet baby sleeping soundly in her crib, and heard my husband tapping on his computer, without feeling that I wanted to chuck him and it out of the window, was the day I knew I'd be alright.
And I was.
Estelle Erasmus is an award-winning journalist, writing coach, and former magazine editor in chief. She has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, and Brain, Child. She teaches Writing Parenthood at NYU and personal essay writing and pitching for Writers Digest and hosts the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.