Weekend Highlights

Published April 18, 2011
Health & Development

A Trip to the Dark Side (Or, the Anger No One Talks About)

by Kerry Colburn
seattle child article photo
Author Kerry Colburn

seattle child article photo

Last month, after my husband and I gave a lecture to expectant parents for PEPS, one dad made his way through the crowd to thank us for something unexpected: for talking about anger. “I really appreciate you covering that,” he told us. “It was hard to hear, but it makes me feel more prepared.”

Ironically, I kind of wanted to skip over that topic that night. Believe me, it’s not easy to look at a room full of excited pregnant couples and tell them that as hard as it may be to believe, the day will come when they get angry at their babies. Like most, I am tempted to sweep it under the rug. But it’s just too important a parenting issue to keep quiet.

Certainly, we all feel different levels of tough emotions during our new-parent days, and we all handle them differently. Sometimes, they are manageable daily moments of frustration, resentment, worry, and stress that we quickly learn are part of the job.

But sometimes there is also something bigger, an anger that hits like a wave and feels uncontrollable, scary, and out of character. The baby is crying, you’re at the absolute end of your rope, and suddenly you feel what can be honestly described as rage. We’ve all seen the brochures about coping with anger and not shaking a baby, but until we’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to believe that these emotions would ever come to our own doorstep. If they do, they can blindside any parent – leaving them feeling ashamed, unfit, alone.

Adding to the problem is the fact that no one wants to talk about it, because there is a real stigma associated with the notion that one could get mad at a baby. It’s uncomfortable to discuss, much less admit. What kind of parent does that?, you might ask yourself. Does it mean I’m not meant to be one? Is there something wrong with me? 

No, there’s not. Our babies bring out such extremes of emotion in us. Can we really expect them to inspire only the positive ones, without the negative as well? Why are we shocked, then, that our inconsolable child – who has been offered a full repertoire of soothing techniques, yet refuses to stop screaming – can take us to a very dark place?

Combine that inconsolable child with a lack of sleep, surging hormones, relationship tension, and all the related emotional and physical stresses of this new role and you can get a perfect storm. Some parents cry. Some yell. Some slam doors or punch walls. Some have terrible thoughts. Do not think you are abnormal for feeling the way you feel. But do recognize that you have to face those feelings in order to deal with them.

Just like they can bring out ultimate joys, babies can really get you where you live. And it’s your job to be prepared. So take seriously those pamphlets you’ve seen, and vow to put your child down in a safe place and count to ten if you feel out of control, even for a moment. If your partner is available, make the hand-off and go outside, away from the noise. If you’re on your own, put the baby safely down in the crib and take a breather; remember, a baby has never been injured from howling in his crib. This pivotal moment, when you give yourself those few minutes, is about getting you off the ledge and away from that dark place. Take it. You will never regret doing so. 

If you realize that you need more breaks from your baby during the day in order to keep your anger in check – especially if he is going through a particularly trying period – find some support, whether that’s a hired babysitter, a neighbor whom you can call when you need a break, or a friend or relative who can stay with you for a while.

Find someone to talk to, perhaps a more experienced parent who can empathize without judgment and share coping techniques. Talking about the anger – whether to a spouse, a trusted friend, or a counselor – will not only make you feel less alone, it can be an imperative to learning how to diffuse it, and the guilt and shame that tags along with it. 

If the added support isn’t helping, talk to your doctor and look into classes that can help you manage your anger. Sound a bit scary? It can be, but it’s nothing you can’t handle if you understand, deep in your heart, that it does not make you a bad parent. In fact, facing this challenge head-on and getting the tools you need to deal with it will make you a stronger one.

Have you ever been to “that place” as a parent? If so, what did you learn? Please share and let others know that they’re not alone.

(9) Comment(s)

As usual, such a thoughtful and articulate piece, but this one especially so, and, as discussed, about a topic that elicits such shame. Kudos for not only describing it beautifully but offering a variety of solutions for both the partnered and those going it alone.

Posted by Jen Bilik on Apr 15, 2011

Awesome article, Kerry. We don't make a safe place for anger in our culture and so there is a lack of positive roll models out there. When I get to that place, I give myself a time out. I go into the bedroom and close the door and remind myself who I want to be in this situation - remind myself that my deepest desire it to connect and not create separation. Sometimes that takes 5 breaths and sometimes it takes 55. I also find that it is an indicator that my needs are not being met and so I try to find ways to stay nourished; a constant struggle.

Posted by Cyndi on Apr 15, 2011

Such a great post, Kerry. It's so important to acknowledge and address anger. As a neighbor/ friend/ auntie figure, this article reminds me to make myself available to my friends who are parents so I can be the fresh set of ears when they've heard too many wails over too many sleepless nights.

Posted by Tegan on Apr 15, 2011

Thank you for writing this article. You're right. This is one subject the majority of newborn parents will feel uncomfortable to talk about. I was going through all the emotions. Parents will definitely need to use all their abilities to cope with the emotional rollercoaster of caring for a newborn.

Posted by Crystal Valdez on Apr 15, 2011

I so remember the fury I felt now and again when my boy was a baby. Fortunately, I had a dear friend (and fellow newish mommy) I could confide in. "I fantasized about banging the baby's head in the car door all the way here," is my famous, terrible quote to her. I didn't do it, you'll be happy to know! Thanks for this. I'm posting around.

Posted by Amy Lang on Apr 18, 2011

Brave and wonderful article! So many of us are "orphan" parents out here in the PAC-NW...and lack a solid community that allows us to share our vulnerable side. I've met many new moms who are barely holding on and feel isolated. I make it my job to offer them a soft place to fall.

Posted by Kat Stremlau on Apr 18, 2011

Great article and a good reminder. My only comment would be that this applies to all stages of parenting . . . and anger is something that is rarely talked about because it is so uncomfortable. I applaud your willingness to bring some light to this subject.

Posted by MB on Apr 18, 2011

Readers, I am so grateful to see these comments --thank you for taking the time to do share your thoughts. This is a tough topic, and we must be willing to face it and talk about it in order to help others (and ourselves). Thank you for the feedback, and for passing it on to others! --Kerry

Posted by Kerry Colburn on Apr 28, 2011

I am parent educator working with young moms. One of the most common comments I hear is "You mean I am not a bad person for THINKING about THAT?" What they mean is that they have disturbing moments of fantasy when they feel frustrated--but they are not acting on those impulses. But they are afraid, just because they have the THOUGHT (as a mom myself, I can testify that I have wanted to throttle my 17 year old many times and he is still a thriving wonderful child). It opens up opportunities to discuss these fantasies and daydreams. It normalizes them (since we all have them), validates the mom for not acting on them, and paves the way for education about what to do instead. It's a very important discussion.

Posted by Lisa Osborne, MS CFLE (Certified Family Life Educa on Apr 30, 2011

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