I will never forget the day I had my first scary thought about my baby. My daughter, the youngest of my three children, was about 8 weeks old. She was born with a tongue and lip tie, and we’d recently had it revised, so we were following up with a pediatric chiropractor to help improve her latch and suck to hopefully improve our breastfeeding relationship (it worked). The chiropractor’s office was on the second floor. On that particular day, my daughter was fussier than usual, so I chose not to carry her in in her car seat, and instead held her in my arms. It turns out that on that particular day, the elevator was also out of service. Not a big deal because the appointment was fast so I didn’t even bring the diaper bag in with me. We quickly climbed the stairs, took care of the appointment, and were on our way back out to the car. As I stood at the top of the stairs to walk back down, out of nowhere I thought “what if I just drop her down the stairs?” An image of this flashed across my mind and I felt like I was going to throw up. I clutched her tighter and stood there, paralyzed.
What the hell was wrong with me? Why would I think of such a horrific thing? And how in the world were we going to get back to the car because there was no way I could walk down the stairs with her? I turned and left the stairwell. Back in the safety of the hallway, I sat down on the floor and stared at her perfect little face. I loved her more than anything in the world. I didn’t want anything bad to ever happen to her. What was going on with my head?
It took me a few minutes of deep breathing and thinking through all available options – there were none other than the stairs – but I finally slowly made my way back to the stairs. We made it down safely. It took a long time and I whispered to her the whole time “I love you. We’re safe. I love you. We’re safe.” I cried hysterically once we were back in the car. I felt like an awful mom. What kind of monster has those thoughts about their baby? I wanted to call my husband for support, but there was no way I could tell him what had just happened. He’d think I was awful. He’d never trust me with her again.
I was extremely fortunate, because once I was home and felt more grounded and secure, I remembered hearing something about “intrusive thoughts” as a symptom of postpartum anxiety. At the time, I was not yet specializing in perinatal mental health, but some training somewhere had mentioned it and in a moment of clarity, I remembered. I immediately went to Google and found out that yes, this was a thing and no, I was not a monster. I was just a very, very anxious mom who needed to get in with a therapist.
Today, when I meet with a mom who is brave enough to disclose her scary thoughts to me (and trust me, I know it takes a ridiculous amount of bravery), I tell her that her thoughts tell me that her anxiety is SO high, and her concern for her child is SO intense, that she trusts no one, not even herself. Her thoughts tell me that she is scanning the environment for every possible threat to her child’s wellbeing, looking at everything, no matter how improbable. Her thoughts tell me she wants nothing more than to keep her child safe.
But her thoughts also tell me that she is overwhelmed. That she needs support, right here, right now. That she needs help to learn to trust herself again. And that’s where we start. I begin by explaining that this is a very distressing, but very common, symptom of postpartum anxiety. I also spend some time talking about the difference between her and the moms we read about in the news who carry through with the terrible things she is thinking about. Those moms are suffering greatly as well, but with something completely different. Those moms aren’t her. And most importantly, I tell her with 100% honesty, that she absolutely can get better. I don’t promise that it will be easy or fast, but with time, trust, and hard work, she will get better.
I consider myself so fortunate because I didn’t have to sit with these thoughts for long, thinking all kinds of terrible things about myself. My professional training helped me recognize them and quickly get help. But that isn’t the case for most moms struggling with scary, intrusive thoughts. So if you are one of the many moms currently experiencing this, please know you aren’t alone. And you aren’t a bad mom. If you’re hesitant to get help because you’re afraid that your provider might misunderstand your symptoms, feel free to print out this blog post and bring it with you. Or google “postpartum OCD” and print out the symptom list and bring it along. Postpartum Support International maintains a directory of therapists with specialized perinatal mental health training. If you don’t see anyone listed nearby, you can always call their warmline for support and help connecting with a local provider.
The most important message I can share with you if you are struggling with scary thoughts, postpartum anxiety, or postpartum depression is that you absolutely can get better. It takes courage to reach out for help. It takes energy at a time you feel like you have none left. But it is so worth it. You are so worth it.