While maternal mental health is finally getting more attention, a lot of the challenges faced by mothers remain unknown or misunderstood. Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a one such perinatal mood disorder that’s more common than reported, is rarely discussed, and deserves more attention.
As a therapist, I’m well aware of anxiety, both professionally and personally. But when I became a new mother eight years ago, I was blindsided by the intrusive thoughts associated with Postpartum OCD.
A mother experiencing symptoms of Postpartum OCD will have unwanted, intrusive, obsessive thoughts about harm befalling her baby. Though these OCD symptoms do cause various degrees of distress, the thoughts rarely, if ever, become reality. In fact, a mother with such thoughts tends to be more hyper-vigilant and avoidant of danger.
What’s an intrusive thought, you might ask?
An intrusive thought can feel like an unwanted stranger is invading your mind. You can be holding your baby, and within seconds, a terrifying thought about something horrible happening to them floods your consciousness. These thoughts can be like a 3-D movie reel, filling your imagination with a visual play-by-play of what these horrible incidents could look like, feel like, or sound like. Calling these thoughts “scary” is an understatement.
As a new mother, my anxiety built with each passing day, until I was stuck in my own fearful thoughts, too afraid to even walk into certain rooms in my home (ahem … the kitchen). I figured out that my mind was playing tricks on me when I became aware that one of these intrusive thoughts was an unrealistic video loop of what could happen if my newborn was too close to the microwave.
Six months later, I was fortunate to find a phenomenal postpartum support group leader who didn’t skirt past tough subjects. She shared her experience with intrusive thoughts, saying, “I was standing at the street corner holding my baby when a horrible thought crossed my mind: ‘What if I dropped him right here?’ Which shocked me, so I held him even closer.” She followed that with, “Who else is having thoughts like that?” Hands sheepishly made their way into the air. As I looked around the room, ALL FIFTEEN mamas had their hands raised.
Realizing intrusive thoughts were much more common than I had realized gave them less power. Seeking emotional support from a well-trained therapist specializing in perinatal mood disorders helped. Awareness of the positive role coping skills and medication could play in easing these thoughts was a relief.
According to Postpartum Support International, 3-5% of all mothers and fathers experience symptoms of Postpartum OCD. I believe the number is higher than that, but underreporting keeps the real numbers in the shadows.
Why do I believe mothers underreport?
Shame. The undercurrent of shame that can flood any mother experiencing Postpartum OCD symptoms can lead her to keep her thoughts a secret. And who could blame her? If nobody ever explains to her the possibility of having these thoughts during pregnancy or postpartum, why wouldn’t she feel alone? Who wouldn’t fear being judged by others in that environment? Or worry that someone might consider them mentally unfit to care for their baby?
Postpartum OCD is temporary and treatable with professional help. We would do a great service to mothers and mothers-to-be if we spoke more candidly about intrusive thoughts. I believe this would lessen the time and energy it takes to manage shame, lending more time to integrating into other parts of motherhood.
For all those mama’s out there experiencing intrusive thoughts: You are in VERY good company. With non-judgmental support, this can and will get better.