Having my son was (and still is) the most amazing experience of my life. The moment he was placed on my chest, I was done for. A complete goner. I literally think I felt my heart explode with love.
But even in those precious moments following his delivery, with Edward Sharpe playing “Home” in the background from my birth playlist and my husband blinking away tears next to me, I felt another emotion slowly creep over me. That emotion was anxiety.
There is nothing more vulnerable than having a child, as far as I’m concerned. Suddenly, you’re terrifyingly thrown headfirst into being responsible for another life. And not just any life- a small, fragile, and often very confusing little life, that does not come with a manual.
I knew this would be hard. I also knew that, having dealt with what I would call mild but manageable anxiety most of my life, having a baby would probably amp that up a bit. And, since I’m a therapist who specializes in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I even knew about the dreaded “intrusive thinking”. For some reason, however, I thought for sure I would get to skip those thoughts.
Spoiler alert- I didn’t. I still don’t. I have them every day. The good news is, because I know so much about them and how to treat them, they became manageable.
So let’s start with some basics- what are intrusive thoughts? To begin with, every new parent (unless you are superhuman) has had them, at least occasionally. However, when those thoughts become so intense that they can effect functioning, they become a problem.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, often scary, negative, even bizarre and sometimes repetitive thoughts or images that pop into your head, seemingly randomly. In the postpartum period, often those thoughts have to do with something bad happening to the baby, although sometimes they have to do with something happening to you or your partner. Sometimes they are passive (i.e., something randomly happening to the baby) and sometimes they imply intention (i.e., you doing something bad to the baby).
I don’t want to give a lot of examples here, because I don’t want to put new images into your heads. But some common ones, just for reference, are the images of a parent dropping the baby down the stairs, or the baby drowning in the bathtub.
Sometimes those thoughts, if they cause compulsions (for example, “if I don’t complete this one task, my baby will be hurt”), can indicate postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder. But often those thoughts are an indication of postpartum depression and/or anxiety.
You may be afraid to bring these thoughts up with a health care provider, friends, or family, for fear that those people will think you actually WANT to hurt your baby. When, in fact, the truth is the exact opposite- that you are so anxious as a new parent your mind begins to play tricks on you, making you fearful of things you may never have even considered before. The key difference between these thoughts and postpartum psychosis is that the intrusive thoughts are horrifying, and you may actually alter your behaviors to prevent them from happening (for example, no longer walking down stairs with your baby).
So what do you do if this sounds like you? Luckily, there are a few things you can do, and these thoughts will get better.
- Reassure yourself that you are NOT CRAZY. That, in fact, intrusive thinking is fairly common, and it absolutely does not mean you want to or will hurt your baby. (I actually have a theory that this is evolution’s nasty way of trying to get us parents to be over protective of our babies, so that they will survive).
- Don’t try to push that image out of your head. That’s like trying to pretend the pink elephant is not standing in the room, and research tells us that method just doesn’t work. Instead, use some positive self-talk that you won’t act on those thoughts, and repeat this mantra, (or something like this, you can make up your own):
“This is just anxiety talking, these are just thoughts, and thoughts do not equal reality”.
- Read more about these thoughts and how to treat them. There are some great resources out there, such as at www.postpartum.net. A great book that talks a lot about these thoughts, and has some excellent techniques for dealing with them, is the Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook by Pamela Wiegartz and Kevin Gyoerkoe, which you can find here.
- Try some guided imagery or mindfulness practice. Here are some lovely techniques to use.
- If you feel that these thoughts are unmanageable, or are affecting your functioning, talk to someone who is an expert in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, not all providers, friends or family members will understand these thoughts. Sometimes they may say or do the wrong thing. The best option is to seek out someone who has training in postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, such as the therapists at www.porchlightcounselingasheville.com, or other wonderful providers found here or here.
I remember asking my mother, shortly after my son’s birth, when those thoughts stopped for her. Her response? “Oh, I still have those sometimes”. Since I’m in my 30s, I guess that tells us that part of being a parent is living with that vulnerability indefinitely. We will always worry, at least in some way, about these little beings we are parenting. That just comes with the job description.
That being said, you don’t have to suffer, and those thoughts and images will get better with the right treatment!
Let us know in the comments below if this is something you’ve dealt with, and what has been helpful for you.