“Will you please carry him down the stairs?”
I’d ask this of my husband a lot after our first son was born. Perhaps he thought I was asking because I was sore from childbirth or had my hands full with all the baby gear, both of which were true. However, I delegated this task because I was too scared to carry him. I didn’t trust myself.
I kept having thoughts of dropping him down the stairs. Sometimes I envisioned him wiggling out of my arms and falling by accident. Sometimes I pictured myself simply letting him go, not on purpose but also not unintentionally. These thoughts terrified and confused me because I loved my baby so much. I knew I’d protect him at all costs, so why was I thinking this way? I felt so ashamed.
I didn’t realize until years later that these unwanted thoughts had a name: intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can be scary, uncomfortable, unnerving and very common. Most new moms will have them at some point during their postpartum period. They can present as thoughts, feelings or visual images and can be a one time occurrence or happen repetitively.
New moms experience all kinds of intrusive thoughts. Some moms picture harm coming to their babies, such as my example of my son falling down the stairs. Other intrusive thoughts target the mother’s self-esteem or sense of security: “I’m an awful mom and my daughter will never love me” or “My husband and baby would be better off without me”.
You can be a good mom and still have intrusive thoughts.
Repeat: You can be a good mom and still have intrusive thoughts. There’s a whole book dedicated to this truth.
Intrusive thoughts are not your fault. They are a product of hormonal changes after childbirth and the inherent stress of caring for a newborn. They may indicate an undiagnosed mental health concern such as postpartum depression, anxiety or OCD.
You are not your thoughts. You recognize that your thoughts are bizarre and terrifying and not something you’d ever act on. That’s a difference between intrusive thoughts and postpartum psychosis: self-awareness. You are okay if your thoughts scare you. Believe it or not, that uncomfortable mindfulness is a good thing – a protective mechanism for you and your baby.
Thankfully, postpartum psychosis is a rare occurrence: only one to two women out of a thousand will experience it. Please seek immediate help if you’re having trouble differentiating between your thoughts and reality – this is a treatable medical emergency and not a reflection of you as a mother.
What can you do about intrusive thoughts?
Share them with a trusted friend, family member or your partner. Saying them outloud may lessen their power in your mind.
Educate people on them. Let’s break down the stigma and secrecy. Most new moms experience them so let’s talk about it.
Take care of yourself. Prioritize sleep and healthy eating. Accept help with household tasks. Reduce stress in a way that is enjoyable for you: read a trashy romance novel, binge Outer Banks on Netflix, etc.
Connect with your OB or a counselor if they are causing excessive worry, sadness, anxiety or difficulty bonding with your baby. Therapy and/or medication may help.
Reach out to Postpartum Support Charleston for information on support groups and Mom Mentors.
Keep these things in mind, Mama: This too shall pass. You are not your intrusive thoughts. You are a good mom. You are not alone.
– Jenna Arsenault, RN, MSW, PCD(DONA) is a postpartum doula and consultant who specializes in maternal mental health. Follow her on Instagram @jennadoula.