My baby boy was perfect. The delivery had been grueling, but afterward, I was euphoric. I had a healthy son with my blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair.
As the first few months of new motherhood passed, however, I became increasingly worried about my brain. My thoughts began to take on a life of their own, separate from my emotions. Normally, emotion and thought are linked — or at least, related — but I was having moments where my thoughts were taking off from my experience, uncontrolled. Whenever it happened, I’d imagine a roller-coaster car hurtling off the tracks. I’d be nursing my son and suddenly think, “I should put him down, walk out and never come back,” and see the bright blue and yellow cart flying through the air.
I tried to brush this off at first. I was an exhausted single mom under a lot of stress. But the thoughts increased in frequency and urgency. My brain was talking to itself, my thoughts louder and louder, more insistent. “Leave him on the ground and walk away and never come back.” “Stay away from stairs — what if you let him fall down the stairs?”
One day I was walking to the mailbox with my baby wrapped in his blanket, his tiny face tucked into my neck, when I thought, “Slap his cheeks. Slap him really hard and see what happens.” I ran back into the house in my hurry to get my son away from myself. I laid him down in his swing slowly, watching every move I made. I was his mother, and I felt like his worst enemy.
I was terrified that someone would take my baby from me if I told them what I was thinking. I was terrified that someone wouldn’t take him away and I would hurt him.
Was I going insane? What other explanation could there be for this? How could a sane person calmly and regularly think about hurting their baby?
I finally decided that I had to tell someone what was happening and I found a therapist. Her response was nothing I could have imagined. It never once occurred to me that she might not immediately want to remove my son from my care. Instead, she gave a label to what I was experiencing: intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are associated with OCD by the National Institute of Mental Health, and they also spring to life with postpartum OCD, which is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that occurs after birthing a baby. In the beloved and influential website Postpartum Progress, Jenna Hatfield wrote a harrowing account of what it’s like to live in the stream of intrusive thoughts about your baby.
“Just start dinner. Just start dinner. Man, it was easier to get dinner ready without a baby around.
“Does that mean I don’t want him? Does that mean I want to get rid of him? I know how people do that.
“Oh God, I’m going to be one of those people on the news.
“Stop it. Just stop it. This is only OCD. Of course, it was easier without kids.
“What can I make without a knife? I know it’s in the dishwasher. What if I grab it and…
“STOP picturing it. STOP.STOP STOP.
“Noodles. I can make noodles. If he’s in the other room, I won’t hurt him.”
It’s hard, even all these years later, for me to read Hatfield’s honest description. I vividly recall the shame and fear, self-hatred and sadness that I felt when this was happening to me.
During that first visit, my therapist assured me that I would get better, the thoughts would stop and that I was a good mother, and this did not mean I did not love or want my son. It was like Christmas Day a hundred times over. I will never forget the relief and joy that flooded through me. Almost immediately, the thoughts began to retreat. Many believe that by trying to suppress intrusive thoughts, you actually make them worse. I found that to be true. Shame and silence almost engulfed me. By talking about these thoughts, I began to break free.
Editor’s note: We recommend Postpartum Progress for anyone who’s experiencing any form of postpartum emotional difficulty. There are tons of resources and help available on the site, including support forums, lists of services and mental health providers and answers to questions you might have. If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts unrelated to postpartum, The National Alliance on Mental Illness has information and resources that can help you, including a phone or text helpline. Help is available. You are not alone.