Postpartum OCD: When Moms Are Afraid of Their Thoughts
After my first child, Lise, was born, I was afraid of the knife drawer. Every time I passed it, I imagined horrific scenes: A steak knife slipping from my hand, flying across the kitchen, and landing in my daughter's bassinet. Or with unexpected strength, she could pull away from the baby sling that wrapped her body to my chest and fall onto my knife.
I knew that the scenes I imagined were irrational. Lise could barely hold her own head up. The impossibility of these scenarios didn't matter. After a few weeks, I couldn't open the knife drawer or walk on that side of the kitchen. I believed that if I avoided knives, I was in control. I could protect my daughter. She would survive.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Absurd thoughts and ideas, centering around potential dangers for my daughter, stirred in my mind after she was born. The knife drawer was only the beginning. After a small fender bender, I became afraid to drive, then to walk anywhere near a street, then to leave my house. I avoided standing near water, balconies, spider webs, train tracks, and any sharp object in my apartment.
But as draining as this experience sounds, it's actually not unusual in the months after giving birth. Here’s more about my experience with postpartum OCD, with information about the symptoms, statistics and treatment options.
Postpartum OCD Statistics
A 2013 study of 461 women, published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, found 11 percent had OCD symptoms two weeks after delivery. Nearly half of them still had symptoms six months later.
Stress is a well-known trigger to OCD, so the pressure of being a new mom could trigger a preexisting condition in some women, the researchers noted. Postpartum hormone levels could play a role as well.
Postpartum OCD can strike anyone, but it’s more likely to affect those with a family or personal history of OCD or anxiety.
Postpartum OCD Symptoms
Not all OCD looks like it does in the movies; for example, I didn't tap or count or turn the light switch on and off seven times before leaving every room. That's why I didn't even know I had it.
According to Postpartum Support International, some common symptoms of postpartum OCD include:
- Intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that are repetitive or persistent. They’re often upsetting and related to the baby. For example, you might fear that you’ll hurt or abuse the baby, he’ll become sick, or he’ll get exposed to dangerous contaminants.
- The urge to do certain rituals (compulsions) over and again to relieve mental obsessions. You might, for example, believe that turning off the stove five times will prevent your house from burning down and harming Baby.
- Anxiety and fear surrounding your obsessions and compulsions
- Intense feelings of protection for the infant
- Fear of being alone with your baby
Treating Postpartum OCD
If you think you may be suffering from postpartum OCD, you should see a mental health professional. She will evaluate your situation and decide on a course of treatment, whether it’s talk therapy, support groups, or medication. One common treatment method is exposure training: introducing yourself to the fear slowly and methodically to lessen its scare factor.
Although I didn’t recognize my own OCD, I still believed I needed help working through my fears and saw a therapist. I told her, "Freak accidents happen. You can never be too careful." It turns out, you can be "too careful." During our first meeting, the therapist told me, "The dangerous thing isn't the knife drawer. It's the fact that you're avoiding the knife drawer."
In the following sessions, she brought knives. I sat lifting and examining them while my daughter slept nearby. My therapist gave me homework: cook at least one meal per day with a sharp knife while your daughter is not in the room. Later, my daughter was in the room, in her bassinet. By the time Lise was walking, I used my sharpest knife to cook while she toddled in and out of the kitchen. The fears hadn't gone away completely, but I no longer felt compelled to avoid them, thanks to this exposure training.
The obsessive thoughts dissipated over the course of my daughter's first year. When my second daughter and my son were born, they came back, but this time, I knew what to do. It didn't matter what variables surrounded my children, my OCD would find something to worry about. My therapist and I found the safest way I could expose myself to whatever I feared, and slowly, the fears subsisted.
The Bottom Line
Our lives are filled with danger, both small and extreme. Even if we don't have a disorder, we stop ourselves from living in the moment because we believe that if we avoid uncomfortable moments, we are in control of the outcome. If we don't apply for the new job, we will never be rejected. If we avoid a difficult conversation, maybe the problem will disappear. If we never fly in an airplane, there's no chance it will crash.
OCD and exposure therapy taught me to look differently at my fears and the elements of my life that I cannot control. When I notice a fear now, I try to find a way to expose myself to it, gradually, until I can face it. Instead of trying to control the moments of my life, I am working to stay alive inside of them, to greet every minute as it comes.