The Scary Postpartum Condition That Caught Me Completely Off Guard — And What I Did About It
It was my first morning alone with my newborn after the whirlwind of visitors both in the hospital and our first weekend home. My husband was back at work, and it was just me and my baby, alone in the house. It was a cool September morning, the sun was shining through the windows, and my little miracle was sleeping peacefully in his bassinet. I could not have envisioned a more perfect scene.
While my son slept, I decided to tackle my breast pump. The directions in the manual said to sterilize the parts in boiling water before the first use, so I filled a big pot with water and turned on the stove. As the water heated and started to bubble, a terrible, horrifying thought crossed my mind: What if I poured this boiling water on my baby?
The perfection of the day vanished, and in that moment, I wasn't a blissful new mom with a perfect newborn anymore. I was a monster. What kind of mother has thoughts of doing something so evil? In the hours that followed, I was afraid to even pick up my son. What if I couldn't control myself, and I hurt him? Understandably, I was terrified and yet so ashamed.
Struggling to open up.
I didn't tell my husband, even when more horrible thoughts came over the next few weeks. I would have flashes of myself dropping my baby on his head or leaving him locked in a hot car. Each time, the terror and guilt were almost too much to bear. I didn't tell my doctor at my six-week postpartum visit, even when she asked me if I was having thoughts of hurting myself or others. I really like her, and I didn't want her to know I was a monster. I was also terrified of having my baby taken from me.
I didn't tell my friends, even when some of them confessed to depression or anxiety following the births of their babies. I assumed if they knew, they would never speak to me again and would be scared to have me around their own children. No one knew, and I suffered through horrible guilt and shame all alone.
Identifying "intrusive thoughts."
Thankfully, my story has a "happy" ending. As I settled into motherhood, the thoughts became less frequent and eventually all but disappeared. And at some point in those early months, I came across the name for what I was experiencing: intrusive thougths.
"Unwanted intrusive thoughts typically occur in new parents during the early postpartum period," explains Shannon M. Clark, M.D., an associate professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch and founder of BabiesAfter35.com. "These thoughts often involve the accidental, or even intentional, infliction of some sort of harm against the infant and can cause significant anguish to the new mom or dad. In fact, these thoughts can become so overwhelming that the new parent may fear even the most simple and normal tasks involved with caring for an infant, like feeding, changing the diaper of and clothing the baby. Mothers who experience these thoughts can have postpartum depression and/or anxiety as well, which may further complicate their postpartum recovery."
Intrusive thoughts are involuntary and can become an obsession. They can be an image or an idea of committing a violent act and are difficult to eliminate. In my case, the more I tried to stop them, the more they came. I've heard them described like this:
Picture a pink elephant. Now, stop thinking about the pink elephant. Eliminate it from your mind. Stop thinking about it. There is no pink elephant. Get it out of your thoughts. STOP!
I would bet that pink elephant is still sitting there in your mind, isn't it? This is exactly how intrusive thoughts work. The more you obsess over trying to get rid of them, the more they persist. And when the thoughts involve harming the person you love most in the world, who relies on you to keep him alive and protect him from harm, the emotional toll is devastating.
In the seven and a half years since that horrible image of pouring boiling water on my newborn invaded my tired, hormonal-crazed brain, I still haven't had any real-life conversations with moms about this postpartum symptom because the truth is, so few people talk about it. And yet, postpartum intrusive thoughts are quite common.
The best thing you can do? Tell someone.
"Although having intrusive thoughts is very common for new parents, most are hesitant to report these thoughts to a friend, family member or medical professional due to feelings of shame, guilt, and fear of someone believing there is a real threat to the infant’s welfare, which could necessitate the involvement of additional parties, like CPS," explains Dr. Clark. "The truth is that you aren’t a bad parent, you shouldn’t feel ashamed and CPS will not be involved."
Had I told someone, anyone, what I was experiencing, I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary guilt and shame. I probably would have enjoyed my first experience with a newborn a lot more than I did. Had I told my doctor, I know now that she wouldn't have seen a monster sitting across from her but a new mom who was suffering. I feel sure she would have had compassion and would definitely not have had my baby taken away.
While my experience with intrusive thoughts would most likely not have required medical interventions, Dr. Clark sometimes believes they are necessary. "The concern from a medical perspective occurs if these thoughts become an obsession and are accompanied by compulsive behaviors," Clark says. "In other words, these thoughts may fall along the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In fact, postpartum OCD is a true condition. Treatment may also be needed for any underlying postpartum depression and/or anxiety."
If you are suffering or have suffered from intrusive thoughts, please know that you are not alone. You are a good mom, and you aren't going to hurt your child. And you deserve relief, so tell someone. Let's start talking about this condition related to postpartum depression and anxiety that is obviously still taboo. By hiding our suffering, we are not only hurting ourselves, but we are hurting other women also suffering. Thankfully, there is treatment available—both in therapy or with medication if necessary. You don't have to endure this in silence and in shame.
Want to know more about postpartum conditions? Here's what you should keep in mind about postpartum anxiety.
Elizabeth Baker is a writer and the managing editor of Houston Moms Blog. She has three young children, and her oldest lives with a rare form of Mitochondrial Disease. On her personal blog, A New Version of Me, Elizabeth writes about special needs parenting, faith, and politics. As an introvert, she craves time alone to read, write, and listen to podcasts.