"Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts" | Intrusive Thoughts Are More Common Than You Might Think
Updated: Jun 17
After the birth of my third child, my mother-in-law flew up from Florida to help care for our older girls. I was only a couple days postpartum when she arrived and grateful for her help.
I had consciously chosen to take it easy and had planned on "lying-in" with my new baby for at least a week-- to bond and acquaint myself with every crease and dimple and to rest, nourish, and heal my body. My husband brought me meals in bed and I enjoyed connecting with my precious little boy.
However, there is a dynamic that plays out when my mother-in-law visits. The house we live in is the house that she had brought my husband home to after he was born. Although we are steadily working on improvements, my husband and I were both working full time when we had our son-- with lots of overtime between us, and on opposite shifts, no less. The maintenance of our home was starting to slip. I could hear from my bedroom heated discussions about the projects we needed to prioritize, which walls should be torn down first, and pitches of reimagined floor plans far outside our remodeling budget. My mother-in-law was vocal about how she had started working again only four days after giving birth to her third baby. In her defense: she had raised her children in a different time and with fewer resources-- the societal expectation was for women to bounce-back after childbirth and, with no partner support, she had no choice but to return to work right away. Lying-in with her babies was not an option.
With perfect timing, our washer broke. We had to take our laundry to the corner laundromat until we secured a cheap, used replacement. I eagerly volunteered for that first laundry trip, newborn in tow. I remember feeling so relieved to be out of the house that felt like it was falling down around me with all its obvious flaws being pointed out so relentlessly. I was fulfilling my first household chore postpartum, only slightly worried my mother-in-law might take a sledge hammer to our hallway in my absence, and I couldn’t get the vision out of my head: my newborn son, whom I loved so dearly and who was snugly wrapped to my chest for this outing, tumbling in the laundromat washing machine. I saw myself placing him inside with the bed linen, closing the door, and turning the machine on. Between the hormones and stress, I broke.
I can’t imagine acting on what I saw playing out in my head, and I was sick that I even thought those thoughts-- but they were there. I came home and cried. How could I think such terrible things? Did I love my baby at all? If I thought it, did that mean I was capable of it? I felt much better when we had our house to ourselves again and the rest of that postpartum (Bard was my Covid baby) I felt happy and supported. In large part, I think, because we had so much togetherness as a family-- with my husband home from work and my girls home from school.
From personal experience, I know that intrusive thoughts are scary! I can't tell you how many times I have franticly hollered back to my girls from the front seat of our car-- "Is your brother breathing? Please check!"-- as I was just driving along. They can take the form of unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries or doubts that repeatedly and persistently appear in your mind. If you are experiencing them, know that you are not alone: around 40 percent of new parents experience intrusive thoughts of intentionally harming their newborns. It is important to recognize that these thoughts do not define a person's character, ability to be a good parent, or even indicate an actual desire or intent to harm their baby. These thoughts, though distressing, are just thoughts. If you need to, forgive yourself for thinking them and move forward with self-compassion.
The fact is that the newborn phase can be incredibly stressful. Sleep deprivation, coupled with the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn, and many other factors-- including dramatic hormone fluctuations in the first few weeks after birth-- can contribute to this disturbing, but normal, stress response. Ever been on a plane and thought about it falling from the sky? Ever taken a walk in the woods on an especially windy day and imagined a tree limb snapping while you were walking underneath it? These intrusive thoughts are a part of our self preservation instinct. In stressful situations, we imagine every single terrible thing that could potentially befall us-- in effect, making a subconscious survival plan.
A fault of mine is that I am a white-knuckler. If I can impress anything on you today, it is that there are some things you shouldn't and don't have to white-knuckle your way through. Perinatal mental health therapists and counselors are trained to help you through the transition into motherhood. Connecting with a professional is a way you can feel less isolated and more hopeful on this journey. They can provide guidance, reassurance, and strategies to manage intrusive thoughts and alleviate the associated distress. It is important to inform your doctor or midwife, and to seek help if you are having thoughts of harming your baby as intrusive thoughts can interfere with the parent/child bond. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can get the help you need-- the sooner you can start feeling like yourself again!
In the meantime, if you are experiencing thoughts of harming your baby, or of something happening to your baby, here are some steps you can take to minimize the impact the intrusive thoughts can have on your wellbeing:
Acknowledge the thoughts, but do not give them any weight. Remind yourself that having these thoughts does not make you a bad mother. You will not always feel this way.
Keep your brain occupied with tasks that require concentration-- crosswords, puzzle games, and sudoku are all good distractions.
On that note: distract yourself in any way you can. Try taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to music or a podcast.
Share your thoughts with someone you trust. Just like waking your partner in the middle of the night to share a bad dream, it can help to connect and share with someone else.
Visit www.postpartum.net for resources and support!
Karen Kleiman, MSW is founder of Postpartum Stress Center and author of "Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts". You can Follow Her @postpartumstresscenter for evidence and encouragement in all things Perinatal Mental Health.