It wasn’t until I was nearly seven months postpartum that I learned what postpartum OCD was and that I had been silently suffering from it for months.
Have You Heard of Postpartum OCD?
Photo by Jake Melara via Unsplash
Luckily our society is finally opening up more about postpartum depression and other postpartum mental health disorders (although we still have a long way to go); chances are if you’re reading this blog then you may have even heard of postpartum anxiety as well. But have you ever heard of postpartum OCD?
According to Postpartum Support International, the symptoms of Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (PPOCD) include:
- Obsessions, also called intrusive thoughts, which are persistent, repetitive thoughts or mental images related to the baby; these thoughts are very upsetting and not something the woman has ever experienced before
- Compulsions, where the mom may do certain things over and over again to reduce her fears and obsessions; this may include things like needing to clean constantly, check things many times, count or reorder things.
- A sense of horror about the obsessions
- Fear of being left alone with the infant
- Hypervigilance in protecting the infant
- Moms with postpartum OCD know that their thoughts are bizarre and are very unlikely to ever act on them
Prior to getting pregnant I struggled with anxiety and depression, so I knew there was a good chance that I would suffer from postpartum depression or anxiety. But I’ve always dreamt about being a mom, so I thought that would make it a little easier. I’ve never had true career aspirations, but I’ve always had mom aspirations. I thought since I would love my little girl with all my heart then how could I be sad or anxious? Wasn’t motherhood going to be blissful, especially in infancy before she could give me attitude? Well I’m here to tell you I was dead.wrong.
My birth plan did not go according to plan, which I believe set things in motion. The next biggest event was that I did not immediately connect with my daughter. I absolutely hate typing those words and it makes me cry to do so but it’s the truth. I don’t think parents should be ashamed to admit it at all, but it is incredibly hard to do so. Then we had incredibly frustrating breastfeeding issues. Throughout those issues my daughter would just cry and cry and cry and it seemed near impossible to soothe her.
Knowing my daughter’s personality now, I know that she is extremely determined, she always knows what she wants and she’s emotional (all wonderful qualities she gets from her mama.) But looking back, it makes sense that she would cry and scream if she didn’t get exactly what she wanted when she wanted it but at the time it felt like I was the biggest failure as a mother. Mixing all those things together I then came to my own conclusion that I was wrong, I was never meant to be a mother. I must have misunderstood my lifetime aspirations to be a mother. I was very hopeful that my husband could handle the bulk of the parenting burden because I simply wasn’t made for it.
It was around that time that my postpartum OCD kicked in and this is what it looked like for me (and it can manifest differently in all people.) Before you read what I’m going to describe, please remember that there was no bit of me that wanted to do any of these things and that is a big distinction about postpartum OCD. I hated that I had these visuals, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I started having disturbing visuals of throwing my daughter across the room. I didn’t like to take walks on busy roads because I would have pictures of the stroller going into the road, whether by me pushing it or the wind pushing it. I would have nightmares of driving my car into a body of water and would have to figure out how to get myself and my daughter out and to the surface. When she would nap in a swaddled blanket I would incessantly look over at her every few minutes to confirm that blanket hadn’t gone over her nose. I would have recurring thoughts of leaving her in a hot car and I was somehow convinced that I would be the next one on the news for this tragedy. To be honest, I still struggle with the hot car nightmare. I hated being alone with my daughter in the beginning because I was confident that I wouldn’t be able to keep her alive myself.
Like I said earlier, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression on and off, but these thoughts made me feel truly insane. I was so scared of my own brain that I was terrified to tell anyone about them. I even thought to myself, “What decent mother would think this way?” But as previously mentioned, a big distinction for Postpartum OCD is that Mom knows these thoughts are bizarre or disturbing and doesn’t want to act on them.
After a while of feeling this way, I knew it was time to go see someone. I told my loving husband that I needed help without explaining the disturbing thoughts I had. He supported me and comforted me as best he could without knowing the full picture. I then went in to my OBGYN to tell them I needed help. They gave me a survey to fill out in the waiting room and I stopped on a question that said something like this, “Have you had thoughts of harming yourself or your baby?” I sat on that question for a long time. Like a really long time. Should I answer truthfully? If I answer truthfully will they take my baby from me? I actually skipped it and answered it last because I really didn’t know what to say. Yes, I have had those thoughts but there is no part of me that WANTS to have them let alone go through with them! I finally decided to answer “No”.
The first people I told about my postpartum OCD were other new moms in my FIT4MOM Marietta village. We were doing a workshop on Perinatal Mood Disorders (pre and postnatal) where a licensed counselor specializing in these types of disorders came to speak to our group. I suddenly felt a wave of safety in my village which led me to share. Gosh, it was so relieving to share it and finally get it off my chest!
The response was so overwhelmingly positive that I talk about postpartum OCD whenever I can to people, whether they are new parents or experienced ones. I even talk about it to people who aren’t parents! I want to raise awareness of it so that other parents know when to get help and that they are not alone. I don’t want other parents to clam up about their thoughts and feelings just because they are afraid their baby will be taken away from them.
According to Postpartum Support International, “an estimated 3-5% of new mothers and fathers will experience postpartum OCD,” but there are way more that suffer from postpartum OCD (and other postpartum mood disorders) who either never get help, or never report it, so the statistic is most likely much higher. Many mamas are afraid to admit the thoughts they’ve had in their own mind fearing they will be shamed, or fear it makes them a "bad mom." Asking for help proves the exact opposite - you are incredibly brave, strong, and courageous. You are an amazing mom with or without a postpartum mood disorder.
If you think you may have any sort of postpartum mood disorder, please do NOT be ashamed to ask someone you trust for help. Here are some options to consider if you're experiencing significant changes in thoughts or behaviors postpartum:
- Please, do not be afraid to tell people you trust about your thoughts / what's going on
- Find a psychologist who specializes in PPD, PPA, and pre and postnatal women / issues
- Look for a local postpartum support group with women in your same stage of pregnancy so you have a safe place to meet other moms
- Find a psychiatrist who specializes in PPD, PPA, and pre and postnatal women / issues to work alongside your psychologist
- Get moving! Exercise helps boost endorphins, and we offer a variety of programs perfect for postpartum mamas. (Bonus: you get in a great workout AND gain a community of moms who have your back through motherhood).
- Make sure you're eating a healthy balanced diet full of "brain-fuel," like omega-3s from salmon and avocado; be sure you're getting enough B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin D. Don't be afraid to talk to your healthcare provider if you want to see a nutritionist to make sure you're getting enough healthy fats, carbs, iron, and other essential vitamins and minerals postpartum
- Use the Calm app to help unwind after a long day, or take a pause mid-day whenever you need a quiet reset
- Try meditation and hypnosis (you can find a professional who can make custom hypnosis recordings just for you, or there are many on YouTube - just be sure to never use while driving)
- Remember you are NOT "crazy" - get this thought out of your head (again, why finding a therapist you vibe with is so important!)
Some things that helped me personally: I opened up to some of my mom friends and my husband. Although it can be hard, it really is important for some of your closest friends and family members to know where you're coming from. They will be able to support you better if they know. I found a counselor who was familiar with postpartum women's issues. You don't always want to rely on your friends and family to be your sole counselor(s). A counselor is a trained professional and can give you experienced and unbiased support. I was also prescribed medication (Prozac specifically). Make sure you speak with your doctor if you're breastfeeding to ensure it is safe for baby. But let me pause here for a minute. I was very concerned with taking medication for fear that my daughter would get some through my breastmilk. Truth be told, the research that my doctor told me about stated that she would in fact receive a small amount. However, my doctor also strongly agreed that my mental health was going to play a bigger factor in my daughter's well-being than getting a small amount of the medication I was taking. If you want to learn more about the research done on a medication, your doctor will be a great resource to provide it to you. Lastly, I started to accept the idea that I wasn't "crazy"! If you're reading this article and it resonates with you at all I want you to know that you're not "crazy" either. Mental illness is simply that, an illness. We don't go around calling people with medical concerns broken, do we? No! Because they aren't, and neither are we!
I don’t regret lying on my OBGYN’s survey. I answered enough of the other questions that they assisted me in obtaining the help I needed. But I am sad for my past self sitting in the waiting room debating whether to be truthful about my mental illness out of fear. I’m sad for other parents who have struggled with a similar internal debate (whether related to postpartum OCD or any mental illness, for that matter). I’m even sadder for the parents that have opened up and did not receive the kind of care/help they needed.
If anyone reading this is experiencing changes in thoughts or behaviors yet hasn't shared these thoughts with anyone yet, I hope this article encourages you to open up. If you're reading this and think a friend may benefit from my story and these resources, please share it with them. Because new moms deserve TLC, nourishment, and understanding. And, as a society, we simply cannot afford to hide behind the stigma of postpartum mood disorders any longer.