One Thing I Wasn’t Prepared for Postpartum? Extremely Vivid Intrusive Thoughts

Source: Canva
Source: Canva

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I’ll admit that I was pretty naive to a lot of the complexities that come with bringing another life into this world. Sure, I heard stories from family and friends who had gone through childbirth and postpartum before, but a large part of my brain chose to block out all that noise. I was blessed with a fairly easy pregnancy (morning sickness was no joke but was thankfully contained to the first trimester), so my postpartum journey would surely be the same, right? Wrong.

After having my daughter via emergency c-section, I was flooded with so many emotions that I felt unsteady on my feet—both literally and figuratively. I was happy and content, but also felt extremely fragile and unsure. While I immediately loved my daughter, I was terrified I wouldn’t be good at being a mother or that I would hate it—and there was no turning back now. Assured by the nurses that these feelings were perfectly normal, I relaxed just slightly. That is, until we got home, and I no longer had the safety net of hospital resources. Almost immediately after I stepped into our front door, those fairly innocent thoughts turned into incredibly vivid intrusive thoughts that overtook my baby’s first few months of life. 

Postpartum anxiety, depression, and perinatal OCD can feel isolating, but you shouldn’t have to feel as though you’re going through it alone. Please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, please get help immediately. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) 

Crisis Textline: text HOME to 741741

I Never Saw the Intrusive Thoughts Coming

I’ve always considered myself to be “mentally strong,” whatever that even means. I never let the little things get to me, and I don’t “break” easily, as I’ve been told—not that that’s something to even be proud of. But giving birth completely shattered how “strong” I thought I was. I was a new mother who, instead of blissfully soaking up newborn cuddles and smiling at my now family of three, was having visions of all the terrible things that could happen to my baby. Some were standard fears like, “What if someone breaks into our house and kidnaps her?” and “What if she stops breathing the second we’re not watching the baby monitor?” but they quickly escalated to all the horrible things that could happen by my hand.

postpartum intrusive thoughts
Source: Canva

I Never Wanted to Hurt My Baby, but My Thoughts Were Dark

I’m deeply grateful that I didn’t experience severe postpartum depression. I had minor Baby Blues in the first few weeks after my daughter was born, but I bonded with her right away and felt the overwhelming need to protect her at all costs. I was now the main person responsible for keeping this little human alive, but it was that very weight that made me hyper-aware of all the things that I could do wrong, some accidental and some voluntary.

These thoughts crept up on me out of nowhere. I would be doing something simple like driving to the grocery store with my daughter in her car seat when I’d suddenly think to myself, “What if I just drove into oncoming traffic?” Or I’d be lifting her up out of the bath and think, “What if she slipped out of my arms, or worse, what if I threw her down?”

And as much as I’d try to fight it, my thoughts would then spiral into picturing the horrible scene in every graphic detail, sounds and all. I didn’t want to do any of those things—I was just now aware of the fact that I could… and that terrified me. When these thoughts took over, I would grip the steering wheel tighter or hold my daughter closer and just cry because I didn’t understand it. I wanted nothing more than to protect her and keep her safe, so why was I imagining these horrible things?

It’s Normal, and You’re Not Alone

I felt so ashamed by what was going on that I was hesitant to even tell my husband. I didn’t want anyone to think I wanted to harm my baby because I didn’t. But after feeling like I couldn’t keep battling this on my own, I told him everything. Then I told my doctor. To my immense relief, she assured me that this was perfectly normal, that I wasn’t a bad mother, and that what I was experiencing was actually perinatal OCD, which is a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder largely built around obsessions (recurrent, unwanted, intrusive, and upsetting thoughts) and compulsions (things you repeatedly do to help cope with your obsessions) related to postpartum caregiving.

Why Do We Get Intrusive Thoughts?

“Intrusive thoughts are incredibly common among new parents,” Dr. Jenny Yip, board-certified clinical psychologist and author of Hello Baby, Goodbye Intrusive Thoughts, explained. “As a new mom with a helpless infant in your arms, the thing you care about most is protecting your baby. Naturally, your brain will begin surveillance of your environment for potential dangers, including yourself, because now you could be a potential threat.”

Naturally, your brain will begin surveillance of your environment for potential dangers, including yourself, because now you could be a potential threat.

And while the thoughts are so jarring because they don’t align with our belief systems, Dr. Yip said the key is to try and not dwell on them or interpret them to mean something they don’t. “This is a time when you care deeply about what kind of parent you are, so you start focusing more on things that will either confirm or affirm how ‘good’ of a mother you are,” she said. “Most people without postpartum anxiety or OCD would go, ‘That would be a dangerous thing to do. Let’s not do that.’ But a person with postpartum OCD will have the thought and go, ‘Why would I have such a thought? What does that mean about me? I must be a terrible mother.’ As soon as you give that power to a thought, then the thought itself becomes more meaningful.”

postpartum intrusive thoughts
Source: Canva

It Gets Better With Time

I continued talking to my doctor about my thoughts at every appointment, and she gave me resources to turn to for help, including a local postpartum group where I met other moms who had experienced similar things. I had felt so isolated for so long because it’s not something that’s widely talked about, but I found that the more I talked about my experience, the better it got… slowly but surely. It wasn’t until my daughter was about 8 months old that I felt like I was finally on the other side of it.

She’s about to turn 1 in March, and while I still have thoughts here and there about bad things that could happen to her, I mostly think about the good. She’s healthy, happy, and thriving, and I’m so grateful to be her mom. But I also try to wear this part of my motherhood journey proudly. There’s still such shame and stigma around postpartum mental health, but I want everyone else going through it to know they aren’t alone. Asking for help does not make you less than—it actually means you’re incredibly strong. And just in case you need to hear it just as much as I did: I’m with you, it’s going to be OK, and you’re an amazing freakin’ mom.