You recently had a baby, and everyone keeps saying that you must be in sheer and utter bliss. Clearly, you’re captivated by your bundle of joy. You must be enamored and in absolute love.
I bet you’re just walking on cloud nine. You finally have what you’ve always wanted. Life is complete now, isn’t it? you hear.
And all you want to do is cry (or scream) in their face. Because that’s not how you feel. And those aren’t the thoughts running through your mind.
Instead, you keep thinking that you’ve made a mistake. A horrible mistake. I never should’ve had this baby.
Or you think I don’t like being a mother. I just want my old life back, where I had freedom, and I felt like myself.
Or your mind is filled with never-ending worries and what-ifs: What if I slip and drop the baby? What if the baby stops breathing in his bassinet? What if she cracks her head in the tub? What if he catches a cold, which turns out to be something much worse? What if a car slams into the stroller?
Or other scary, disturbing thoughts arise—and keep arising: If he doesn’t stop screaming, I swear I will throw him over the balcony. I could easily drown her in the bathtub.
And you hate yourself for these thoughts. You are shocked and ashamed of these thoughts. You are angry with yourself, and deeply disappointed. You think there’s something really wrong with you. There must be.
Maybe you tell yourself that you should be grateful because getting pregnant or staying pregnant was especially difficult for you. Or maybe you also keep telling yourself, you’ve always wanted this. And you wonder, Why doesn’t it feel like I thought it would feel?
And even though you know your baby is a miracle, you still can’t shake those scary, horrible thoughts—thoughts that no good or normal mother would ever think.
A Universal Phenomenon
Actually, that’s not true. According to Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of The Postpartum Stress Center, a treatment and professional training center for prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety disorders, this is a “universal phenomenon.”
She noted that it’s common to have negative thoughts about being a mom. It’s common to worry about your baby, and yes, it’s even common to have dark thoughts about harming your baby. She’s heard many of the thoughts mentioned above—or variations of them. Having these thoughts doesn’t mean that you’ll actually harm your baby. And the fact that you’re distressed by them is an important sign.
Kleiman noted that this is very different from postpartum psychosis, which “affects 1 to 2 out of 1000 women who give birth” and involves extremely frightening, delusional symptoms and a break from reality.
“With psychosis, women are generally not anxious about the nature of their bizarre thinking, like I need to protect my baby from the devil, so if I bury her underground, she will be safe. On the other hand, women with anxiety-driven thoughts are extremely concerned about the way they are thinking, which actually confirms to experts who might be evaluating them, that these thoughts are ego-dystonic and not psychotic.”
(Postpartum psychosis constitutes a medical emergency. Thankfully, it’s also temporary and treatable. The key is to seek help right away.)
What Causes Scary Thoughts in Motherhood?
Anxiety is normal and adaptive. It serves as a protective mechanism. According to Kleiman, anxiety can be especially helpful for new parents: It can “alert them to perceived danger.”
However, “during the postpartum period, when women are sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, hormonally compromised, transitioning to this new role, and perhaps predisposed to anxious thinking (history of anxiety), anxiety can combust, making [moms] likely to misappraise these thoughts.” Which, in turn, boosts the anxiety in their already anxious brains.
That anxiety is further strengthened when we stay silent and keep these thoughts to ourselves. Because silence breeds shame. And we become even more convinced that good, loving, decent mothers would never think this way.
The Power of Community
Together with artist Molly McIntyre, Kleiman started an empowering online campaign called #speakthesecret “to shatter the myth and expectation that all new mothers feel joyful and help postpartum women say what they need to say in order to help them feel better,” Kleiman said. Because when women have a safe space (or person) to share their intrusive, scary thoughts, their anxiety decreases, she said. And so do their feelings of shame.
The #speakthesecret campaign includes a forum, which features an anonymous list of 633 contributions and counting of scary, upsetting thoughts. You also can follow posts with the same hashtag on Instagram.
Because of the incredible response from the campaign, Kleiman and McIntyre created a recently published book called Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts: A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers. It is poignant and practical and should be required reading for all moms (and anyone who wants to support a mom).
Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts includes “comic depictions of these strong and unspoken emotions, in a further effort to reduce stigma and enable postpartum women be more authentic about their experience,” Kleiman said. Which is when they realize an important fact: They are not alone. You are absolutely not alone.
When to Seek Help
Anxiety-driven, scary thoughts aren’t inherently problematic, warranting professional help, Kleiman said. These thoughts become an issue when your “distress is so high that it interferes with [your] ability to get through the day.”
“If [your] distress is too frequent, too intense, or is going on for too long and impairs [your] functioning, it is time to get professional support.”
In other words, Kleiman noted that it’s important to pay attention to your response, interpretation, and feelings around the thoughts you’re experiencing.
What You Can Do
In addition to understanding that these kinds of thoughts are totally normal, Kleiman wants moms to know that you have more control over the way you feel than you think you do. In other words, there are many small steps you can take to reduce your anxiety, and to feel better.
When upsetting thoughts arise, you can distract your brain by making a phone call, watching a funny film, taking a walk, doing a puzzle, using a coloring book, or taking a shower, Kleiman said.
It’s also helpful to eliminate caffeine, rest as much as possible, move your body, and practice breathing exercises, she said.
Kleiman also wants moms who are having overwhelming, intrusive thoughts to know: “There is nothing bad happening right now, you are not going crazy, and you will not always feel this way.”
Here’s a particularly powerful and important paragraph from Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, which you can jot down and reread:
All mothers have scary thoughts. That includes mothers with and without clinical depression or anxiety. The scarier the thought, the more scared you might feel, but in fact, terrifying thoughts, images, or impulses do not put you at risk for behaving badly or harmfully. No matter how scary the thought is, there is no correlation between a mother’s scary thoughts and her taking any action in response to those thoughts. They are thoughts, empowered by your fearful reaction to them. It might be hard to believe that thoughts which reinforce your greatest fear—that you are not fit to be a mother—can coexist with feelings of extraordinary love, but they can.
Having scary thoughts doesn’t make you an awful mother. It doesn’t mean you’re somehow failing your baby. It doesn’t mean that something is horribly wrong with you.
It means that you are human. Which is why talking to someone, whether it’s a therapist, a close friend, your partner, or an online or in-person support group can be incredibly healing.
And even though you don’t feel like it right now, you deserve that. You deserve that kind of kindness.