I have written before about the challenges children face, and the lessons they can learn, when one of their parents is dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In this post I’d like to focus more on moms who have OCD, and the difficulties they might deal with. I won’t be focusing on postpartum OCD, but rather on moms who have already been diagnosed with the disorder and have been living with it for a while.
Some of the most common types of obsessions in OCD involve various aspects of contamination such as fear of dirt, germs, or illness. The person with OCD might fear the worst for themselves, their loved ones, or even strangers. If you’re a mother (and even if you’re not) you likely know that dirt, germs and illness are an inevitable part of childhood. How can a mom with OCD possibly take her four-year-old child into a public restroom?
Surprisingly, most can and do. Over the years I have connected with moms who have OCD who do what they need to do, despite their fears. By caring for their children, they are actually engaging in the gold-standard psychological treatment for OCD — exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
And because ERP therapy works, these moms find that the more they bring their children into those restrooms, or allow them to play at the playground without trailing behind them with sanitizing wipes, or agree to let them spend time at a friend’s house, the less their OCD rears its ugly head. In short, they habituate, or get used to, being in these situations and accepting the uncertainty of what might happen.
Another comment I hear often from moms with OCD is that because caring for a child (or perhaps multiple children, and even a family pet) is time-consuming and never-ending, they are so busy that they don’t have time to worry about all the things OCD thinks they should worry about. If your baby has a dirty diaper, the dog is barking to go out, your toddler just found the finger paints, and you need to get to the grocery store, you don’t have time to fret over your fear of contamination. You just change the diaper, tend to the dog, quickly wipe your toddler’s hands, and get out the door. OCD might be protesting in the background, but you have no time for its silly demands. Again, great ERP therapy!
Of course, it doesn’t work this way for all moms, and for some OCD is in control. To these moms, I say, first and foremost, please get help from a mental health professional so you can learn to quell your OCD until it is nothing more than background noise as you care for your children. The truth is, if your obsessive-compulsive disorder remains untreated, it will affect your the well-being of your children. Their world will be limited, they will pick up on your anxiety, and they might even mimic your behaviors.
For moms who are struggling with OCD, please resolve to put your children before your OCD. Learn how to spend quality time enjoying them, not ruminating over all the things that might go wrong in a given moment.
The irony is that OCD wants you to believe that giving in to its demands is keeping your children safe, when in reality, your behaviors are likely hurting them. Modeling healthy behavior and how to deal with life’s challenges might be the best gift you ever give your children.
Finally, being a mom with OCD can feel extremely isolating. But you are not alone. Join support groups (online and in-person), talk to an OCD therapist, and accept the love and support of family and friends (but no enabling!). You and your children deserve lives not compromised by OCD.