Motherhood with OCD - Erin's Inside Job

Motherhood with OCD

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which seems like a fitting time for me to share about a new diagnosis that I received a couple weeks ago. I won’t say that it completely blindsided me, but I suppose that I never really put the weight on it that it truly deserved.

A look at motherhood with OCD. How obsessive compulsive disorder affects my parenting and how it's not all hand washing and light switches. #ocd #mentalillness #mentalhealth

From virtually the moment I found out I was pregnant, I was plagued with anxiety. I felt as though something terrible was waiting for me at every pregnancy benchmark. I could easily miscarry in the first trimester. I knew someone who lost their baby at 20 weeks. I knew someone who lost their baby at 24 weeks as he was delivered and his lungs were just a week too early to be functional. I read message boards about infant loss and found it hard to breathe as I held my hand to my stomach in an attempt to make a connection with my unborn child. Excitement that I would experience would quickly be overshadowed with an internal monologue of “yeah, but,” and I would try and right-size any normal level of happiness that typically accompanies pregnancy.

I was an anxious child. I constantly battled intrusive thoughts about terrible things happening to people I cared about. I lay awake some nights imagining what would happen if people broke in while my mother was still awake downstairs. I played out this scenario hundreds of times – some where we all hid and were safe, some where I managed to save my family despite being a child against several adults, and some where her, my brother, and sister were all murdered because I wasn’t able to save them. I asked my mother which pedal was the brake in the car because I needed to know how to stop it in case someone shot her in the head while driving. I made a plan of action for when the car went off the bridge because I knew it inevitably would at some point. (Make sure to roll the electric windows down before we hit the water).

On top of the thoughts were the behaviors. I needed to feel even on both sides. I needed my schoolwork to be perfect and if I made a mistake, I restarted again on a new piece of paper. I had rituals that I had to perform whenever I drove by telephone poles or trees in the car. I couldn’t step on sidewalk cracks too many times with the same foot. When I got older, I needed to repeatedly check my alarm despite knowing that it was set. Over and over again. This all felt like normal behavior because I didn’t know any differently. 

When I gave birth to my son and after the disorienting first couple weeks of establishing routine and welcoming visitors in and out, I was overjoyed. It was a stark contrast to the anxieties of early pregnancy and I quickly succumbed to the cliched abundance of love that accompanies motherhood. I had been completely prepared to experience postpartum depression given my history, but I didn’t.

After three or four months, I realized that I had more trouble than usual watching movies depicting sad childhoods. Violent movies that I used to numbly view now brought an almost visceral reaction. As I walked around the city with my son, those same intrusive thoughts started to arise – “What if someone takes him and throws him over into the river as I’m crossing this bridge? Can I jump down and save him in time? Will the impact kill him?” My husband and I took him to the gym with us in the mornings and I started envisioning my barbell bouncing across the floor and smashing his face in. 

Familiar behaviors started to creep back in as well – picking at my fingers or breakouts I felt – anything that felt out of the norm and I could absentmindedly attack. Hangnails would rip and my skin would bleed where I nervously worked to gather a sense of control. There came a day when I (foolishly) read about a mother who went into labor at home and waited too long to go to the hospital when there were complications, resulting in the death of her perfectly healthy baby girl in utero. I lay awake, my chest hurting from the thought of anything like that happening to anyone and extrapolating it to somehow fit my situation. It haunted me for days. I seemed to experience these bouts of anxiety at times when I couldn’t seek reassurance from my infant son (which is not his responsibility), namely at night, and I could only watch the shallow rise and fall of his chest as he slept. 

Thankfully, these thoughts seemed to burden only me and I had no problem letting other people hold him or even watch him while my husband and I went to see a movie. He was happy and showered with love at every opportunity. Still, thoughts about how he could die continued to pop into my head vividly and unexpectedly.

Worrying about the safety of your child is something that I think every mother experiences. How will you protect them? What will the future bring? These are normal worries. Mapping out all possible scenarios to save your child from a graphic death in any given situation is slightly more extreme. If I’ve learned anything in my nine and a half years of sobriety, it’s that life is uncontrollable. All you can control is yourself and everything else just happens around you. I know all of this and it has helped me tremendously in turning my life around, but it doesn’t always make parenting easier. 

I made an appointment with my therapist because I hadn’t checked in with her since he was born. When I explained to her what was happening, she quickly replied “well, yes, that’s your OCD.” I paused and it felt like putting the last piece of the puzzle together. We had never before talked about me having obsessive compulsive disorder, but she knew enough about my life and my behaviors to know exactly what the problem was. 

What I have since learned is that OCD exists on a spectrum. Mine weighs heavier on intrusive thoughts and less on physical compulsions, although those are still there as well. Much like I once thought that an addict was a homeless criminal before I realized I was one as well, I thought that those suffering with OCD washed their hands too much and flipped light switches too often. Most days my symptoms are manageable, but I do notice that they appear more often when I’m faced with some type of added stressor – say, a child. 

Just like many mental illnesses, there is no specific etiology for OCD. It can’t be linked to any specific childhood event and the biggest biological correlation is if someone else in the family also suffers. Those who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder understand that these thoughts and compulsions are irrational, which does help some because I can work on repeatedly telling myself that the thought of him hitting a bump in the stroller, falling out, and being run over by a car is only a thought. Only a thought. Only a thought.

As he grows and learns to walk, talk, and run, I can only imagine that my mind will continue to manifest terrifying scenarios as a result of this disease. Becoming a parent is a terrifying journey, but still one that I am immensely glad that I embarked on. 

I love my son more than anything. Obsessive compulsive disorder has caused my mind to go into overdrive to protect him, and I assume I will always be working on finding some balance between the two.

10 comments on “Motherhood with OCD

  1. Erin – What you describe here is similar to what I tried to describe in my 2017 Listen to Your Mother essay, In My Bones, when I shared with a room full of people that “I gave birth to a disquiet when I gave birth to my daughter. Like the rumble of distant thunder warning of a storm, it hums in the background.” I say similar but it is nothing like what you experience, is it? Your ‘disquiet’ is magnified a hundred times over. But what you should know, is that by sharing your narrative, what you feel, helps all those mothers who have OCD (or Post-partum depression, or any number of mental health concerns,) and question whether they made the right decision having a child. By sharing, you give others assurance and the belief that ‘I can do this!’ Thank you for sharing your story during Mental Health Awareness Week.

  2. What a powerful, necessary, and important piece! Not only does it beautifully inform the reader about OCD and its impact on lives, but it also puts a face on mental illness itself, which is so necessary given all the stereotypes that exist about it. On a personal note, I admire your courage in writing and sharing this, Erin. As someone who also writes from a vulnerable place, I know not just how difficult speaking one’s truth can be, but also how necessary giving one’s vulnerability a voice is in helping rid ourselves of shame and the secrecy that feeds it. Brava!

  3. Thank you for this post and for talking about this. I found it incredibly relatable, actually. I’ve had OCD-level intrusive thoughts for as long as I can remember, and though it ebbs and flows, I know it’s something I can never fully be rid of. I was never formally diagnosed, but I think it’s definitely great to know for certain so you are better able to manage it. For now, journaling, meditation, and talking to either a close confidante or therapist have been my go-to’s, but it’s so easy to feel absolutely crazy and so alone when dealing with this.
    Miles is a lucky little man 🙂

  4. I really appreciate this post as both a mother and someone who has had OCD nearly my entire life. I recently read an article (that actually caused a severe panic attack for me) in which it listed 5 types of OCD people don’t even know exist. I have had 4 of them myself from the time I was 7 to now as a 23 year old + other intrusive thoughts that center around my worst fear/great source of anxiety. I experienced a very similar form of what I labeled “postpartum OCD” after I had my son where I was constantly terrified that he would just stop breathing. It’s the scariest thing in the whole world and is so misunderstood and varied that no one person’s story can encompass the drastic affect OCD takes on each individual and the effect it has on their loved ones as the people we look to for reassurance. Thank you for contributing your story. I hope you are able to find some peace in cognitive behavioral therapy and other coping strategies so that you can just enjoy being a momma. 🙂

  5. Wow, thank you for sharing this. Although I’m not a mother, I have OCD and have often thought how it would impact me being a mother and it’s overwhelming, the amount of anxiety I experience over my healthy dog is too much, let alone a child. I have been struggling with OCD since I was about 9 and I’m 29 now, it took me 20 years to finally talk to my doctor about it and ask for help. I was prescribed Lexapro and got myself all worried to start it because I read up on side effects. I then start to worry that maybe my anxiety is not bad enough and I’m making all of this into something larger than it is. I feel like I can relate to your posts and this is all helping me realize that the way I feel is just a part of the illness. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I can definitely relate to your comment and I’m so glad you’re getting help; I know it’s a hard thing to do. The important thing is that you’re working towards finding a manageable solution which is already a huge step!

  6. I live with anxiety, I’ve also had intrusive thoughts for as long as I can remember, I used to listen to my dad snoring each night as I had played out the fear of him having a heart attack in his sleep a million times. I still at 27 can’t hold a knife without holding it as far as possible from my stomach due to the amount of times I’ve imagined being stabbed.
    My son was born 3 months ago and I have intrusive thoughts whenever I carry him in case I trip and drop him. I rarely leave his side for more than a minute.
    I thought these thoughts were completely normal until I mentioned them to my Nurse.
    Thank you for putting this out there so other mama’s can know they’re not alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.