One thing that really surprised me after my daughter was born were the dark thoughts that bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. Even though I suspected that having a child might be difficult, I didn’t expect to feel regretful of my decision. I thought I would just instantly adjust to being a parent, and never look back. This has not been the case. Now two years into parenting it seems so foolish that I underestimated one of life’s most momentous transitions, but I did, and I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone.
When my baby was first born I remember so vividly wanting to escape. I did not like my new role of nursing, changing, and holding her around the clock. I missed sleep and I missed the certainty that went along with my identity pre-motherhood. As a new mom, I was awash in a world of self-doubt, questioning every decision I made. There were moments when I thought about how I could escape and longed to be in a cave curled up sleeping undisturbed. I also had flashes of ways that I could get rid of the baby – like I could just toss her out of this window or if I just held this pillow over her head she would stop crying and I could finally get some sleep.* It is scary and upsetting to remember these thoughts and share them with the world, but again – I know I’m not alone in this experience. These were fleeting thoughts for me and I never once had any stirrings of intent to act on them, but they came and went from time to time during the most challenging moments of the postpartum period. Luckily I had a good support network to help me through these challenging moments and develop strategies to care for baby while also taking care of myself.
*I really want to emphasize that these were irrational dark thoughts I had, and I was very aware of that fact. I never had any plan or intent to harm my baby or myself, and I was not suffering from a postpartum mental illness. Every person is different though, and if you are having persistent, recurrent, or intrusive negative thoughts or feeling an urge to harm your baby or yourself you should contact a mental health professional for help as soon as possible.
I still sometimes get super frustrated with my daughter (shocking I know) and occasionally I have a negative thought around using my physical power to get her to do what I want or communicate my frustration. Whenever a negative thought pops into my head it is a giant flashing sign that I need to stop, take a few deep breaths and think before I act. These negative thoughts always make me feel like a terrible person and mother, and remind me just how vulnerable my baby is. When I’m at the top of my “self-awareness game” negative thoughts also force me to consider what my child is asking of me in that moment, and why I’m reacting so strongly to it. Is it really so unreasonable that she wants me to hold her? Am I really unwilling to nurse her one more time? Did she really mean to bash her head into mine when she was giggling uncontrollably? Is it so terrible that she needs her mother to comfort her in the middle of the night? If I am able to take a few moments to reflect on what my baby needs and why I’m resisting I can usually soften my reaction. I’ve been humbled by how difficult it is for me to think clearly and rationally when my buttons are being pushed. When I am able to reflect on why I’m having such a negative reaction it usually relates to my fear of losing my independence, and allowing my child to rule my life. If I can acknowledge this fear and then move towards connecting with my child anyway, we usually both win. This is a challenge for me and it takes daily awareness of self, something I don’t always have the energy for. Sometimes it’s just easier to move through my day without being mindful of how my thoughts and beliefs are influencing my behavior.
Having these thoughts can be scary and guilt inducing. The worst part is that most of us are ashamed to admit we have them, so we never check it out with others to see that we are not alone. I bet that if we could answer each other honestly we’d all find that most of us have had a thought of abandoning or harming our child. Again, this sounds crazy to even say, but I know I am a pretty sane and functional person so I just have to assume I’m not alone in this experience. I haven’t really talked too much to others about these thoughts, though I occasionally allude to them in conversations with mom friends. What finally motivated me to share my experience with the internet world was an article passed along in an online training course for maternal mental health.
The gist of this article is that through fMRI mapping Yale researchers found that when parents heard their babies cry the area of the brain associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder lit up. In other words, hearing our babies cry triggers an intensely anxious reaction in parents. The researchers hypothesized that this over-anxious reaction may have had an evolutionary benefit, which could explain the common experience of having highly anxious thoughts in the immediate postpartum experience. What I read was a summary of a much longer research article you can read if you’re interested. I’m hoping to dig into that one, but for now I’m satisfied with this little nugget that resonates with my experience and helps me let go of the shame and guilt I’ve carried around for having these disturbing thoughts. Hopefully as researchers are able to identify more neurotransmitters and hormones associated with our thoughts and feelings the more we will understand the postpartum experience. For now, I’m going to work on breaking the silence about these thoughts and sharing what I learned so that we can support each other through this experience.
If you are struggling with negative thoughts be sure to talk to a professional about this. Negative thoughts can indicate a postpartum mental health issue such as postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby you need to get help now. If this is a crisis or emergency situation call 911 or your local emergency response team – they can help you immediately. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255. If this is not an emergency go to Postpartum Support International to find maternal mental health providers in your area.
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