Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW

This Isn't What I Expected

No One Talks About Scary Thoughts After Childbirth

Motherhood and Scary Thoughts

Posted Jan 28, 2011

That's right. Not doctors. Not mothers. Not family members. Even though there is increased attention to pregnancy and postpartum health, we remain stunned to hear that sometimes, a mother doesn't feel so great about being a mother. There are times when it is hard, exhausting, and wearisome. Sometimes, it's terrifying.

If a postpartum woman experiences anxiety after the birth of her baby, it can manifest in many ways. It can make her doubt the choices she makes. It can damage her self-esteem. It can cause her to ruminate and worry more than she has ever done before. Or, it can give rise to negative thoughts that swirl around in her head and make her feel as if she is losing her mind. But she is not.

"In spite of advances in public awareness of postpartum depression and anxiety disorders and increased attention to the experience of motherhood on the whole, expectations that new mothers feel good about themselves, and particularly about their babies, remain extremely high. Happy mothers = good mothers. This view continues to be a driving principle within a culture that claims to have the best interest of both mother and baby. But until we recognize and accept the very real fact that being a mother doesn't always feel so good, we continue to corner mothers into the untenable position of pretending that everything is fine.

"This prevailing notion that mothers should endlessly radiate joy paradoxically keeps them feeling sick, longer.

"One woman described visions of watching her one week old son tumble out of her arms, landing head first onto the ceramic tile at the base of the stairs. Each time she was at the top of the stairs, upon taking the first step, she would gaze at what seemed like an eternity of winding stairs fading into oblivion. The flight of steps seemed to trigger a perpetual loop of recurring anxiety. No matter how careful she was, no matter how many times she safely reached the bottom, she reported that this image entered her mind every time she walked painstakingly down the steps. Every single time." (Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts, Routledge, 2010)

But here's the important point: Scary thoughts are a common symptom of postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression. But they are also a common phenomenon with all new parents (Abramowitz, Schwartz, & Moore, 2003). In fact, as many as 91% of all new mothers report scary thoughts about their infant. These are women with and without postpartum anxiety or depression. Once we can remove the stigma of these thoughts and understand that they are a universal phenomenon, perhaps we will make it easier for postpartum women to disclose how they are feeling. So they can get the help they need. So they can feel better.