After a grueling 17 hours of labor, my first daughter was born on a cold April morning at around two in the morning. It was long. It was painful. And then I held her. It was perfect. The sudden surge of motherhood embraced me. It was and always will be the most monumental moment of my life. The world stood still; I had felt her kick and move inside of me for several months, and it was love at first sight. Yet, as great as that moment was, my pregnancy was far less than to be desired. The truth is, I did not enjoy pregnancy, and the nine months leading up to that moment took a toll on my body. However, it wasn’t just my body that felt the strain.
Most of my life my body has not been a problem; it has been my mind that has given me trouble.
At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder that centers on recurrent thoughts, images, and ideas. During the final trimester of pregnancy, and in the months that followed my daughter’s birth, my OCD reconnected with me in a way that was foreign to me. I later found out that it was a form of my mental illness that can affect any new mother; it is known as Maternal OCD.
Sadly, someone that I had known had delivered her daughter stillborn. The thought of this horror, of losing my child, had never entered my mind, but suddenly I was faced with it head on. This new possibility was a “trigger” for me, and it opened the door for three months of complete terror as I constantly thought about the ending of a bond that was so precious to me. I had nightmares and feared anything and everything that I came in contact with would cause my child to die. Prior to her birth, I couldn’t wear specific items of clothing because they were tainted by a curse that might cause my unborn daughter to become ill. Certain numbers were also linked to bad luck. For example, the volume on the radio couldn’t be placed on that number or something horrible would occur.
I understood that these particular worries were very common and normal with mothers. However, for those who suffer from Maternal OCD, the stress that these fears cause are beyond what is considered to be normal, and the mother will partake in what are considered to be ritualistic behaviors, or compulsions, to manage the anxiety and prevent the fears from coming true.
All of us experience disturbing thoughts at some point in our lives, such as the urge to jump from a high place. Sufferers of OCD, however, experience disturbing thoughts on a constant basis. We obsess about these thoughts repeatedly and link them to something negative. In order to stop them from occurring, a compulsion is developed to create a sense of control for however brief a time.
My compulsions during this time pertained to inanimate objects. My daughter’s ultrasound picture had to sit in a certain place, and in a certain way, on my nightstand. If it was slightly askew I would have to make sure that it was repositioned in order to keep something horrific from occurring. I then would have to take the image and kiss it in a precise spot before setting it back down in the position it belonged so that it would not bring about harm. Bizarre? Yes.
Believe me, I am aware of the absurdity of it all; in fact, those who suffer from this illness are all fully aware of said absurdity, but there is no amount of rationalization that can stop the compulsions.
Sufferers of OCD can be told that everything will be alright or that these objects don’t have magical powers. Still, in the end they are only words, and without proper guidance it is incredibly challenging to process them.
With Maternal OCD, women can experience destructive thoughts during pregnancy, post pregnancy, or sometimes during both. Unfortunately, I experience both. One of the most well-known mental illnesses linked to childbirth is postpartum depression. It is a serious condition that causes concern for a lot of women, but many are unaware about the other mental illnesses that can occur before and after the birth of a child. My doctor once told me that pregnancy and labor are like an Olympic event. They take a toll on the body and can do some unimaginable things to the mind and soul as well. For me, it wasn’t depression, but anxiety, stress, and compulsions that dominated my life.
Simply put, I lived in endless fear.
I relentlessly second-guessed everything I did. I lost sleep because I was too busy performing ritualistic compulsions so that my daughter didn’t pass away in her sleep from SIDS. Terrifying images flashed through my mind while I was awake creating an almost dreamlike state. I would envision my daughter being run over by a car, drowning in the bathtub, or being thrown down the stairs. They were horrifying and persistent. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my husband, in fear that I would be considered a disturbed mother, and my parenting capabilities would be called into question. No words can express the intensity of the fear and the vulnerability I experienced. Fortunately, I was aware of my mental illness and knew that I needed to receive treatment.
This past October, my husband and I welcomed our 2nd daughter to our family. It took me over four years to finally feel comfortable being pregnant again and raising a second child. I was fearful that my maternal OCD would reawaken and that it would be magnified because of the complications that I had with my firstborn. I had sought guidance and support from a therapist that I thoroughly trusted and to whom I felt connected.
I can’t stress enough the importance in asking for help when it is most needed.
There is, and never has been, any shame in asking. This of course does not need to be in the form of professional help; it can be the guidance and advice from a fellow mother, a sibling, close friend, co-worker, or partner. Whomever it may be, it is alright to ask.
Dealing with an overwhelming problem, whether it be OCD, postpartum depression, the loss of a child, or just the struggles of being a new mom, is far easier when someone is by your side letting you know that you’re not alone. Although I did not have that with my first, I was determined to have that with my second. For me, the help from my husband, family, close friends, and therapist has made the transition from “mommy of one” to “mommy of two” more manageable. I was able to enjoy my pregnancy and control my thoughts and actions. Due to the fact that I took these steps, I am not living in fear; I am cherishing all of the precious moments I spend with my family.
Special thanks to our Guest Blogger, Mary Swanson! About Mary: Mary Swanson is a wife, mother of 2, high school art teacher, and an artist who currently resides in Cedar Rapids, IA. She is an active advocate in the OCD community by spreading awareness with her art (www.embracingocd.weebly.com). Her work has been published by the OCD International Association, OCD Action, Alive Arts & Entertainment Magazine, Pentimento Magazine, Starry Night Publishing, and she recently was a guest on NPR for WOSUradio.