When my daughter was a newborn, I sometimes had the feeling that my arms would go limp and I’d drop her. It never happened – it never came close to happening – but for brief and shocking moments the image of my tiny baby landing awkwardly at my feet flashed before me.
I experienced other intrusive thoughts, as they’re called, in early postpartum: graphic and sudden visualisations of the what-if scenarios I had going through my head at the time. Mostly these revolved around the many possible accidents that I imagined could occur – what if I tripped on the stairs while carrying her, what if I slipped in the bathroom or when we were standing on the balcony, what if that car coming towards us mounted the kerb and hit us – things I’d never before considered.
In those first weeks and months there’s so much you can – and arguably should – worry about: sudden infant death syndrome, whether your baby’s feeding enough, growing enough, sleeping enough, or crying too much, mysterious rashes, fevers and congestion, or the any number of things that could happen while your baby is in the care of someone else. Pre-vaccine, I worried a lot about contracting Covid and being forcibly separated from my newborn.
Add the internet and countless distressing world events; add sleep deprivation and limited social contact; add tummy time and the tracking of developmental milestones; add the immense responsibility of it all – and it’s enough to build your internal dialogue to a panicked crescendo of the many threats to your baby’s survival and wellbeing.
And it feels like survival, at times, when you’re in that postpartum tunnel, hypervigilant to dangers, just as you are in pregnancy, but also not always able to differentiate between what is or isn’t rational. Because, what if?
Intrusive thoughts are more likely to happen during times of heightened stress – which makes it less surprising that they’re common among new parents. One study showed that 91% of mothers and 88% of fathers experience intrusive thoughts about their newborn. These kinds of thoughts aren’t necessarily always about your baby; they could be about yourself or people you know. They can also be violent, aggressive and weird.
Importantly, intrusive thoughts are unwanted – they aren’t premonitions or deep unconscious desires revealing themselves.
When they are severe and persistent, intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of an underlying mental health problem like postpartum anxiety or depression and affect how you live your life. They can stop you driving a car or leaving your baby with another caregiver. They can dissolve the joy in your life, as anxiety has its way of doing, and take you away from the present.
It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the newborn stage that I had a name for these thoughts and discovered that anxiety was likely to be driving them. At the time it was difficult to admit that things weren’t going as well as they could, or to seek support when so many others were suffering so much more. It was the pandemic; it didn’t feel as though anyone was doing as well as they could.
Thankfully I could mostly shake the images out my head as quickly as they came. And although they made me feel momentarily heavy with dread, their impact wasn’t detrimental – even if, on a bad day, they decided which side of the street I walked on, or made it harder for me to leave the house at all.
Still, it’s a failure of any healthcare system to focus postpartum care mainly on the baby, when maternal and paternal health, both physical and mental, are so important. What if we talked more about experiences that are common to almost all parents? Maybe the stress, when it builds up, would feel less catastrophic. Maybe there would be no crescendo.
Gabrielle Innes is an Australian freelance writer and editor based in Berlin