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Mom Brain


By: Dr. Tanya Cotler, Clinical Psychologist
Don’t tell but I had that awful daydream again: New moms and scary thoughts.“ Every time I would descend a stairwell with baby Nila*  I imagined falling with her. The day nightmare changes – sometimes I fall on her, or she cracks her head. Sometimes I just shake my head to make the ugly thought go away. ”Molly* sat in front  of me curled in a ball , half hiding her face as she slowly shared with me the “day nightmares” she’d been referencing for several weeks in therapy but had been frightened to share. As I sat and listened, Molly’s body slowly unfolded out of its contorted shape and relaxed a bit more into the seat. She shared that she expected my face to be horrified, and opened up about her fear that if she let anyone know the scary thoughts she was having then they would be horrified or maybe worse actually take her baby away. I helped Molly label these thoughts- they are intrusive thoughts- they are uninvited and come on their own without invitation and indeed can be quite disturbing, but, they are actually quite normal.

As new mothers the idea of being solely responsible for the well being and protection of a precious new little life can be quite overwhelming and indeed anxiety provoking and therefore intrusive thoughts are quite normal and common. These thoughts are a common way for the human mind to test out scenarios  especially when it’s an issue of importance or the person is in a state of increased anxiety. Well, here we are new mom (common increased anxiety) and something she cares about (clearly it’s her baby) and so intrusive thoughts show up.

Donald Winnicott, a prominent English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “maternal preoccupation” to describe the early mental process when a mothers mind is constantly focused on her baby. He depicted the optimal “holding” environment for a new baby to thrive as one in which the mother is psychically and physically present for the infant’s needs. That is, just as a new mother is constantly physically occupied with her newborn baby’s needs (diaper, feed, nap repeat!), so too is her mind constantly occupied by nap times, feed times, and concerns over baby‘s physical and emotional safety and health. Winnicott explained that the mother’s mental  preoccupation, and sensitive responding to baby, facilitates the building of a secure attachment bond which is grounded in mom and babe tuning in to one another’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Moreover, there is now scientific evidence to support the normalcy of maternal preoccupation. There are brain changes such as changes in grey matter, that occur in most women post partum. These changes help the mother to be increasingly empathic toward her baby’s experience, while devoting less “brain space” to other trivial stuff like memories of what was for dinner the day before (Insert “mommy brain experience” here).

Despite worrying being part of a normal maternal mental process, at times this experience of preoccupation can also cause a mother undue distress. A mother may feel her mind is unrelenting with thoughts of baby’s well being or she may constantly obsess over bad things happening. When the anxiety feels inescapable, even the most basic decision making becomes difficult. For many this is exacerbated by the information overload and constant opinions from well meaning friends, family (and strangers in grocery lines!). When the scary thoughts feel all consuming and interfere with daily functioning or when a mother starts to develop behaviors to attempt to ward off the “bad” from happening, then it’s possible the mom is struggling with postpartum anxiety or post partum OCD. Indeed, If a new mother finds herself wondering whether her worries and scary thoughts are too much, or she struggles to know what is real or not real, then it is very important to seek professional opinion and support. A mother should not feel alone and plagued by these thoughts.

Indeed, it is common to avoid seeking advice or support because the constant worry and anxiety feels embarrassing or shameful. The problem is that shame over scary thoughts, perceiving them as dangerous and unacceptable, or as evidence of being a bad mother, can make these thoughts even more pervasive.  That is, the secrecy and shame increases feelings of sadness, loneliness and guilt which perpetuates the scary thoughts themselves. Alternatively, sharing these thoughts with a trusted friend, family member or professional may help with tolerating and accepting the dichotomy of emotional experience in motherhood- the love and hate, happiness and sadness, anxiety and calm. The goal when experiencing these scary thoughts is to be able to notice these thoughts, acknowledge them, and then let them go.

A word on trauma: if a new mother has experienced an overwhelming, incomprehensible and devastating psychological experience (be it in childhood, throughout her lifespan, in pregnancy or previous pregnancies, or in labor or birth), scary thoughts can emerge as a fear of the experience reoccurring or as a fear of something else uncontrollable happening. Like a lighthouse, the mind starts to scan the environment for the next ship- the next bad thing- as if catching it before it happens will keep her safe.  This form of “hypervigilance” gives power to the scary thought: it’s the belief that the mother is protecting herself or her baby by obsessing/not taking her mind off of the bad that may happen. If you are worried about how a difficult experience has affected you – and wonder if you are reacting to it or if your scary thoughts are connected to it, talking to a professional is really important and you deserve the support.

The important take home? If you would like to consult a professional about your experience of worries and scary thoughts post partum, you should always feel you can. It may be normal to worry as a new mom, but you should never be suffering in your worries. If you do not know where to turn, you can always look at PSI (post partum support international) for a list of professionals trained in perinatal mental health in your area. You are not – and should not- feel alone.

For further information or to contact the author
Dr. Tanya Cotler
Cotler.phd@gmail.com