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
Mothers put their children before anything-if you’re a parent, this probably isn’t news to you! The love, commitment and protectiveness we feel toward our children is truly transformative. But how much are moms sacrificing in the name of maternal love?
The degree to which moms are neglecting their own needs in favour of their families’ is impacting both their day-to-day wellness and long-term health goals. The worrisome results of a recent survey reveal that Canadian moms are not taking great care of themselves, instead prioritizing other responsibilities and the health of their children at a personal cost.
So what are moms foregoing in favour of their family duties? The research found that mothers will put off visits to the doctor, exercise and personal pursuits to better serve their children. Moms also make healthy eating a bigger priority for their families than they do for their own diets.
These are troubling findings- though easy enough to believe and understand. What’s important for moms to remember however, is that self-care is an important part of being a good parent. Here are some reasons why.
1. Taking care of yourself will lower your stress. Getting too wrapped up in your maternal duties can cause major burnout. Between bake sales, daycare, soccer lessons and laundry, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Without planned breaks you not only lose some of your personal fulfillment and pursuits- you can also begin to feel like you’re on a hamster wheel with no end in sight. The tasks and chores and everyday trials will never stop- so you need to. Instead of waiting for a break, take one. This will help you calm down, refocus, and return to your other tasks with more clarity and balance.
2. You’ll boost your energy. When you stop making things like nutrition, sleep and exercise priorities in your life, your energy is (unsurprisingly) going to dip. So don’t think of these things as sacrifices for the greater good- see them for what they are: unfair denials to yourself that will prevent you from being an active and energized parent. You need to fuel and strengthen your body properly for one of your most important jobs: being a mother.
3. You’ll see a rise in your mood and an increase in your patience. A rested mom is a calm, rational and patient one. You may not realize how a lack of sleep, a sore back, or low blood sugar are affecting your mood –and by extension, your parenting. Prioritizing your health will help you to keep a clear head, which is important in your role as disciplinarian, adjudicator and teacher.
4. You’ll set a positive example. Think about what your personal neglect is communicating to your children. By making their health a priority but not your own, you may be unknowingly teaching them double standards, or suggesting that their learned behaviours end with adulthood. Try taking a more holistic approach by demonstrating that things like good nutrition and sleep schedules are important for kids and grown-ups alike. In adulthood we also often mimic the parenting styles with which we were brought up. If you’re stretched too thin your children may come to view this as a normal expectation of parents and adults.
5. You have a responsibility to yourself and your family. Being an active, available, present parent requires that you be healthy. If you want to be around for your children for many years to come, it’s never too early to start taking your health seriously.
A lifting guide for new moms from BabyZone provides parents with an important reminder: many mothers suffer from repetitive stress injuries from the daily physical demands of lifting, carrying and loading their infants into the car seat, high chair and crib. Preoccupied with the demands of newborn care and postpartum recovery, many moms easily overlook the fact that the regular care of a new baby can take its toll on many parts of the body, including neck, upper and lower back, arms, hips and knees.
A guide such as this is an important resource for learning how to avoid injury and muscle strain. In addition to complementary care such as regular chiropractic adjustments and massage therapy, we highly recommend following an informed set of lifting guidelines. Here are some of the best practices found in the article that we support and advise to our new moms as well.
When carrying a car seat: many moms make the mistake of putting the car seat handle over their forearm. They lean sideways at the hip to accommodate the bulk and weight. This strains muscles in the back and will eventually cause pain to the arm holding the seat. Instead, grip the handle with both hands and carry the car seat in front of your body. Avoid standing and holding the car seat when it isn’t necessary- if you pause to chat outside your car, put the car seat inside first, or set it down at your feet.
When lifting your baby out of the crib: Make sure to lower the railing. BabyZone’s guide is right to point out that lifting and holding the infant at arm’s length puts too much pressure on your spinal disks. Your arms will tire much more easily the further the baby is from your body. Instead, lower the railing, bring baby close to you, and lift from your knees.
Another common mistake occurs when lifting your toddler up onto your lap. Most moms will lean forward and pick the child up while still seated themselves. BabyZone warns that this increases the weight of pressure on your spine anywhere from 3 to 10 times! To your spine, you’re no longer lifting a 15lb toddler- you could be experiencing as much as 150lbs of stress to your spinal discs.
Instead, get on the floor with your baby. Kneel on one knee and lift using your whole body. Then sit down together on the chair or sofa.
With any of these daily lifting scenarios, be mindful of your own discomfort- if you start to feel recurring pain or think you’ve injured yourself, don’t ignore it! Repeatedly stressing the same muscles and discs could exacerbate the problem quickly. Instead, treat your body well, be careful when lifting, and remember that caring for an infant or toddler can be a major physical demand.