It started when T was 5 weeks old.
I’d read and heard other mum’s say that they could recognise their babies’ different cries. Well my baby was 5 weeks old and I still had to work my way through hungry? nappy? hot? cold? etc. to figure out what was wrong when T was crying. Surely I should have some sort of instinct and recognise his cries, or was I already failing at being a mother?
This was compounded by what happened when I met up for coffee with a friend who has two children (and is also a children’s nurse). T’s cries were escalating and I could feel the eyes of everyone in the cafe on me. I desperately tried to shove my boob in his mouth while wanting the ground to swallow me up. He didn’t seem to want to latch but I kept trying.
Then my friend took him off me and jiggled him. Within moments he was peaceful in her arms. Looking back, I know my friend could see my discomfort and her experience with children meant she knew exactly what to do to help. At the time I saw it as a huge criticism of my parenting and could feel tears pricking my eyes.
After this things escalated. I was feeling very low and started having what I now know are called ‘intrusive thoughts’. I remember vividly the first time it happened. T was crying for ages one night while I tried to get him to sleep. Suddenly a thought appeared from nowhere, why don’t you throw him down the stairs?
This terrified me. I loved that baby boy so much, how could I possibly think such an awful thing? The more I tried to get the thought out of my mind, the stronger it got. Eventually he went to sleep and I sat and cried.
I continued to have intrusive thoughts. Some were of accidentally hurting him. I imagined car accidents. I thought about letting go of the pram while out walking and it rolling in front of a car. I imagined myself falling down the stairs and being killed and T crying for hours until S came home to find us.
But worse were the thoughts of intentionally hurting him. They were the ones that haunted me. I knew I would never, ever hurt my precious little boy, so why did I keep thinking about it? Obviously I couldn’t tell anyone or they would take my baby away.
I felt like a terrible mother. I would cry and cry. I remember sitting on the sofa crying because I was such an awful mother and feeling horribly guilty for not interacting with my baby. Which then made me feel worse and I cried some more. I lied at my 6 week check up when they asked me screening questions for post-natal depression.
After a couple of weeks of feeling like this, I realised that my feelings were spiralling out of control. I needed to do something about this and started challenging my negative thoughts and beliefs as they arose. I realised that thinking awful thoughts is not the same as acting on them. I began to understand that the thoughts were borne out of sleep deprivation and the extreme pressure I was feeling to be a good mum. I started to interact with T more. I started to enjoy my son and the intrusive thoughts came less frequently.
I don’t believe that I had post-natal depression because it only lasted a matter of weeks. However, I do believe that if I hadn’t managed to break the cycle of negative beliefs, it could have taken me much longer to feel better. I blame the pressure that I felt to be a perfect mum fuelled by postnatal hormones for the dark thoughts and feelings.
A couple of months ago I was pretty sleep-deprived. T was teething and his sleep was awful. I found myself having intrusive thoughts again. This time I was in a less vulnerable state but was still frightened by them so I took to google to find out what they were. I discovered that everybody has them from time to time. Like when you see a train coming and think about throwing yourself under it. Or imagining what would happen if you veered into oncoming traffic. Thinking it isn’t the same as doing it.
I also found this study that assessed 100 women at 4 and 12 weeks postpartum. The researchers found that
“Postpartum intrusive thoughts of accidental harm to the infant were universal, and close to half of the sample reported unwanted thoughts of intentionally harming their infant.”
So nearly half of us have thought of intentionally hurting our babies, yet no one talks about it? I guess because it is such an awful thing to admit, no one wants to say anything. But it’s so common! I would have felt so much better if I’d known that these thoughts are normal.
Intrusive means ‘unwanted.’ You don’t want to have these thoughts and you have no control over them. Having intrusive thoughts is not the same as acting on them. It doesn’t make you a bad mum or a bad person.
Maybe new mums should be warned about them in antenatal classes, or they should be mentioned in baby books. Midwives and health visitors could talk to women about them so it’s not so terrifying and upsetting if it happens to you.
I worry about how I will feel if we’re lucky enough to have baby number two. But I think being prepared will be half the battle. I don’t expect to be able to figure out exactly why my baby’s crying when they’re still brand new. I won’t put so much pressure on myself or worry about what the books or other mums say. I know that intrusive thoughts are normal. I know sleep deprivation affects my mental health. I know that my husband would understand and would help me if I started to spiral into a dark place again, if only I would let him in. Maybe things will be better next time.