By Jo Bealey
We all know motherhood can be portrayed as beautiful, with cuddly babies and full of love, but us parents understand the reality-it’s a journey that comes with its fair share of shadows. In early parenthood, behind the peaceful baby Instagram picture are unspoken fears, doubts, and scary thoughts that every mother battles with. I want to write this blog as an exploration and exposure into the common maternal vulnerability, and the nature of scary thoughts, the overwhelming intrusive thoughts, and the reasons why many mums choose not to share them.
During my first pregnancy, it was this aspect of motherhood that I was naively but blissfully unaware of. However, in those precious days after welcoming my baby boy into the world, it was like someone flipped a switch-I changed. I was no longer the ‘go with the flow, laid-back’ girl; I became someone I didn’t recognise-a sleep-deprived, anxious mess. My body remained in a fixated state of tension, and my mind.. it never, ever stopped. Ever. I was constantly on high alert- thoughts about my son’s well-being, breathing, hunger, and keeping him safe. Then there were the weird, abstract, and intrusive thoughts-what if I drop him? What if he slipped in the bath? What if his pram was run over? What if someone comes through the window? Of course, the continual touching my baby’s tummy to check he was breathing too. This went on for months and months.
My body remained in a fixated state of tension, and my mind.. it never, ever stopped. Ever. I was constantly on high alert- thoughts about my son’s well-being, breathing, hunger, and keeping him safe.
It saddens me that it is only 10 years later I’m sharing this. At the time, I wasn’t comfortable or capable of articulating the whirlwind state my mind was in. I feared judgment, the label of being an unfit mother, and how other professionals might view me. I was offered a tick box form to share how I was feeling, but inevitably I lied. In sharing my own experience, I hope to contribute to the idea that flawless, calm motherhood does not exist. Like many mothers, I have grappled with scary thoughts that, at times, felt overwhelming-thoughts of accidental harm, feelings of worth, and relentless, excessive worry have been constant companions on my journey.
The idea that ALL mums have scary thoughts might be surprising to some, but for many, I hope it is reassuring. Research and mental health professionals affirm that such thoughts are not only common but entirely normal. The spectrum of scary thoughts can be a whole range of concerns, ranging from accidental harm to intentional harm, a baby’s health and safety, sexual thoughts, and distressing images. The patterns of scary thinking may manifest as excessive worry, thoughts about future situations perceived as dangerous, rumination, obsessive thoughts, intrusive memories, and catastrophic misinterpretations.
These thoughts are not indicative of a mother’s personality or capabilities but are often intrusive, unwanted, and fuelled by postpartum, psychosocial, and physiological changes.
Emerging neuroimaging research has provided insight into changes in the maternal brain during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. These changes in the brain and the hormone shifts play a large part in why we feel we are at times losing our minds. It is because we literally are. These new brain adaptations and changes help new mothers’ ability to respond sensitively to their babies by ensuring a secure bond between the two. Research has shown that first-time mothers had greater neural responses to infant cues (e.g., infant faces, cry stimuli) than second-time mothers. New mothers also have a heightened reactivity to threatening stimuli that help promote protective behaviour towards their babies. Our body is supporting us in helping us become better mothers; however, as I’m sure you know, this state of constant hyper-arousal can be both exhausting and intrusive.