If I lift him a bit higher, I could throw him into the river.
I imagine my son’s little body flying through the air before breaking the cold water’s surface. In my mind’s eye, I see his head bopping among the waves, before being dragged under by the current as he’s pulled away from me forever.
But instead, I press his body against mine, bury my face in his curls, brush my nose against the nape of his neck and sniff his scent into me. I hope it will ground me back into this moment, and back into reality. We wave at the boats passing below as we stand on the bridge. I grip him tighter and take a deep breath, and brush the thought out of my mind.
These unwanted thoughts, detailing in intricate scenes my worst nightmares of purposely or accidentally hurting my children, play out in my head at unexpected moments. They come with no warning, the visions slapping me across the face, causing me to physically shudder.
When I cross the road, I can picture my hands slowly letting go of the pram and watching it gently gliding into the road, and cars ploughing into it – my children still inside. When I walk down the stairs, I imagine falling down with my baby in my arms. When I dress my baby, I worry a strange force will suddenly overtake me and make me jab my fingers into his fontanelle. I lie awake at night, wondering how sturdy my building’s foundations are – and how likely it is that the ceiling above my son’s cot will cave in, and whether I will be strong enough to dig him out of the rubble by myself.
“Although I knew I would never hurt my children, the thoughts felt so vivid and all-encompassing, and I felt too scared to talk about them to anyone”
The first time one of these visions happened, a medley of shame and fear clung onto me. I felt like I was going to crumble under this additional unwelcome weight, mounted atop the other pressures and worries that come along with being a first-time mum. Am I broken? Am I crazy? Am I a danger to myself, or my children? Although I knew I would never hurt my children, the thoughts felt so vivid and all-encompassing, and I felt too scared to talk about them to anyone – and so I carried the guilt and shame on my shoulders like some kind of burdensome invisibility cloak.
When we become mothers, it’s as if we gain instant access to an exclusive members’ club – one where some topics are strictly off limits. We don’t tend to talk about how it’s not just our whole worlds that change along with motherhood – but our entire brain structure changes, too. Our brains are wired to become responsive to the needs of our newborns, and we’re biologically programmed to scan our environment for anything that might endanger our infants. But sometimes, our brain goes into overdrive and we stay in a state of hypervigilance, triggering a constant fight or flight response which is not viable in the long term.
And so here we are, presented with the most precious little bundle we have ever held in our arms – and the thought of anything bad happening to the tiny, vulnerable being that we have created, is unbearable. Our brains are magical things that are able to create whole worlds inside them. We are able to grow, mourn, love, laugh, and dream of worlds with limitless possibilities. Having a child means all our hopes and dreams are placed in one tiny human-sized package. But so too are our fears. Suddenly, death seems a step closer; more tangible – and we want to keep it as far away from our reality as possible.
Intrusive thoughts feed on tiredness, stress, hormonal changes, anxiety and depression – which you might recognise are the core ingredients that make up large chunks of many new parents’ existence. It might be that, in a world where the weight of the expectations of new mums is at its peak, it’s all too much for our brains. We are expected to hold it together, and juggle being a fulfilled mother, an attentive partner, while maintaining a successful career. Perhaps the modern way of life is not compatible with these drastic changes that happen in our brains, and so something’s gotta give?
“I was determined not to let my thoughts control me, so I started speaking about them, and acknowledging their existence.”
Intrusive thoughts also feed on secrecy, shame and guilt. Therapy or online courses can help, but the most important thing to do is to not let them take hold of us. If our thoughts start trickling into our reality, that’s the time to get help. If they are preventing us from doing things, it’s time to do something about them.
I was determined not to let my thoughts control me, so I started speaking about them, and acknowledging their existence. Although he is fully supportive, I know my husband doesn’t really get it. Why would he? I totally understand how strange and scary it all must sound. But talking about it helps, nonetheless. Luckily, I also have a close-knit online community of mums to talk to and compare notes on intrusive thoughts and other things. Slowly, the thoughts started fading. Slowly, the fog I was walking in started to clear. Slowly, I started gaining control over them, instead of the other way around.
But how do you bring up something like this in a conversation? “I have vivid visions of horrible things happening to my kids, does this happen to you too?” doesn’t really seem like a great conversation-starter at a baby massage class. But having spoken to other mothers, it seems having intrusive thoughts is very common.
So if intrusive thoughts are a universal experience among so many mums, why have we never heard of it? Why is maternal mental health – and the unattractive scary side of it, still taboo? How many mothers are currently worrying themselves sick, thinking there is something wrong with them?
These thoughts breed the more we fear them. By giving them a name, I am taking power away from them. I am a brilliant mother, and having intrusive thoughts does not make me anything less. My thoughts will not become me. These thoughts will not own me. They will not define me. And so I acknowledge them, and let them swirl around my brain briefly – but then I whisk them far away from my mind, and descend firmly onto this planet, and go back to reading my children their bedtime story.
Ndéla Faye is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at @NdelaFaye
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