Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." - Isaiah 30:21

Monday, August 6, 2012

Scary, Secret Thoughts

When Delaney was two, I remarked to a friend, "I had no idea that after you have a baby you can picture the most horrific, awful things happening to them. And so vividly!" After a second of hesitation she said, "Isn't that a sign of postpartum depression?" I shrugged. Nah. She must have misunderstood me. I was so in love with my baby. Moms with PPD didn't feel that way. They were distant, and sad. I was blissful. I just worried about her a lot. Of course I would worry about someone so precious. Of course the graphic visual of something terrible and violent happening would make my heart race and my palms sweat. That was just part of new mom territory. 


No. No, it isn't. 

During my childbirth educator training, and in my subsequent work with Elliot Hospital's awesome Perinatal Mood Disorder Taskforce, I learned a lot more about postpartum depression and anxiety. I began to suspect that I had had moderate postpartum anxiety with Laney and also with Liam, although it manifested differently. Then I read this, and a few weeks later I read this, and I knew it. 

"Scary thoughts" were the worst part. If you, like me, happy to be link-lazy, here's just a little sample from the first one above:
"Scary thoughts are negative, repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that can bombard you at any time. They can come out of nowhere . . . Scary thoughts can come in the form of thoughts ('what if I burn the baby in the bathtub?') or images (picture the baby falling off the changing table). Scary thoughts can be indirect or passive (something might happen to the baby) or they can imply intention (thoughts or images of you throwing the baby against the wall).
I read that, in a handout given to me by the wonderful woman who just happens to be the director of the Taskforce above, and showed it to Jake. "This is what I had! This is what I went through with Laney exactly! It's, like, a thing!!!" There was something wrong and there was a name for it. I'm not sure I can describe what a relief that was. 

The scary thoughts returned with a vengeance when Rowan came, especially during her NICU stay, but by then I could recognize them for what they were. I could, as the first article suggests, remember that my brain was playing a trick on me. And this time, I talked to my midwife and got a referral to a mental health counselor. 

Now here's the thing. Birthworkers are getting better about addressing PPD and recognizing its various forms. But you know what else birth professionals like to talk about? The Law of Attraction. It was popularized by The Secret (and Oprah) a few years ago, and continues to make the rounds in the holistic-y, alternative-ish, kinda sorta new age-y circles I sometimes frequent. Most importantly, the ideas can pop up when we discuss planning for an unmedicated birth. 

From one forum site, here are a few basic principles of the Law:
  • Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting
  • We are like magnets - like attract like. You become AND attract what you think
  • Every thought has a frequency. Thoughts send out a magnetic energy
  • People think about what they don't want and attract more of the same
  • Thought = creation. If these thoughts are attached to powerful emotions (good or bad) that speeds the creation (emphasis added). 
Please read those principles again and think about how they might affect a new mother struggling with Scary Thoughts. 

Admittedly, I can't speak to the specifics of the Law of Attraction, because I never got into it. (Never got into an ideology that tells me the mere fact that I repeatedly picture my eight-week-old being tortured in front of me by a member of Al Qaeda means it's going to happen? Shocker.) What I do know are the basic principles. And this gem, further down the list on the same site: "EVERYTHING in your life you have attracted .. accept that fact ..
it's true" (emphasis and deplorable grammar original).

The teaching on scary thoughts is to not obsess over them. Recognize them for what they are, and focus your attention elsewhere. But the reason for that is to keep yourself sane, NOT to prevent them from manifesting in reality.

When presented appropriately, yes, the Law of Attraction can be channeled into something positive. Hell, I've taught it. I've said to many women that we should not fear birth, that we should look forward to a positive experience, that we should expect it, even. I always have, and always will, stop short of suggesting that if you worry about it, it's going to happen. And you can bet I will never tell a parent who experiences a bad outcome that it's her fault because she thought about it too much. 

Duh, right? How obvious. Who would do that? 

But proponents of the Law of Attraction imply this, however unintentionally. (Ah, nice healthy dose of irony there.) When I read those principles, it says I made Rowan be born early, necessitating a month in the NICU, and it says that if I worry about her, I'm going to make bad things happen to her. You know what? Don't tell me that. Just don't. 

This is the closest I come to philosophy-bashing. My own evaluation of the Law of Attraction, at least the positive side, is that it's simply another way to express subconscious thought. You want something, you focus your attention on it, you're going to work for it. You want to get a Coach purse at the end of the month, so you wind up buying fewer lattes. Do you picture the Coach purse each time you brew coffee at home? Probably not, but the intention is still there. No vision board necessary. 

So. As a birthworker who has occasionally (or maybe not so occasionally) said something I shouldn't have, and as a survivor of PPD, I'm asking you to consider the way you present your ideas. If you embrace the law of attraction, how do you talk to your clients / patients / friends about bad outcomes? Do you ease their guilt, or do you compound it? Do you allow them to express their fears, or do you suppress them? 

I know why I was bad at teaching unexpected outcomes for so many years. It's because I was terrified of them. I shortchanged my students and did not do my part to prepare them adequately for Plan B, or C, or D. I didn't spend enough time stressing that, if they didn't have the birth they wanted, it WAS. NOT. THEIR. FAULT. For that, I am sorry. 

Thank God for therapy. And by the way, my therapist is nothing like I pictured. 


  1. You're certainly not alone in that. Granted for me it wasn't PPD, just basic ol' D. I had a very rough patch after a friend of mine passed away and "scary thoughts" ruled my life. It's something that's not really talked about as a symptom of anything, but it's important to address that as you said, "fixing them" are to keep you sane, not to prevent you from acting anything out. It can be really scary to handle, but you can get through them!

  2. This hits home, big time. Thought this was totally normal. Thanks!

  3. Jen, this is very nice. You never do stop worrying about your kids. FYI, I dropped Catie in a trash can when she was two weeks old. I had never been around babies and forgot to support her head. Fortunately, the trash can was filled with newspapers and she had a soft landing.

  4. Oh Jenny...I wish you were around when I was a new mommy with Lexie. I experienced the exact same thing, and still do from time to time. And I never thought it was PPD. Isn't that when mother's fear they will hurt their own baby? I never thought that. I was just able to picture all the ways that she may possible get hurt, vividly. Nightmares. And about Ben too. Like him getting in a car accident on his way home from work. I was terrified every morning when he left, that he wouldn't come home. It was awful. I felt so alone. And so hard to talk about with others. I still have some horrible nightmares (my most common is seeing Lexie catch on fire). Unreal, right? But horrible. And it pops into my head sometimes and completely takes over me like pure torture. We should definitely talk.

  5. Thanks, everybody, for sharing your experiences! Postpartum mood disorders can take so many different forms, and unfortunately most of us have only stories like Andrea Yates that we associate with it. I decided to share my experience because it was only with my THIRD child (and involvement with PPD on a professional level rather than a personal one) that I fully accepted I was suffering and needed to do something about it - despite knowing for years that both my family history and personal history put me at an elevated risk anyway.
    The blog Postpartum Progress by Katherine Stone (http://www.postpartumprogress.com/)is an excellent, comprehensive source of information on the different forms PPD, etc. can take, and offers a lot of support. Postpartum Support International (http://www.postpartum.net/)is another great resource. I don't think I can put hyperlinks in the comments, but you can cut and paste either of those into your browser for detailed information.
    Meeting with a counselor or therapist is invaluable, and I'm so glad I decided to do it. There are also a lot of community support groups, including a great group that meets locally. And I am always here to talk as a friend if anyone wants.