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7 eye-opening reasons why new moms don’t share their scary thoughts

The awesome responsibility of caring for a newborn naturally warrants a heightened sense of vigilance. Sometimes this necessary state of watchfulness can be confusing. At every turn, a new mother believes a crisis is looming. Afraid of slipping and dropping the baby, she holds them extra tightly while she goes down the stairs. Afraid of a disaster in the night, she keeps herself awake to hear the silent sounds of breathing. If she falls asleep from sheer fatigue, she dreams of causing the baby harm through her own negligence.

Here are some reasons why postpartum women don't share these scary thoughts:

1. The ambiguity factor

One reason why postpartum women don't talk about the thoughts that are having is that they are not sure what is "normal" and what may be problematic. This is due to the overlapping experiences between women with postpartum anxiety or depression and women with no such diagnosis.

For example: fatigue, loss of libido, moodiness, weepiness, changes in weight, sleep disturbance, and low energy can all be attributed to anxiety and depression, yet they are also considered to be within normal expectations for postpartum adjustment. Because moods and other internal experiences are expected to fluctuate following childbirth, women sometimes decide it is best to brave any discomfort and hope it goes away by itself.

Unfortunately, scary thoughts are not easy to ride out. What's more, without proper assessment, a woman's worry about these thoughts can rapidly disintegrate from initial concern to panic.

2. The critical inner voice

The shame that can accompany upsetting thoughts is unbearable. What is wrong with me? How can I be thinking these things? Good mothers don't think such terrible thoughts. Often, the only explanation that makes sense to a mother who is trying to reconcile this disturbing experience is that there is something profoundly wrong with her, something is broken inside. Maybe she is close to insanity. Or maybe she is not fit to be a mother. Either option, or anything in between, is a nightmare. This nightmare stuns many women into silence. They hope that if they can just hold their breath and carry off this role-play, their awful thoughts will somehow go away. In some instances, the thoughts actually do go away. Usually, they do not.

Other women tirelessly try to push the thoughts out of their minds, but are distraught when the thoughts return in full force. Some women can express the horror of their thoughts along with the abysmal shame that accompanies them, but, for many, the actual articulation of the specific thoughts, the words they fear would somehow make the thoughts come alive, remain locked inside.

Women say they are embarrassed, ashamed, mortified, humiliated and guilty beyond description. They say they feel hideously exposed, naked, repulsive, raw, nauseous, ugly and sickened by their own thoughts. Some say they feel so appalled by the nature of their thoughts that they feel inhuman, as if only a monster could possess and admit such atrocities.

An important point here is that high level of distress indicates that the scary thoughts are ego-dystonic, or incompatible with the woman's sense of herself. Although it is never easy to experience such high levels of distress, there is considerably more concern when a woman expresses no such distress or displays no strong affect attached to this worry. Thus, a woman's agitation is often a signal that anxiety is the mechanism at work and not something more worrisome, like psychosis. Knowing this can reassure both the distressed mother and her healthcare provider.

Shame-based barriers to disclosing one's thoughts can be fueled by the critic inside one's own head. With regard to the critical inner voice, mothers report they are reluctant to reveal scary thoughts because they:

  • Fear that they are the only mother who has ever felt this way and that no one could possibly understand.
  • Believe that the thoughts they are having are an indication that something is terribly wrong.
  • Worry if they admit this, they will indeed be crazy.
  • Worry they will be locked up or institutionalized.
  • Fear that saying it out loud will make the bad thought a reality.
  • Believe that good mothers don't think these thoughts.
  • Hate themselves for having the thoughts and remain stifled by intense shame and guilt.
  • May not be comfortable talking about how they feel, in general.

3. The sentencing

Many women say they are extremely apprehensive about being labeled or diagnosed as mentally ill. Although it's true that a number of women diagnosed with postpartum anxiety or depression express relief in knowing that it is a real medical condition that is treatable, most continue to feel burdened by what others might think. Any stigma attached to motherhood presents as an oxymoron of sorts; it weighs heavily on the heart of a mother trying to do her best and impedes postpartum healing.

Common barriers related to what others might think are:

  • Worry that someone will judge them.
  • Worry that someone will label them as bad mothers.
  • Worry that someone will take their baby away.
  • Worry that their partner or family will deem them incapable of taking care of the baby.
  • Don't think a health provider wants to know or can even help or may not trust them to understand and respond appropriately.
  • Don't see mental health issues as part of their provider's job description.
  • Have concerns about confidentiality and what may happen if they reveal what they are thinking.

The bottom line here is that if mothers are not careful, this propensity to condemn their thoughts or behavior in some way shifts the authority of these thoughts in the wrong direction, thereafter empowering the thoughts even more. Women need to speak on their own behalf, trust their inclinations to reach out for support, and worry less about what misinformed friends, acquaintances or healthcare providers might think.

4. The depression factor

Women with depression think negatively. Some theorize that biological factors influence negative thinking, which can lead to depression. Others claim that pessimistic or negative thought processes can contribute to the emergence of depression. Though this question of biology versus cognitive factors in depression is up for debate, experts agree there is a significant and constant correlation between the two.

When thoughts are distorted, perceptions become darker, scarier, and magnified out of proportion. Nerves are exposed, leaving women feeling hypersensitive and thin-skinned. This feeling of over-exposure can create a sense of mistrust in the outside world; women can grow suspicious of how others might respond to knowing the "truth" about what they were thinking and feeling.

Depression is a very self-absorbing illness. It can rob women of their desire to seek appropriate care and can interfere with any effort to even try. Depressive thinking can inhibit attempts to deal appropriately with scary thoughts by distorting or exaggerating the possible outcomes of disclosing. Making a good decision on one's own behalf is stymied when everything is perceived through the lens of depressive thinking.

5. The propaganda factor

There are tons of misunderstandings and misperceptions surrounding this phenomenon of scary thoughts during motherhood. This lack of knowledge spans from woman to woman, to healthcare professionals, and to society as a whole. Postpartum women frequently find themselves at the mercy of well-meaning, but often misinformed, family and friends. Family and friends can be incredible sources of support, but they can also unwittingly sabotage a mother's recovery with false information.

In addition, dedicated health care professionals are not always correctly informed and can react in ways that cause further difficulties for a struggling mother. Generalizations that are splashed in print or other media outlets may not be pertinent to a mother who is suffering, or, they may be totally irrelevant or erroneous. Internalizing more negative information can reinforce the inherent resistance to seek help. It is best not to place too much emphasis on unsubstantiated statements and always check out the sources of information that may be potentially agitating.

6. The community factor

The stigma of mental illness is pervasive. It remains steadfast, in spite of current wisdom and widespread attempts to inform and enlighten women and healthcare providers across cultures. Although we must be alert to specific cultural expectations that can impose high standards for mothers to meet, we cannot ignore the research literature, which consistently demonstrates that communities with strong social support provide shelter and yield lower rates of postpartum depression.

This dichotomy can send mixed messages to the mother who is trying to juggle her desire to comply with expectations from all directions. The message to new mothers should be for her to prioritize her social support, regardless of the pressure she feels from either a perceived stigma or cultural mandate. In many cases, and in many cultures, women claim that, despite ongoing and abundant support, the expectation to only express positive feelings attached to the mothering experience remains high.

The tendency for women with acute distress to suffer in silence persists, reinforcing the concern that social support systems, though crucial to postpartum healing, remain inadequate to some extent. Perhaps the greatest menace is the inability to accept the presence of negative thoughts and feelings during this time. Only when this takes place can we expect postpartum women to speak from their heart and break through their reluctance to disclose.

7. The 'what if' factor

The best way to summarize the anxiety-drenched roadblocks to disclosure of scary thoughts is to view them in terms of "what ifs." All or any of the previous-mentioned barriers culminate to create this ultimate deterrent: What if something bad happens as a result of my disclosure?

When you are in, or expect to be in, a potentially anxiety-provoking situation, such as disclosing your scary thoughts, you might respond by focusing on imaginary dangers. This is referred to as anticipatory anxiety which is typically characterized by what-if thinking patterns.

For example:

  • What if they take my baby taken away?
  • What if they call Child Protection Services?
  • What if they think I'm a bad mother?
  • What if they don't like me?
  • What if they think I'm crazy?
  • What if they put me in a hospital?
  • What if they think I could really hurt my baby?
  • What if I really do hurt my baby?
  • What if this means I really AM crazy?
  • What if my husband leaves me?
  • What if I never get better?
  • What if I can't really trust this person?
  • What if they can't help me?
  • What if they can help me, but I am labeled for life?
  • What if my friends/neighbors find out (and think I'm crazy)?
  • What if my mom (parents, family) think I am not a good mother?
  • What if someone at my other children's school finds out, and this affects my other children?
  • What if people at work find out, and it affects my career?
  • What if letting someone know how I feel makes it more real somehow.
  • What if I will always feel and think this way?

Imagine if we put all of this anxiety to good use!

It is possible, conversely, to have a list of what-ifs with a positive spin:

  • What if I talk about what I'm thinking, and I get the help I need?
  • What if my husband (family, friend, doctor) reassures me, and I am comforted by my decision to talk about this?
  • What if by talking about this, I get relief, and I feel less guilty?
  • What if talking about it frees me up to make room for other feelings, such as joy or serenity?
  • What if I trust myself and the people around me and take a leap of faith that I will get help or reassurance?
  • What if I discover that what I am feeling and thinking is not so bizarre and that lots of other women feel this way?
  • What if it's true that the way I am feeling is a common response to motherhood?
  • What if I believe this can and will get better?

Generally speaking, it appears that postpartum women appreciate being able to talk to a sympathetic and supportive listener, allowing them to express their fears and unburden themselves. Intervention at this level rests with efforts to increase awareness of their irrational fears, while establishing a context in which women can feel safe to express what they think and feel. Once this begins, women will learn to feel more confident about the process and will be better equipped to restructure some of their thinking patterns and begin to heal.

Adapted from Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts co-authored by Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel, PhD. Originally posted on Psychology Today.

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Seeing your baby for the first time is an amazing experience for any parent. For most parents, the months preceding this meeting were probably spent imagining what the baby was experiencing inside the womb, trying to paint a realistic picture on top of that two-dimensional black and white ultrasound photo.

But thanks to Brazillian birth photographer Janaina Oliveira and a baby boy named Noah, parents around the world are now better able to imagine what their baby's world looked like between the ultrasound picture and their first breath.

While most babies are born without their amniotic sac intact, Noah entered the world (via C-section), still cocooned inside his. This is known as an en caul birth, and while it wasn't the first Oliveira has captured through her lens, it is likely now the most famous of her photographs.

After she posted Noah's birth photos to Instagram, Oliveira's photos went viral, making headlines around the world.

This slideshow is amazing.

In a Facebook post, Noah's mom Monyck Valasco explains that she had a tough pregnancy with Noah, and is so grateful that he did not arrive too early.

Noah is now something of a celebrity in his hometown of Vila Velha, Brazil, but local media reports he was actually one of three en caul babies born at the Praia da Costa Hospital in just one month. Birth photographer Janaina Oliveira actually captured all three en caul births on camera. Little Matais arrived before Noah, and baby Laura came afterward, both en caul.

These photographs are as breathtaking as the babies featured in them and remind mothers around the world that our bodies were once someone's whole world. And now they are ours.

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Alexis Ohanian has made a lot of important decisions in his life. The decision to co-found Reddit is a pretty big one. So was marrying Serena Williams. But right up there with changing internet culture and making a commitment to his partner, the venture capitalist lists taking time off after his daughter's birth as a significant, life-changing choice.

"My understanding of showing up and being present for my wife was taken to a whole new level when Olympia was born. I was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave from Reddit, and it was one of the most important decisions I've made," Ohanian says in an essay for Glamour.

A nearly four-month parental leave is something too few American mothers, let alone fathers, get to take. Even when fathers work for companies that offer generous parental leave packages, they often don't use the benefit for fear of being sidelined or seen as uncommitted. A recent survey by Talking Talent found fathers typically use only 32% of the time available to them.

In his essay, Ohanian recognizes that he is privileged in a way most parents aren't.

"It helped that I was a founder and didn't have to worry about what people might say about my 'commitment' to the company, but it was incredible to be able to spend quality time with Olympia. And it was perhaps even more meaningful to be there for my wife and to adjust to this new life we created together—especially after all the complications she had during and after the birth," he explains.

(The GOAT's husband is making the same points that we at Motherly make all the time.)

He continues: "There is a lot of research about the benefits of taking leave, not only for the cognitive and emotional development of the child but for the couple. However, many fathers in this country are not afforded the privilege of parental leave. And even when they are, there is often a stigma that prevents them from doing so. I see taking leave as one of the most fundamental ways to 'show up' for your partner and your family, and I cherished all 16 weeks I was able to take."

👏👏👏

By first taking his leave and then speaking out about the ways in which it benefited his family, Ohanian is using his privileged position to de-stigmatize fathers taking leave, and advocate for more robust parental leave policies for all parents, and his influence doesn't end there. He's trying to show the world that parents shouldn't have to cut off the parent part of themselves in order to be successful in their careers.

He says that when his parental leave finished he transitioned from being a full-time dad to a "business dad."


"I'm fortunate to be my own boss, which comes with the freedoms of doing things like bringing my daughter into the office, or working remotely from virtually anywhere Serena competes. My partners at Initialized are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera—along with her doll Qai Qai—or hearing her babbling on a call. I tell them with pride, 'Olympia's at work today!' And I'll post some photos on Instagram or Twitter so my followers can see it too," Ohanian explains.

"The more we normalize this, on social media and in real life, the better, because I know this kind of dynamic makes a lot of men uncomfortable (and selfishly I want Olympia to hear me talking about start-ups!)," he says.

This is the future of family-friendly work culture. Take it from a guy who created an entire internet culture.

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Trigger warning: Some of these responses describe a women's experiences with child loss.

Anxiety is one of those concepts you can never truly grasp until you face it yourself. And, each person's anxiety can announce itself in different ways—for some, it's postpartum anger, while for others, it's an overwhelming feeling of worry about a pregnancy. This can be especially prevalent if you're at high risk, concerned about telling your boss or undergoing medical issues. If you suffer from anxiety, know you're not alone in this mama. In fact, women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder than men.

These mamas shared how they manage and cope with their anxiety on Chairman Mom:

1. Hypnobirthing class

"I took a hynobirthing class at a nearby parents resource center—it was phenomenal. The class changed my emotional forecast for both the pregnancy and delivery. I uncovered a calm existence that lived dormant inside a very anxious body. For quick help at my fingertips, I love the Headspace app. My favorite quote pops up on the screen before I tap to complete a meditation 'Rather than the mind leading the breath, allow the breath to lead the mind. Keep glowing!'" —Jenny

2. Journaling

"It took my husband and I three years to have our IVF miracle baby after a devastating miscarriage last summer. I was wracked with anxiety for the entire duration of my pregnancy and it got worse as I got closer to his due date. The one thing that helped me was to journal. I wrote to the baby constantly about every step of the process and was very raw and real about the emotions I was experiencing each step of the way."—Anonymous

3. Set some ground rules

"[While I was on strict bedrest for 10 weeks] I tried to set ground rules for myself—I 'indulged' in worst case scenario/message board/Googling for exactly 30 minutes each day, and had to fill the rest of the bedrest time with other positive activities. I controlled for the factors I could, and just tried to chill out about everything else. Easier said than done, but I forced myself to breath deeply and try to limit the physical effects of my anxiety."—Milo

4. Therapy

"I feel like this could be my answer for many questions, but I say get to therapy. Anxiety can be a normal part of parenthood and it's a good idea to take the time before baby comes to build your tool kit and to feel like, even though it is full of unknowns, you have prepared your heart for the wild ride that is motherhood. I am an anxious person by nature, a worrier, a big feeler— learning that this is okay and that I can use it to my advantage has been empowering beyond measure. You are not alone and you will get through this. Hugs to you. If you are an "action person" and can't/won't get into therapy right now, this workbook has a lot of good, practical exercises."—Stratton

5. Reading this book

"I found a book called Finding Calm for the Expectant Mom useful. The major anxiety reducer for me during pregnancy was walking, because it was the only time I didn't feel sick early on and then later it was the only time the baby wasn't kicking me (which is supremely comforting and yet not). I found going with a mid-wife rather than a doctor helped alleviate a lot of anxiety. In Ontario (Canada) this is covered by OHIP (provincial health insurance). Midwives have way more time and patience. All appointments are booked for 30 minutes, so you never feel rushed."—Sian

6. Find a super knowledgeable OB

"I'm currently pregnant (second trimester) with two complications one of which can cause stillbirth. I found the best way to reduce anxiety was finding a super knowledgeable OB that I could talk to about treatments and milestones. Ask them about what kind of monitoring they'll do for you in the third trimester (NST/BPPs). Talk about contingency plans. I also found a doula that has been wonderful to talk with about the process of birth and the potential of NICU time and emergency c-sections (both not that uncommon with other women that have the same condition I do.) I whole heartedly recommend finding a therapist that you can talk with about your fears and anxieties. Look for ones who specialize in new moms. If there are any support groups for mamas with your high risk condition I also urge you to seek them out. Setting a limit for how much time you spend there is also extremely wise. And know that there are women who will experience loss in those groups. That doesn't mean you will." —Anonymous

7. Yoga, working out + meditation

"[After a miscarriage] what I've learned is that all that worrying didn't make a difference. It didn't make me feel any more prepared or okay once I lost the baby. And it limited how much I enjoyed those three months that I was pregnant. Next time I'm not going to read anything or Google anything or read any odds. I'm just going to take everyday as a gift. I know that's easier said than done. Yoga, working out, meditation. Being around people who don't know because then you can't talk about it or obsess about it. Warm baths, tea. Just be super super nice to yourself. Don't worry about what you should be eating or shouldn't be eating, etc."—Anonymous

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Having a new baby is incredibly hard. And beautiful and fulfilling and rewarding, of course—but definitely, definitely hard.

Especially the nights.

Watching the last rays of sunlight disappear would make my heart race. My 3-week-old baby didn't sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time and had zero regard for what time it was.

She was so tiny and helpless—and it was my responsibility to keep her safe and fed and healthy. For me, that was easier during the day. Because at night, it felt unfair knowing my husband and toddler were fast asleep a few rooms over.

The minute our newborn would wake, I would spring to action. Bottle, breast, pacing the floor, bouncing on an exercise ball, loud shushing into her tiny ear—I would do whatever it would take to get her to quiet down so she wouldn't wake the rest of the house.

The evenings also started to feel very isolating. It's hardly appropriate to call your mom or friend or sister at 1 a.m. when your baby starts spitting up a curdled milk mixture so hard it comes out of her nose. And even if I did call anyway, it wouldn't matter because they wouldn't answer because they'd be sleeping.

I was used to anticipating a lack of sleep each night, which was terrifying. I felt such dread knowing I would only get a collective two and a half hours of sleep before my toddler would wake up at 5:30 a.m, ready for his morning dance party.

Fear would strike me at night, too. An incapacitating, all-consuming fear that something might happen to my sweet baby girl while she was lying peacefully in her safe crib, in her baby-proofed nursery. I often wondered how I was even supposed to sleep with such intense worry on my mind.

I would stare for hours into the pitch black night, half of me thankful my baby was healthy, the other half of me terrified something would happen to her.

I'd feel irrational in the late hours of the night (or more likely, the wee, wee hours of the early morning) often reacting with full-on annoyance because as soon as she'd started to fall asleep I'd think, this is it—I can finally get some rest, only for her to wake up a few minutes later. I'd snap, "Seriously? All you do is eat!" at my tiny baby, which would automatically trigger intense guilt over what felt like such an uncontrolled emotional response.

"It gets better" and "sleep when the baby sleeps" are two sentiments I hope never to hear again in my life because—does it get better? Well, yes it does. Children don't usually turn into adults who only sleep for 90 minutes at a time. And sleeping when the baby sleeps sounds good in theory but it's impractical. Plus, neither statement helps at 3 a.m., TBH.

I went to extreme measures to quell my anxiety. I sent my husband to Walmart in the middle of a tropical depression to buy a rock 'n play. Then I sent him back when he returned with the version that didn't vibrate. I put a $300 Owlet monitor on a credit card. I used Amazon one-day shipping to obtain a copy of Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block.

I eventually found there's no magic solution to aid in this season of parenting. It helps to find a community of women going through the same struggles. Prioritizing self-care and spending time connecting with your significant other are also healthy ways of dealing.

But I'm going to level with you—for the first three months of my baby's life, I didn't have time to seek out a support group, wash my hair or converse about one meaningful thing with my spouse.

I was in survival mode and the only thing that helped me was time passing and binge watching Downton Abbey.

And walks around the block. And coffee.

If you loved the newborn stage and came through it with fond memories—I applaud you.

If you gave it all you had and emerged on the other side with a baby who (mainly) sleeps through the night and is somewhat happy, most of the time—you deserve a standing ovation.

You managed to prevail in a time that required intense mental and physical stamina, and you nailed it. Great job, mama.

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