New Moms, OCD, and The Media

mom and babyBy now, I’m guessing many of you have read about the latest study which concludes that new moms often experience symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve seen it on the news, in the newspaper, and on quite a few websites. While I find the study interesting, I don’t find it surprising. In fact, almost every new mother I know of (myself included) has exhibited some of the symptoms discussed. These include checking to make sure their baby is breathing, worry over exposure to germs, and fear of falling while carrying their baby.

My concern regarding all the publicity around this study is, once again, the misrepresentation of OCD. I think it’s realistic to assume that many people who read about this study will conclude, “Oh, okay, so that’s what OCD is.” The study also notes that about half the women who reported symptoms after the birth of their children were greatly improved six months later. So it is likely for readers to surmise that OCD often just gets better on its own.

In my opinion, the media should have stressed that these new moms exhibited “obsessive-compulsive symptoms,” not necessarily OCD.  They were not evaluated, or even interviewed, by professionals, but rather assessed through surveys. The degree that these symptoms affected their day-to-day lives was not considered. Study researcher Dr. Dana Gossett said, “The extent to which these thoughts and behaviors are ‘normal,’ or whether they ‘cross the line,’ is not entirely clear yet.”

I know that postpartum OCD is real, and there are moms out there who have suffered deeply with this disorder. There are also millions of other people with OCD who suffer intensely with it, day after day. In my opinion, it is necessary to distinguish this population from those who might be experiencing temporary obsessive-compulsive symptoms. I’m not saying these symptoms are not distressing and frightening; I’m just saying they might not be OCD. Misleading headlines and confusing explanations only serve to perpetuate the public’s misconception of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As I’ve said before, we all have thoughts, and often even rituals, that are similar to those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The difference is in the severity. In those with OCD, the thoughts become obsessions, and the rituals turn into compulsions that very well might take over the sufferer’s lives. Those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can be mild, moderate, or severe, are at the very end of this continuum, and we need the media’s help in making this clear.

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31 Responses to New Moms, OCD, and The Media

  1. nrkellner says:

    The problem with the media is that even when well-meaning (which they aren’t always), trying to crystallize an important issue into column-width and sound bites always results in misrepresentation to some degree or other.

    Thanks to champions like you who set the record straight.

  2. karin says:

    After my first baby 23 yrs ago i suddenly worried that i might be molesting him if i touched his penis while doing diaper cream etc. So I used to put the cream on the diaper and then the diaper on him. Still didn’t make the ‘weird’ thots go away. That took 6 or 7 years because the thots could morph as he got older. But i never to ld anyone other than my dh, because i thot they’d take the baby away, after all i was admitting i might molest him. I also did the breathing checks, until i realized that it was OK for me to sleep and the baby could be left alone in his crib for the night. If he had a problem, it wouldn’t be my ‘fault’.

    I was both sad and glad that i never had any more kids. I wanted more, but never wanted that ‘stuff’ (the bad thots) to show up again.

    Fast forward 14 yrs and here i am pregnant again. Baby #2. I was worried that ‘it’ might happen again but hoped that was just some fear from way back then that i’ve outgrown. The 80’s were a time where everyone and their brother were being accused of child/ baby abuse, so i thot that maybe i was just feeling the fear going around at the time.

    So i took my daughter home and then the weird thots happened. Not about changing her diaper but about whether i should change her clothes to put her to bed in her ‘clean’ crib. We should change our clothes after going to the park too, to keep the house clean from ‘park germs’.

    I thot that it was a bit funny- that i was just being a freaked-out mom. After all i hadn’t had a kid in over a decade. At the same time i knew i never had THOSE thots with my first baby. We were in the park on the swings a few weeks after he was born!

    And the weird thots kept coming and morphinng. I kept cleaning, changing and trying to keep her in a clean environment. Even tho, i knew that in order to not have allergies etc. kids needed to be in a normal, not sanitary environment.

    Finally dh and i decided that our child should go to day care 2ce a week so she could have some interaction with ‘normal people’.

    By this time i had gone on the internet, looked up OCD and realized i was in tho throes of it- and that was what i had after my first was born also. The internet is a wonderful invention! So i went to the doctor, got some meds and made an appointment with a counsellor and a psychiatrist.

    That’s when i found out that some of the strange thots i had had over the years, that wouldn’t leave my head were called scrupulosity, relationship ocd, pure o. Now i had the germ type.

    Welcome to my post-natal world. The baby is now 6, and is showing some weird symptoms herself which might be ocd or just might be her acting out what i was doing to her when she was a baby/ toddler ( yelling at her to NOT TOUCH stuff i thot was contaminate, washing her hands for her dozens of times a day etc.) I am now trying to repair my relationship with her. Thanks, ocd.

    • Karin, Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m wondering if your symptoms of OCD were present even before you had your son, or if his birth “triggered” it? I think a very small percentage of women in the study reported having been diagnosed with OCD previously. Certainly becoming a mother can be one of the most stressful times of a woman’s life, and we know how OCD loves stress! Glad you now know what you are dealing with and are getting treatment.

  3. karin says:

    I’d had Rocd and scrupulosity but didn’t know what it was- no internet at the time i could put in my symptoms. In actuality i thot those thoughts were just sinful thots i had to ‘repent’ of.

    After viewing an Oprah show on OCD, i knew that i had some symptoms- checking the rearview mirror for dead people- but it wasn’t a big deal in my life, just in my driving. So yes, i had ocd already, but didn’t know it because it wasnt the germ variety. Well, i knew i hated to touch raw meat in case i killed someone while cooking it and i liked to wash used furniture i brought into the house but that was it for germophobia. Also knew i didn’t like mice in my house, again becasue i’d had the experience before but never believed i could get mouse poop in my house by going into someone else’s house! Fake contamination wasn’t an issue until after my 2nd child. (Fake meaning invisible, there is no real visible dirt).

    • Thanks for sharing once again, Karin.I’ve often thought of how isolating it must have felt to have OCD before the Internet came along…..

      • karin says:

        Unfortunately it never occured to me there was a ‘real’ solution to all this. At the time i just thot that it was a special ‘test’ from god/ the devil. That i was supposed to not think these thots and if i did, i felt guilty – as if i had committed the sin. Because in some scripture it says: and if ye lust in your hearts ye have already committed adultery in your hearts.” Just change the word lust for whatever ‘sinful’ thot i was having and voila a test to see if i never have those thots again.

        But you all know what happens when you don’t want to think of a pink elephant., right! In fact,, i didn’t even have to think the thot in order to feel the guilt, i just had to think about thinking about the thot- if that makes any sence- and i’d already feel guilty. I use the word guilty because i didn’t know what ‘dread’ was- that anxiety i was supposed to sit with- I thot i was guilty of sin (not as bad as if i had actually DONE the thot, but guilty of a thot-sin.

        It sounds strange to write it and i don’t know if i’m expaining myself well. It’s kind of like when kids don’t know why their parents are getting divorced and the make up a reason based on what’s in their head. Whatever fundamentalistic religious stuff was in my head just created an explanation for what was happening.

        Sometimes i wonder how i managed to function with all that going on in my head, but it was like my brain was divided into 2 -part for normal living activities and super guilt/anxiety in the other part and both could co-exist at the same time.

      • Tina Barbour says:

        Karin, I had the same kinds of thoughts and scrupulosity, a lot of it related to fundamentalist religion. I was obsessed with the “if you think it, you committed the sin” belief, and that led me down a long and torturous road. I’m so glad that you got treatment and are in a better place now!

      • karin says:

        Thanks, Tina.

      • Abigail says:

        Karin, I had “thought-sins,” too. Now when I have scrupulosity OCD, I call it my Fake Conscience. I have a real one and a fake one. I still have trouble telling them apart, though, sometimes. And I, too, just lived with my many thoughts for a while. I think sometimes I felt extra spiritual for struggling so much. And other times I wondered if I was really a Christian…

        I’m glad the internet helped you learn what was really going on.

      • karin says:

        Abigail, I love the idea of a ‘fake’ conscience! And yes, i too, thot that maybe i was ‘special’ for getting these extra trials.

  4. Tina Barbour says:

    I’ve seen some of those headlines, but I didn’t delve into them. Thank you for giving us more information about the study they were referring to. Sometimes the media’s interpretation of a scientific or medical study can really be too simplistic and give misleading information. We do need to look at them closely and then counteract any mistaken info as much as possible.

    Karin, thank you for sharing your story!

  5. kris says:

    Hi Janet,
    I hope this does not sound harsh, but I’m guessing there was a waste of research grant money here and I am sorry the media is making it available if it is mis-leading. I am not impressed with a study that does not include an interview or evaluation from a professional. How can a study evaluate if someone has OCD when they admit they have no idea if the subjects of the study had obsessions/compulsions that were normal or crossed the line? Or the degree to which their symptoms affected their lives? There are pretty clear guidelines of what is OCD and those are the first questions doctors ask.
    I had earlier signs of anxiety but I believe childbirth triggered OCD in me. It is good for new moms to be aware of OCD, I went a long time with my OCD being mildy obtrusive before it got severe. Maybe had I been diagnosed earlier and gotten educated about ERP, I might have not built up as many complicated rituals – in other words how great if early treatment would have nipped it in the bud?
    But this study does not sound like it is worth it’s weight in salt.
    Since I am on a roll here. may I add that I think, considering the severity of OCD and the fact that it is prevalent in society, it would be beneficial to have some doctors trained in OCD. I have read too many stories of people, like me, who were done harm by doctors who continued to treat me even though they knew nothing about OCD. I wouldn’t want a foot doctor doing my heart surgery and I wish they had been up front with me and referred me to an OCD specialist.
    Janet, thank you for having a forum to bring awareness and I am sorry to ramble on. (You know how near and dear to my heart this subject is)

    • Hi Kris, You make so many good points it’s hard to comment on all of them! I understand what you are saying about the study and the way I understand it, it was meant to investigate the prevalence of obsessive-compulsive symptoms (not necessarily OCD) in its participants. Now that the researchers see how common it is, maybe some good will come out of more detailed studies? I think the media gave the impression that everyone who exhibited obsessive-compulsive symptoms has/had OCD….as you say, we need to know what kind of symptoms, and especially the severity, of what they are talking about.

      You have touched on another pet peeve of mine: the lack of knowledge about OCD in the medical community. Your story, while incredibly frustrating, is all too common. When my son was diagnosed with OCD, his pediatrician said he should “maybe see a therapist.” Even if he knew little to nothing abut the disorder, I believe this doctor should have known that OCD requires a specially trained therapist who utilizes a specific therapy (ERP). If he could have told us this information, this knowledge would have saved us the same heartache you went through with mistreatment.
      Finally, you did not ramble, you made great points. And yes, I certainly know how near and dear to your heart this is. Thank you for taking the time to give such a thoughtful response.

  6. Abigail says:

    Thanks, Janet, for defending the seriousness of OCD. I know some people’s OCD is triggered by having a baby, and I hope that they are helped, even by this study. But I’d like the world to know that not everyone’s OCD starts then and that OCD can last for a very long time/for life.

  7. There is a difference for sure! This is the same when people say “I’m so OCD” because they like things clean and in order. There is a dramatic difference! I would also think that if new mothers had OCD then these behaviours would be the same for all their children but usually mothers stop the frequency of the checking up on and the germ fear the more children they have (or my Mom did at least).

    • Yes, I do think it’s so important to differentiate actual OCD from obsessive-compulsive symptoms……hopefully that’s what a follow-up study will do. Thanks for your insight!

  8. Janet, I pinned this and tweeted this. Here is the link ot hte pin. suggested people read the comments for a broader understanding. Loved them all.

    Sharing knowledge the way you do is the best path to reducing stigma. Most of us had symptoms of something during the course of our lives. To me the need is three fold: to help others see mental health symptoms as a continuum of how each of us makes it through life, some with more grace and ease than others. Which is why I started Emotional Fitness Training to help all handle the stress of life.

    Then as I think you know, as therapist I find some value in labels, but I think the most important labels should be kind or cruel to self or others.

    Finally, we need to fault society a bit more than parents. Two examples leap to my mind. The idea of thoughts being sins has hurt millions across the far too many centuries. More recently the discovery that making people anxious generates sales has been equally burdening.

    Thank you for all you do.

    • Thank YOU Katherine for all of our support and insight. I totally agree that we all have (or will) face mental health challenges in some way, shape, or form at some point in our lives. I think it is so important that we see these issues as our own, and not just something that affects other people.
      Your last point is quite an eye-opener also….anxiety has become big business and yes, that is a scary thing.
      Thanks for your input.

  9. kris says:

    If I can pop in one more time, it may not just be the emotional/mental stress of having a new baby that can trigger postpartum OCD. There may be a component that the actual physical trauma the body goes through during the birthing process could trigger OCD in individuals with the disposition for it. Even the radical flux of hormonal changes could play a part. The OCD Specialist that was so helpful to me years ago has gotten out of private practice all together and is working solely in research in the field of OCD and Anxiety. Last time I spoke with him they were studying people who had developed severe OCD after a head trauma/injury. I was sad to hear he had stopped his practice, even though I didn’t live there anymore, but I feel like we have a strong advocate in having this guy at the helm of such research.

    • Excellent points about the possible causes of postpartum OCD, Kris, and I would hope all of these areas are being investigated. Sounds like your old doctor is involved in some great studies…..there certainly are a lot of dedicated researchers out there and I am thankful for them.

  10. Looking at the context of the study relayed in the post here, it would make sense the new mothers may exhibit some obsessive compulsive symptoms not only because of the worries they may have revolving around the newborn but also because of the stress and hormonal changes of giving birth. That OBVIOUSLY could deplete serotonin and other neurotransmitter levels and lead to the potential development of some OCD/depressive symptoms. Question is, does this hang on and become full-blown or is it part of the ongoing development of a disorder for the mother? The other thing that strikes me here is that with the way it is reported in the media, it would seem to the “average” Joe or Jill that OCD is just some fleeting, overblown, overhyped phenomena bandied about by the drama-obsessed cable news networks and just another silly thing we’ll see on Maury Povich. That’s not the way we want people to think about OCD.

    • I agree Scott. It would be very easy for someone who is not familiar with OCD to misunderstand and misconstrue this information.We want to raise awareness, not confuse people more!

  11. The Hook says:

    The world needs more people like you, Janet. People who are willing to take the time to educate themselves for the betterment of all.

  12. 71º & Sunny says:

    You make good points, Janet. I literally just had a conversation with someone about this. I had to explain that OCD is not just a symptom or two, but a grouping of symptoms, marked by terrible anxiety, with a pronounced affect (effect? I can never remember which one!) on a person’s life. Thanks for helping to get the word out.

  13. grannyK says:

    Thank you for this post! My son and I have both been diagnosed with OCD. I, too, have tired of the opinions of some that it can come and go or that you can easily will yourself to ‘get over it’.

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