Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott says the only way to be a good mother is to be a “good-enough mother”. But “good enough” can feel a long way off for new mums struggling with feeding, nappies, sleeping, exhaustion and worries about her newborn baby.
For most new parents, it’s natural to feel some anxiety when their baby arrives. Winnicott adds that new mothers become totally absorbed with their baby “to the exclusion of other interests, in a way that is normal and temporary”.* But that maternal preoccupation can become all-consuming and develop into obsessive-compulsive symptoms for 11% of new mothers between two months and six months after giving birth. This was the core finding in a study by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which says that OCD symptoms in the general population, by comparison, are around 2% or 3%.
The researchers say that the symptoms are normally due to hormonal changes, or adapting to the ‘stress’ that the pregnancy and birth may have brought on. “It may be that certain kinds of obsessions and compulsions are adaptive and appropriate for a new parent, for example those about cleanliness and hygiene,” says study senior author Dana Gossett. “But when it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning and appropriate care for the baby and parent, it becomes maladaptive and pathologic.” The researchers classify obsessions as “unwanted and repeated thoughts or images that create anxiety”.
For many women the anxiety can disappear within six months. This article on Yahoo!, Why anxiety is a natural state for new parents, argues that new mums and dads should just be left to get on with finding their own way as parents.
But for other new mothers, OCD can be linked with depression – especially if the symptoms appear a while after the birth. That’s the time to reach for support, where possible. This article by Bryony Gordon in The Telegraph, OCD takes the baby blues to a whole new level, is a touching account of her own experiences with OCD in pregnancy, and how she found support.
The organisation Maternal OCD offers advice and support on obsessive-compulsive disorder in motherhood.
(*quote from D. W. Winnicott, Michael Jacobs, SAGE Publications, London 2008, p. 48)