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Is It Normal to Have Horrible Thoughts as a Mom?

I Have Anxiety, and in My Darkest Moments, I Worry About Losing My Daughter

An Iowa farm mother hugs her young daughter while standing next to a field of corn.

I saw it as clear as day. My daughter tripping as she ran, tumbling down the patch of grass separating the sidewalk from the street, and falling right into oncoming traffic — too quickly, too unexpectedly for the truck speeding by at 45 miles per hour to stop. The image flashed through my mind like so many others before it. Dark, gruesome, tragic — my worst nightmare playing before my eyes like a horror movie I couldn't escape.

And then, I blinked. I shook it off. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, waiting for my heart to steady.

When I opened them again, there was my little girl. Running down the same path she does every day as we walk home from school. Safe. Fine. Still separated by about 10 feet from the street beside her.

"Honey," I shouted. "Come back here, please. You know Mommy likes it better when you hold my hand on this part." And so she did. Smiling. Beaming, even. Running back to me to hold my hand until we could head down a pathway and away from the street. That image remained with me, though. The thought of my daughter, dead in the road, me helpless to stop it.

If it sounds morbid, it's because it is. But it's also not something I can typically turn off. The best I can do is breathe through it and keep moving until something else occupies my mind.

Motherhood just brought on a whole new level of cruelty my brain could inflict upon me.
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Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of anxiety for me. When I'm in a healthy place, getting enough sleep, eating right, visiting my therapist, and doing the work, I can usually shake the intrusive thoughts off fairly quickly — like I did that day. But in the early years of motherhood, it wasn't that simple. The anxiety was too great, the fears too dark, and the images too real.

I think I've probably dealt with anxiety on some level my entire life. But before adopting my daughter, I don't know that there was ever anything I cared enough about to be driven quite over the edge by it like I sometimes am now. I don't remember the intrusive thoughts before, but I do remember obsessing over certain things. Constantly striving for perfection. Sometimes being kept awake at night by all the things I felt I wasn't doing right.

I loved her more than I had ever loved anyone or anything in my entire life, and my faulty brain chemistry latched onto that, the anxiety seizing it and twisting it into something dark and awful.

Motherhood just brought on a whole new level of cruelty my brain could inflict upon me. It started early, the first night I was in the hospital with my little girl. I kept imagining her birth mother changing her mind, taking back this infant she'd placed in my arms and asked me to raise. I knew I'd have to go along with whatever she wanted, because nothing was legal yet and she was a good woman, a good mom. But I also knew it would crush me. And as I held my daughter all through the night, every knock on the door sent waves of panic through me.

Then it became the fear of SIDS. The video playing on a loop in my mind was of me, reaching over into the bassinet for my little girl, only to find her cold. Stiff. Gone. Sometimes the video was so vivid that I would lay paralyzed in my own bed, unable to breathe. Feeling like I might throw up. Until at last, she cried. And I knew everything was okay . . . at least in that moment.

I used to picture falling down the stairs with her in my arms. Or turning my back for a second at a store, only to have a stranger snatch her up. Minor colds turned into cancer diagnoses in my mind. Every day was a new wave of ways I might lose her, pummeling me, breaking me down until I couldn't eat or sleep or function. I loved her more than I had ever loved anyone or anything in my entire life, and my faulty brain chemistry latched onto that, the anxiety seizing it and twisting it into something dark and awful.

I finally got help when my daughter was about 3 years old. Someone I cared about had died by suicide, and then my little girl actually was diagnosed with a chronic health condition (one that will impact her the rest of her life) and it all became too much. The thoughts I was having became overwhelming. I couldn't handle it on my own anymore. So I went back to the therapist I had been seeing on and off for eight years, and I finally admitted how bad the anxiety had become.

Intrusive thoughts are a normal manifestation of anxiety, and one a lot of new moms experience.

I was afraid she was going to call CPS, and that they would take my daughter away. After all, someone who couldn't stop imagining such horrific things happening to her child must have something wrong with her. What if she determined I was a danger to us both? But she told me she knew better, she knew me. She knew I would never do anything to hurt my little girl. And then she gave a name to the torture my brain had been putting me through: intrusive thoughts.

She told me it's a normal manifestation of anxiety, and one a lot of new moms experience. It didn't mean I wanted something bad to happen to my child, nor did it mean I was in any way unfit. It just meant I had a battle going on inside my brain, and I needed some help to win against the images I couldn't control.

Today I still deal with both anxiety and intrusive thoughts, but they are much more manageable than they've ever been before. I'm able to stop myself, to breathe, and to shake the images away before the waves of fear wash over me. I'm able to remind myself the things I see aren't real, and that what's in front of me is all I need to know.

The only thing I wish is that I'd gotten help sooner. That I'd been willing to admit how dark my mind had become to someone, so that maybe I could have known sooner that it wasn't my fault or anything I needed to be ashamed of.

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