As both a mother and a therapist who treats obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I have been thinking a lot about all the ways in which my OCD has impacted who I am as a mom. OCD attacks the very things that we value and hold dear to our hearts, so it makes sense that it would latch onto my identity as a mother.
I married young and had my first child when I was 18 years old. I thought that adulthood would bring with it a chance to recreate what had been missing from my own childhood, which was held captive by OCD. Part of me thought that I could “start over” and live a life free of this condition. I learned that this was not the case. OCD would actually follow me and reach new and unimaginable levels.
Suddenly I had tiny human beings that depended on me for survival. They needed me. Their very existence depended upon me. In all areas of life, I learned, responsibilities can become magnified by OCD. I had an exaggerated sense of responsibility for them.
OCD and hyper-responsibility as a parent
It began with making sure all of the baby bottles were cleaned to perfection, which could take hours of meticulous preparation and boiling to ensure germs were killed, then worrying and obsessing that I had softened the bottles too much and they were a choking hazard. I ended up simply buying new bottles. It also meant that no one else could do it “right,” so I had to be the one to do everything. On the rare occasion that I allowed someone else to feed one of my babies, I would stand guard and ensure it was all done properly. It was my duty.
Like many parents, I wanted to create a “safe” home and environment for my children. With OCD, this meant that nothing could be left in a reachable position, to prevent anyone from getting hurt, items breaking, and as always, to prevent choking hazards. Anything and everything was poisonous to me. It didn’t matter if it was—OCD told me that it could be. I envisioned my kids playing outside and eating all of the potentially poisonous plants, thinking that it would be my fault when something terrible happened, feeling sure that something would happen just because it could. I wondered if anyone else thought this way, and I kept searching for answers.
Can OCD fears get transferred to children from adults?
In my case, my fears definitely had a trickle-down effect. One example was my fears of choking and allergic reactions. I was extremely cautious when giving my kids any food—I don’t think my children even knew what a lollipop was until they were at least 10 years old.
I could barely allow anyone to babysit my children. No one was ‘safe’ enough. On the rare occasion that I would leave them in the care of someone else, the most horrific images and thoughts of what could happen filled my head. I was always in a hurry to get back to them, to ensure that they were safe. Even in my exhaustion, I refused help. OCD told me that I always had to be on guard.
Regrettably, I was passing down my obsessive fears to my children. I didn’t want to. When my oldest was just 6 years old she began having separation anxiety. She didn’t want to leave our yard and refused to play outside with other children unless an adult was always present. She began to worry about the possibility of being kidnapped. This wasn’t just a passing fear—it began to give her nightmares. For my part, I had been over safety rules many times with my children. I felt the need to know with certainty that they understood these rules and followed them so they wouldn’t be victims of a kidnapping. I thought I was just preparing them. Unfortunately, though, I was teaching them to be afraid and ruled by fear.
Lesser-known challenges of being a mom with OCD
Other, less obviously stressful occasions like field trips or holiday parties were horribly triggering for my OCD. I remember dreading being asked to volunteer to bring food into the classroom. I was terrified that everything had to be clean and I worried constantly about peanut contamination or other contaminants. I couldn’t touch any household cleaners if I was going to cook—it was an ordeal, to say the least. Sometimes I would simply “forget” to bring the item, too afraid that I might make a fatal error if I brought what I was asked to bring. What if someone had a severe allergic reaction?
Field trips could bring on full-blown panic attacks. The idea of being in charge of keeping multiple kids safe was almost too much to handle. The “what ifs” spiraled out of control. I made up excuse after excuse not to be involved in these things. Sadly, I missed out on what could have been really great, lasting memories with my children due to OCD. OCD always told me about the worst possible scenario, never the good things that could happen.
Some mothers also experience intrusive thoughts that are centered around themes of harm or violence, or unwanted thoughts of a sexual nature, and the impact from these forms of OCD is devastating. Throughout my many years as a therapist specializing in OCD, I have met mothers who won’t even hold their own children because of OCD, mothers who refuse to be alone with their young children, and mothers who cannot change their children’s diapers or give them a bath. I have spoken to many who believe that they are monsters, that they don’t deserve their children. Even the slightest possibility that these distressing intrusive thoughts could mean something about them is terrifying.
Getting help for OCD if you are a parent
If you are a mother who is suffering, I want you to know that you are not alone. There is help and there is hope.
The most successful treatment for OCD is a form of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP). Unlike traditional talk therapy, which can backfire and make OCD worse, ERP — which was developed specifically to treat OCD — is highly effective in the majority of people.
What that means is that ERP will help you live the life you would choose to live if OCD did not exist. You won’t be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts – like “What if I dropped my baby right out of my arms?” You’ll no longer spend hours each day performing compulsions. And the things that matter the most to you won’t be at risk of slipping away. For instance, instead of constantly ruminating about whether you’re a bad mother who wants to harm her child, you’ll be able to live free of these thoughts and feel joy in parenting.
A lot of people think that ERP will be too scary, so they avoid it. But that’s not the case at all. In fact, the power of ERP lies in the fact that it’s not overwhelming, so people are comfortable sticking with it. With an ERP therapist guiding you the whole time, you’ll practice confronting your fears in very small doses and in the controlled setting of therapy. When you’re ready, you’ll then bring these lessons that you work on with your therapist back into your everyday life. The result is that something amazing happens: Your fearful thoughts lose their power over you and your need to engage in compulsions goes away.
You can access effective treatment today
ERP is now more accessible than ever thanks to virtual ERP therapy — which is as effective as in-person therapy. In fact, ERP delivered in live teletherapy sessions can bring results in under half the time of outpatient ERP therapy. As someone who has worked with countless people who were struggling, I know that one of the biggest hurdles to getting started is finding a therapist who is an expert in treating OCD. But we’ve made it easy, with our network of expertly-trained ERP specialists. Help is available, and you can reach out for it today.
On a personal note, I can also vouch for this therapy. Thanks to getting effective treatment for OCD with someone who was a specialist, I am now able to do many of the things that brought me such fear in the past. My children can witness me being courageous, in spite of fear. They can see that their mother was able to use something that was so negative in her life and bring good from it by helping others.