What it’s like to be a mom living with OCD
As we approach Mother’s Day, I have been deep in thought about all the ways in which OCD has impacted who I am as a mother. I have spoken before about the ways OCD has affected my life, my decisions, and my career. One of the most crucial responsibilities I have in my life, however, is as a mother.
OCD attacks what you value the most
Naturally, OCD attacks the very things that we value and hold dear to our hearts, so it makes sense that it would attack my identity as a mother. For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a mother. My own mom was my best friend. Some of my earliest memories involve playing with baby dolls and playing house. I envisioned what I suspect many children do, a perfect and picturesque world, a reality that is far from the clutches of OCD. It never crossed my mind that I would experience something that would debilitate me to the point that OCD did.
As I grew, the fairytale I had spent years imagining would slip away. Having experienced symptoms of OCD from an early age, I never really experienced a life without this disorder. I didn’t fully comprehend that my experience was not an accurate portrayal of what life could be.
I married young and had my first child when I was 18 years old. Having lived with OCD for many years made me constantly search for things that I thought would bring me redemption. I wanted 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. Regrettably, I learned that this was not the case. OCD would actually follow me and heighten to new and unimaginable levels.
Experiencing hyper-responsibility as a parent with OCD
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. That may seem like a good thing—but let me explain.
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 someone would dare to attempt the task of feeding one of my babies, I would stand guard and ensure it was all done properly and safely. It was my duty.
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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.
Christmastime was the worst. I had family members who loved poinsettias. I had heard somewhere that these were poisonous to people, so I felt certain that they would kill anyone who dared to touch their petals. I avoided them at all costs. If we were in a store, I took a different aisle, always alerted to their impending threat I would tell anyone who would listen that these were dangerous plants and not to allow my children near them. Many eye rolls were given to me. People pointed out that I was overreacting. I knew this, to some degree, but even the slightest chance that these flowers posed a risk was enough to keep me constantly on guard.
Passing down my fears
My own fears of choking and allergic reactions also trickled down into my parenting. I was extremely cautious when giving them any food—I don’t think my children even knew what a lollipop was until they were at least 10 years old. Of course, one of the most embarrassing prospects of all of this was my need to incessantly remind others about all of my rules, even my parents and my husband’s parents. I know this probably burdened them quite a bit.
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. Even though I hid the reasoning behind my compulsions, the kids still saw my behavior. They began to pick up on some of my fears. 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. Even if she was seen from a window, it was not enough.
She began to worry about the possibility of being kidnapped. This wasn’t just a passing fear—it began to give her nightmares. Of course, 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. Tragically, 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.
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.
I would be remiss not to mention the intrusive thoughts that many who suffer from OCD have regarding harm or violence. It would be nearly impossible to list them all. Many people with OCD suffer from unwanted thoughts of a sexual nature, and the impact is devastating. Throughout my many years as a therapist specializing in OCD, I have seen this play out time and time again.
Some of my most heartbreaking sessions have involved these thoughts. 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.
I remember countless nights of broken sleep that arose from my own fears. I would check all of my windows and doors to make sure they were locked. I would check on the kids each one by one and ensure that they were breathing. Sometimes I couldn’t feel sure enough as I stood awkwardly in their doorway for several long minutes studying their breaths. I would spend countless hours devoted to praying for each of them in very specific ways. If I felt that I was interrupted or I lost my train of thought, I would have to start over. So much valuable time was spent on these compulsions.
When my children were invited to sleepovers or parties, instead of rejoicing for a date night alone with my husband, I worried frantically, making up every excuse why they shouldn’t go. I was worried something bad would happen. What if they were sexually abused at someone’s home? What if they got into a car driven by someone and were in an accident? I felt that I could never forgive myself if something bad happened because of something I allowed them to do. I remember researching the names of parents and ensuring they were not on the sex offender registry. OCD always told me about the worst possible scenario, never the good things that could happen in my children’s lives.
I wish, sometimes, that I could go back in time, knowing what I know today. But that is impossible, of course. I wish I had been given treatment for OCD much sooner. Maybe I would have enjoyed more of the small moments, maybe I would have gone on more field trips, volunteered to cook more baked goods, and chaperoned. Perhaps I could have passed a sense of confidence and independence to my children.
We cannot change the past. But what we do have power over is today. What my children have seen is that in spite of my struggles, I have grown, and I am now able to do many of the things that brought me such fear in the past. They can see 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.
You can be the mom you want to be
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. It will not always feel the way it does today. Your life can look so different in the years to come. You can enjoy the things that OCD has not let you enjoy. You can live a life free of extreme anxiety and distress over your intrusive thoughts. Treatment can help you live life fully. I know because I have been there. I have wondered if it would ever change, and I have learned that it can. You can take back control of your life from OCD.
The most effective treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP works to provide long-term relief from anxiety and distress. By allowing uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt to be present without engaging in compulsions for quick relief, you can teach your brain that it can tolerate these feelings and allow them to pass on their own, without engaging in compulsions that only reinforce the vicious cycle of OCD.
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OCD demands to know 100% that nothing bad will happen, and unfortunately, it will never feel satisfied enough. When someone is experiencing OCD, the mere thought of not knowing something for sure can be terrifying. By learning through ERP that they can actually tolerate feelings of uncertainty, they feel more confident in their ability to handle distress and the situations that trigger these feelings.
If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about the treatment, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our care team. On the call, we’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.
Stacy Quick LPC, is a therapist at NOCD, specializing in the treatment of OCD. She has been working in the mental health field for nearly 20 years. Her goal is to help members achieve skills to help them live a more fulfilling life without letting OCD be in control. Ms. Quick uses ERP and her lived experiences to help her members understand it is possible to live a life in recovery. She is a mother of 3 children, 2 of whom are also diagnosed with OCD. Ms. Quick is also a writer and content creator. Learn more about Stacy Quick on Instagram: @stacyquick.undone
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.