Scary Thoughts by Jackie Hostetler

“I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt him. Oh God. What if I accidentally put him in the oven?”     

        This was the running dialogue in my head for the first months of my son’s life. Looking at the words in black and white, it seems surreal and absurd. It was real. And not absurd.  

        I didn’t worry if my child was getting enough milk, or if I had swaddled him in the correct manner. I had done my research, taken the classes, and I was somewhat confident I could meet his basic needs. There were other worries.

        My husband was remodeling our minuscule master bathroom during the first weeks of my son’s life. He would pry the old turquoise tiles loose and throw them out the bathroom window to the growing refuse pile about eight feet below. The falling ceramic made a distinct sound as it hit the already discarded ceramic under the window. Sharp and jarring. With each slap of tile on tile, I had an image of my infant son. Hands dropping him out the window, the sharp sound, and the turquoise pile below.

        I had heard the cautionary tales. I was prepared to watch for signs of wanting to hurt myself or my baby. But I didn’t want to hurt my child. The awful thoughts would just rush in. I would try to push them away only to be triggered seconds later by the sight of another hazard: a bread knife, a flight of stairs, the brick fireplace hearth.

        I hadn’t heard of any other moms responding this way to the birth of their child. I was afraid to even speak the words out loud. Not to my doctor, not to my husband, not to my mom and sisters. How do you explain that you feel like you might accidentally put your child in the oven and then accidentally turn it on?

        I took a full three months of leave from my job at a special education early childhood center. I had been saving up sick days since my first year of teaching at the age of 22 for just this occasion (many years before I even met my husband). Because of this forethought, I was one of the fortunate ones with six weeks paid, six weeks unpaid.

        I cried for at least 48 hours before returning. I was prepared for this response, but the preparation didn’t make it any easier. My husband had a flexible work schedule, so he was able to stay at home with our son.

        It was raining the day I went back. My boy was still asleep in his crib, bundled cozily in his little blue sleep-sack. I was heartbroken at having to leave. I made myself focus on the positive to survive the return. I remember thinking “At least he is in his own bed and not being buckled into a carseat, exposed to the elements.”  It was cold comfort.

        On the very first day back, something amazing happened. I stopped worrying.

        I had been at home for three months, focusing every bit of time, energy, and thought on my baby. Back at school, I had other things to think about. Lesson plans, colleagues, staff meetings, and other people’s babies. It was likely a combination of returning to work and my body beginning to regulate itself. Whatever it was, the thoughts stopped.

        I still had some of those typical questions. Is he hitting his milestones? (Answer: every child develops differently). What is that rash? (Answer: nothing). Is it okay that I go back to work? (Answer: yes). These “worries” were a welcome change compared to what I had been dealing with.

        When my son was about six month old, I was casually chatting with the speech pathologist in the building. She asked me frankly if I had experienced any postpartum depression following the birth of my son. I told her that I had not, but for the first time, I did speak of what I had experienced. After listening, she informed me that I had, indeed, been suffering from postpartum depression. She had experienced some of the same thoughts after one of her pregnancies. And so had her sister-in-law.

        The minute she left the classroom, I began an intense search of the whole thing. Usually one to “google” most anything, I previously could not even bring myself to type the words into a search engine.

        These intrusive thoughts are just one of the symptoms that fall under the broad umbrella of postpartum depression. We overload our brains in those early days with an excessive focus on keeping our babies safe. We become aware of every potential danger, even the most far-fetched of scenarios. This hyper-vigilance, paired with hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and birth, have the ability to produce some pretty scary thoughts and, in some cases, actions.

        I learned from my experience. I learned to talk with other expectant and new moms, just as my speech pathologist had. I learned to ask questions. I learned to calm down and take a deep breath when some of the same thoughts returned 20 months later with the birth of my second son.

        As a teacher, I have learned that our brains are amazing. As a mom, I have learned that they are frightening.

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 18 years, earning a Bachelor’s degree in elementary and early childhood education, as well as a Master’s Degree in education. She is a freelance writer and has contributed to numerous education, early childhood, and family-centered blogs.  Her passions include early childhood education and her two little boys, who slip farther away from early childhood each day.