This is a guest post written by Kristina Cowan
*Trigger alert: This article contains references to intrusive images, and may not be suitable for some suffering with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
The birth of our babies—especially our first—is supposed to be magical. We expect a quick rebound from what’s often the most physically challenging experience in our lives. Messages fired at us on television, through the internet, and on social media aim to convince us: once we embrace our child for the first time, we’ll float our way through bliss.
What if our stories are different?
My first encounter with childbirth, for example, left me feeling as if I’d been tossed into a furnace. Though my pregnancy was smooth, the birth was complicated. At my OB-GYN’s suggestion, I opted to induce ahead of my son’s due date. Scheduling Noah’s arrival offered some measure of control, which made me feel safe. My doctor pointed out that because the pregnancy had been uneventful, inducing would be easy.
To my surprise, labor and delivery required strong doses of medication and forceps, and left me injured—far afield from my so-called simple birth plan. When Noah was 2 days old, I landed in a hospital emergency room, in the middle of the night. Twisted in pain, I was filled with fear that I’d die and strand my baby.
Because of the forceps, I’d suffered a third-degree tear. My OB-GYN’s stitches were so secure, I couldn’t go to the bathroom. My body swelled like an overstuffed balloon. Meanwhile, I had decided to nurse exclusively, but I hadn’t yet learned to pump. Noah was with me in the ER, asleep in his stroller. What if hunger stirred him while I was with the doctor, and out of reach? Thoughts of him starving streamed through my hormone-addled, sleep-deprived brain.
Thanks to my caregivers in the ER and my OB, soon I was on the road to physical well-being. But my mental health started to shrivel. Dark, intrusive thoughts chased me through days dampened by unstoppable crying spells. Brief bouts of sleep were my only reprieve. I’d been irresponsible in agreeing to the induction, I thought, and my body had failed during childbirth. Noah was born in perfect health—the forceps-inflicted gashes notwithstanding—but I didn’t deserve him.
Back then I didn’t know birth trauma had placed me at risk for developing a perinatal mood disorder. The risk was compounded by the absence of my mom, who passed away from breast cancer 20 years earlier. My self-loathing was added fuel. It powered my mood disorder and hurled me into a furnace with twin blazes—intrusive thoughts, and my own condemnation.
Intrusive Thoughts and Crying Spells
Obsessions, also called intrusive thoughts, and compulsions are the two dominant symptoms of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts are persistent, repetitive, and unwanted. They’re generally related to harm coming to the baby, either accidentally or intentionally. Compulsions involve a mother repeating actions to reduce her fears and obsessions.
I was jarred and terrified by my intrusive thoughts, which is usually the case for anyone plagued by them. Experts, such as those at Postpartum Support International, remind us that most parents recognize the intrusions as irrational, and they’re very unlikely to act on them.
Most of my images were about Noah. In one, he’d plummet down the trash chute in our high-rise apartment building. Others centered on forks and frying pans flying into his head. I perceived danger everywhere—walking with the baby down a stairwell or a street, wondering if I’d slip, whether a car would skid into us. Locked in an endless what-if loop, I cried—because the images wouldn’t stop, because my mom was gone, because everyone had been so kind to me, because I felt like a failure. My once-peaceful life was on fire.
Looking back, I consider the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They too faced a fire, courtesy of King Nebuchadnezzar, who “ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace” (Daniel 3:19-21).
Such was their lot after refusing to serve the king’s gods and worship his image of gold. Still, they believed the Lord would deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath, including the furnace. They gambled big on their faith.
Though the flames killed the soldiers who pitched them into the furnace, the three men were unscathed—to the king’s great surprise: “He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’” (Daniel 3: 25). Their gamble might’ve been big, but the Lord was even bigger. He met them in the furnace and saved their lives.
Through the Fire, a Clear View
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted God, even in a fiery pit. I’m not sure I would’ve been as brave. My postpartum flames were figurative. But when Noah was only a few weeks old, I too trusted the Lord—no matter what happened when I sought help. It was a leap, in an age when stigma and shame so closely follow mental illness.
Since I tend not to suffer silently, I didn’t hide my tears. I shared my intrusive thoughts with my husband and those closest to me. I called my OB, who recommended antidepressants and talk therapy. I pursued both lines of treatment, and found I had postpartum depression. While I wasn’t diagnosed with postpartum OCD, I did battle intrusive images, one of its defining symptoms.
I suffered, but I didn’t despair. Why not? I credit the hand of God. From the abundance of baby meals sent by friends and family, to the compassionate care of my OB, to the willingness of many to listen as I retold the story of my traumatic birth—I was cared for. The Lord met me in my furnace.
Through the fire, I had my clearest-yet view of Christ. I saw and felt his dedication to me. I learned to trust him not just day-by-day, but moment-to-moment. Postpartum depression slowed me down. I learned to savor the good moments. Now, as I parent through the increasingly swift K-12 years, I miss that slower pace.
Treatment and time stitched my frayed ends. By the time Noah was 18 months old, I felt well.
In the time since, the Lord has spun my scary postpartum story into something that’ll help others: my first book, which published in April 2017. It’s called When Postpartum Packs a Punch: Fighting Back and Finding Joy.
It’s rooted in the idea that shared stories are healing agents. I relate my postpartum story, but the focus is on experiences of other parents across the United States and in the United Kingdom. The book shows and tells what they endured, what their treatment was like, and how they recovered. It’s about the spirit of overcoming, and ultimately, hope—the lifeblood we all need.
A graduate of Northwestern University, Kristina Cowan has 20 years of experience as a journalist. She spent the last five researching and writing her first book, When Postpartum Packs a Punch: Fighting Back and Finding Joy. It’s available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and at libraries in 25 states and Canada. Cowan lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two children. Online you can find her at http://www.kristinacowan.com or her Facebook; on Twitter she’s @kristinacowan, and on Instagram she’s kcowan8863.