What It’s Like Being A Mother With OCD

When I was seven I would walk up and down the stairs, over and over again, until things just felt “right.” My best friend would do the same, telling me how cool it was that I danced up and down the stairs. The “feeling right” would last for about 12 seconds and then it would be bedtime and I’d be stuck switching the light switch on and off, on and off, on and off. I cried all of the time. My parents, not knowing what to do with me, took me to a psychologist. Hey. It was 1980, and Frasier Crane was all booked up, trying to psychoanalyze Carla’s inherent need to keep breeding.

I felt anxiety at every turn as a child. Whenever my mother was leaving to shop for groceries for her insatiable hoard of children, I would have very real images of her in a horrible, horrible car accident, head severed. The reason she’d had the accident was always because I’d forgotten to tell her “I love you” exactly three times.

Two would have been negligent; four unimaginable.

It was agony.

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The counselor didn’t really know what to do with me, saying to my parents that I was simply a “sensitive child.”

All was moderately OK during the following years (by OK I mean that I spent many moments tolerating my older brother chanting, “If I don’t make this third three-pointer, it means we’re all going to dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”). BROTHERS. Then, one day during my sophomore year of high school, I experienced a panic attack so intense I started smelling things that weren’t there. There was my poor mother, yelling to the ER nurse over the phone, “She’s smelling cinnamon rolls now, and before it was Chop Suey!! WHAT IS GOING ON?”

I spent the next several months breathing into Hy-Vee bags and having fits of anxiety so severe that the only way to describe them adequately would be to say that I wished someone would just put me out of my misery. Yes. Even that.

Again I was taken to the same counseling service; they grilled me on whether or not I had been abused, beaten, had a traumatic event in my life, etc. I said “no” to all of it and, this being ten years later and the mechanics of the brain more easily understood, they recommended a psychiatrist.

More accurately, the insurance company denied any further payments to the psychologist until I was evaluated by someone who could prescribe medication.

The psychiatrist immediately diagnosed me with OCD and clinical depression. It was the biggest relief I have ever felt to hear someone say,

“This is why you count to three over and over again in your head.” 

“This is the reason you are not able to read a sentence without re-reading the word “and” three times every time you come across it.” 

“This is the reason you have painful/sad/violent images that enter your head randomly, and you feel powerless to get them out.”

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Today, as my two-year-old struggles to put a rotini noodle on a fork and yodels her frustration, as I look at the cottage cheese smashed into the floor and as I try to keep up with the demands of lunch time for a brood of five children, I feel a surge of adrenaline. It’s anxiety, niggling at the back of my mind. It always threatens to overtake me.

Depression and Anxiety are the Mean Girls in your PE class. They help each other through the obstacle course, but when it’s your turn they laugh and point as you slog through water. They’re the quicksand in the Princess Bride, only this time there’s no prince to pull you out.

I remember being that same little girl in the 1980s, visiting my grandmother in the psychiatric ward of our local hospital. She had just had shock treatments and visitors were finally allowed. My grandma was always sunny; she was the lady who would turn on the 80s equivalent to NCIS and spout out of her sweet little mouth, “Well! Doesn’t this just look like a good family show!” She always saw the good in people, and she always had molasses cookies available. They were her offering of love for anyone entering her squeaky clean apartment with the ancient horse picture above the sofa.

It was terrible to see my grandmother, no makeup and sobbing, telling my dad she was just so, so sad. I remember her in still frames during that time, still frames of pain and checking and rechecking windows, locks and doors.

Before those shock treatments she was locked up and unreachable. Now, at 34, I identify with her. I want her to know that. I am desperate for her to know that someone understands, that that little nine year old with braids was going to completely understand her in 25 years. The strand of genetics from her to me was strong.

So, too, was OUR strength.

Today, as my two year old struggles to put a rotini noodle on a fork and yodels her frustration, as I look at the cottage cheese smashed into the floor and as I try to keep up with the demands of lunch time for a brood of three biological and two foster children, I feel a surge of adrenaline, of anxiety, niggling at the back of my mind. It always threatens to overtake me.

There’s a lyric from a Mumford and Sons song that I adore: “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won.”

I feel this daily in my parenting. I feel there’s always something I’m leaving undone; a box left unchecked or a door hanging open. I fear the judgement of my children when they are grown:

“Remember when mom would get sad and depressed and just send us outside? Remember when she’d read “The Bell Jar” and then listen to that Oldies band called the Cranberries? Why couldn’t she have spent all of that time making Pinterest crafts out of root beer bottles and hemp or taking pictures of us every year at the exact time of our birth instead?”

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And, let’s be honest. The one we all fear: “REMEMBER HOW UTTERLY CRAPPY OUR CHILDHOOD WAS? OUR MOM SUCKED!”

These thoughts lead to more self-hate, and then the self-hate leads to me turning more inward. Friends wonder why I haven’t called for weeks and then when I write on my blog that I’m lonely, they ask me why I didn’t reach out.

I don’t know. Is that an acceptable answer?

When I was pregnant with my second child, a son, I decided to forego all anxiety medication. Our first child was born with her liver hanging out and no anus, so I figured (as all guilty mothers do) that my choosing to take the antidepressants was the reason our child was born so sick.

To say that this next pregnancy was hell would be to say that Oprah is bathing in hundred dollar bills at the time of this writing. I was so miserable. I was anxious. I fixated for hours each day upon the numerous ways he would die in utero, sometimes spending 4 – 5 hours on the computer “researching” other stories of parents who had given birth to stillborn babies. I would contact them and ask them for their stories, sure I could keep a stillbirth at bay if I only did the right things. The “right things” usually involved lots of checking and rechecking.

Pregnancy was my prison.

When I was 37 weeks pregnant I was mopping our kitchen floor, something that hadn’t been done for about two months. My 23-month-old daughter was standing next to the mop bucket, looking up at me with these huge brown eyes and all I could do was collapse next to her, gather her in my arms, and, sobbing, call the doctor.

I told her of my symptoms, spluttering, “I just know he’s going to die. I just know it! There are so many rituals I have to perform and I can’t sleep and I don’t eat and my mind is so tired. I know I’m supposed to be brave and strong and deliver him naturally and let him come on his own and all that but I just can’t do this any more. I can’t.”

She delivered our son the next day. I’m telling you: as soon as that umbilicus was cut, my mind was clear again.

I’ve learned over the years that there are just going to be days where the OCD is worse than on others. There are days (especially when I’m tired) where I can’t look at any amount of writing without re-reading every inch of what is written over three times.

The only way I can describe dealing with OCD to someone who doesn’t deal with it is that it is an itch that begs to be scratched. The more you ignore it, the louder it gets.

There are times when the anxiety is so bad some mornings that I have to take three deep breaths and snuggle into the crook of my husband’s warmth, imagining his body taking away some of my pain.

I’ve learned that, in mothering as in anything else, some mothers have a harder time than others doing certain things. Getting from point “A” to “B” is harder for me than it is for others. I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to the mom who packs her kids organic lunches, never raises her voice, and reads “Little House on the Prairie” aloud while I’m on the other side of town, thankful my kids are in their rooms, fighting over Red Dye 40.

Victory is in the little battles, and I have no idea what someone else’s struggle may be. I’ve always known that.

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The freedom, though, has been in learning to be awake to my own depression and anxiety and move them from the shadows into the light. It’s OK some days for me to be feeling anxious, to feel that I just “went through the motions” in caring for my children instead of beating myself up about it in sequences of threes.

Do you know this, dear fellow mother-friend, whoever you are? Do you know what else I know? My fingers shake as I type these words and my mind releases a flood of fear as I think of the judgement I may receive in admitting these things.

I know something else. I know something else that holds a far greater and beautiful truth:

There is such freedom in the telling.

About the writer

Rachel is THAT mother in the store: The biological/foster mother using WIC checks while her screaming children sport snot rockets and last year's Old Navy clearance. Find her at her blogFacebook or on Twitter as @pipsersmom.


Jess 1 month ago

Thank you so much for writing this. I hate when ppl misuse the term ocd. They have no idea what it really is. They have no idea about the rituals, check list, panic attacks, horrific images in your head. Thank you.

Khristrieana 1 month ago

Wow, this post really spoke to me. Growing up I thought I was weird and crazy for having to have everything just so. I had to eat everything in 3’s, When I walked the halls at school I counting my steps in 3’s and if i skipped a square I would almost die! I just started a blog and have been going back in forth about telling my struggles with the disorder. It seems like since the birth of my second daughter I have been struggling a lot more with my depression and OCD. Thank you for sharing your truth now I have the courage to share mine. ( learningmotherhood.com )

Sharon 3 months ago

Thanks for being real with your story. As a fellow mom with adult kids. I have learned there is no perfect mom , we are all flawed and just the fact we care so much our children with the challenges of depression. anxiety and OCD makes us stronger and our children more forgiving and understanding of others. (and yes I read this 3 times before I sent it).

Kirsty 6 months ago

It was great to read your story. It really helps to know we are not alone in the world. I have had depression and anxiety disorders my whole life. I went through 10 years of therapy and different medications to prepare myself for motherhood but I am still struggling. I am ashamed of being a defective mother who cannot contribute financially to my family. I have developed Bruxism and Tinnitus. I do what I can but it’s very demoralising waking up every day like this. I love my kids more than anything which I find terrifying. All I can do is love them and do what I can. Sending my love to all the mums doing it tough.

Meg 6 months ago

Thanks for writing this! It’s good to hear of other moms with OCD. I’ve had it since childhood too I’m so much better than I was but still a ways to go too. Anyway, I identified with so much of this post. You’re definitely not alone! Awesomely written, and I’m glad you had the courage to put this out there. I know that’s not easy! :)

Susan 6 months ago

Hi. thank you for this article. My mother has OCD and today was worse than most. I was looking online to try to gain some perspective since I do not have OCD I just was having trouble understanding today. Thank you for your honesty. It really helps to have that insight.

Elizabeth Spevack 6 months ago

What a well-written and moving article. I’m not a mother – yet – but I hope to be one day, even though the thought of it excites and scares me all at the same time. Thank you for showing there is a way it can be done, even with OCD.

Eileen 6 months ago

if it makes you feel better I packy kids organic lunch because my anxiety makes me certain I will give them Cancer or brain damage or eyesight problems if they have Red Dye, or pesticides. It’s a no win situation.

Jess 6 months ago

I relate to this so much.

Just, thanks.

Keri 7 months ago

As an expectant mother, pregnant for the first time and knowing that, although all new mom’s have many anxieties, I am in a unique position, I decided to search the phrase “parenting with OCD” on Google. This is the first article that popped up. I read the whole thing and I want to say thank you. I was diagnosed at age 6 and have struggled with med changes, several counselors, a psychologist who refused to work with me because I am too “high functioning” and he prefers completely debilitated OCD patients….you name it. And now pregnancy and parenthood. I fear so much being the “weird mom” or not being good enough because I’m too caught up in my obsessions to really pay attention to my child. I thank you for posting this because although you’re living the reality that I will soon also be living and are not sugar coating it for me at all, your story still gives me hope. And it helps to know that others have come before me and are surviving and thriving. Thanks again.

MM 7 months ago

Hi, my heart goes out to you. I know the post is about sharing your experience and not about looking for help, but I struggled with OCD for years and found a way out, and I just wanted reach out. I mostly used the approach recommended in the book Brainlock by Jeffrey Schwarz, in case you haven’t read it, and maybe it will help. I recommend the book so much that a friend told me I should get commission but I swear I don’t:) Based on my personal experience, I do believe there is a way out of the torture of OCD thoughts.

Andrea 7 months ago

Thank you so very much for posting this! I too suffer from OCD and I have two kids, one exclusively Breast feeding. It’s so difficult. Thank you for putting into words what others just don’t understand. I needed to read this today and it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Bibi 8 months ago

Rachel, thank you for sharing yourself with the world. In all your beauty, imperfection…and what I consider to be perfection…we weren’t meant to live tidy little lives tied up in bows. Perfection comes with mess.

Corey 8 months ago

Thank you. Hope is out there, for every one of us.


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