This Is What It’s Really Like To Be A Parent With OCD

by Joanna McClanahan
Originally Published: 
A mother sitting in a chair and massaging her head
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Parenthood is tough enough, but imagine having kids while being deathly afraid of germs. What if this fear were so powerful, you felt the physical need to wash your hands 100 times a day or more? It might be so intense that you don’t shake hands with others or use public restrooms. Or so severe that even leaving the house is difficult.

That hypothetical is a reality for some parents with OCD.

OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is a mental health disorder made up of two parts: obsessions and compulsions. According to Psychology Today, obsessions are the intrusive thoughts or worries that the person with OCD often knows are irrational but can’t control. While compulsions are the rituals the person feels compelled to perform, to ease the distress brought on by obsessions.

In other words, the obsession is like an itch that comes along: uncontrolled and without warning. The compulsion is like a scratch, it feels like a reflex that’s needed to relieve the “itch.” They are two sides of the same coin.

We usually associate OCD with rituals (like turning a doorknob three times, turning the lights off and on an even number of times, etc.), but it can manifest in a variety of ways, including severe anxiety.

Obsessions are like daydreams that feel like nightmares. I used to think of germs as tiny bugs I couldn’t see. I thought they were constantly on me. I was convinced I could feel them moving. I would wash my hands until they were cracked, because it was only immediately after washing them that I felt like I was free from tiny bugs.

My entire life was centered around “killing germs.” I was one of those people who used those disinfectant wipes on their carts…multiple times over. I had a hand sanitizer on my keychain at one point, because the thought of touching anything in public and not immediately sanitizing my hands made me physically ill.

While OCD can be irrational fears about anything, and varies in scale, it’s typically only diagnosed if it significantly interferes with daily life. Because of its range of severity, the treatment for OCD ranges from cognitive behavioral therapy to prescribed medication.

Personally, I’ve had both. I had years of therapy as a young adult which helped me accept that germs are an important part of helping us strengthen our immune systems. I’m currently on anxiety medication that helps control both the unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and the desire to alleviate them (compulsions).

But even so, I feel especially uneasy when I take my kids to public play areas. Pretty much any place with a ball pit or giant-mouse mascot makes me queasy.

When my kids were smaller and would put random things in their mouth, it would make me sick to think about the germs. Even after playdates, I’d want to Lysol every inch of my house to get rid of all the unwanted germs that were inevitably left behind.

We’ve all heard people claim to have OCD. And to some extent, it’s relatable because we all feel like there are some parts of our lives we want to obsessively control. Maybe you like your towels folded a particular way, or have a specific preference for the way your kitchen is organized, or how your toilet paper rolls (from the top unless you were raised in a barn, OK?).

It’s true that people with OCD often try to control their surroundings, or make them as perfect as they can. Unfortunately for parents, we all know this isn’t possible when you have small children. Let’s be honest, children and chaos typically go hand in hand.

Extreme perfectionism is typically a byproduct of OCD. People obsessively control the things they can control to try to compensate for a disease they can’t. A disease, that in some cases, can impact a person’s quality of life.

So much is out of our control once we have kids. And if you’re deathly afraid of germs, it can make parenthood that much more difficult because kids are basically walking petri dishes.

If you know someone who struggles with uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts, don’t dismiss it. Definitely don’t tell them to “just relax.” Encourage them to see a doctor, especially if it affects their daily life. Because I know from experience that it can affect the quality of life for their entire family.

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