How does OCD affect parenting?
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge something important – the point of this book is to share my journey from a place of suffering to a place of healing. To do that properly, I have to share details about some of my hardest times. My suffering was legitimate and significant, but I find it uncomfortable to talk about because I know, in spite of all my hardships, that I’m a very lucky dad. My boys were born healthy, my wife and I have endless love and support in our lives, and I had access to treatment methods that aligned with my belief systems, my budget, my first language, and my schedule. There are many people out there who don’t have these things. I mean no disrespect or devaluation towards anyone else’s circumstances.
I also feel awkward talking about how hard things were for me when I first became a parent, knowing how exhausting and intense those first few months were for my wife as she learned to nurse twins and teach them to sleep, all while recovering from childbirth. I will always admire her for the love, resilience, and dedication she showed for our family during that time. She rose to the occasion, and she absolutely knocked it out of the park as a new mom. She still does.
For a while, I even chose not to confront my mental health symptoms because I didn’t think they deserved extra time and attention. How important were my issues, really, compared to my boys, my wife, or others with more severe OCD than me? It seemed like a moral high ground at the time, but honestly, it’s not. If you’re suffering, you’re suffering. Comparisons and deflections serve no one. I know I have a great life. I also know that I struggled tremendously with undiagnosed mental health symptoms for many years. To deny that reality based on the fear that someone else might think I’m ignorant or unappreciative would be to stop the conversation about mental health and healing before it even starts. If you’re reluctant to come forward with your own struggles for similar reasons, I encourage you to reflect often on my example, and to remember that everyone needs and deserves help. Having said that, let’s take a candid look at OCD as it relates to parenting.
How OCD Affects Parenting
Caring for newborns is really hard. Generally speaking, stress levels go up, and stress relievers go down. For some people, that might mean little more than increased irritability and a drop-off in fitness or productivity. For others, having a baby can either start or worsen OCD symptoms. The latter was certainly the case for me, and at first it was upsetting and confusing. I loved my boys from the moment the doctors put them in my arms, and I wasn’t afraid of the work required to take care of them, but my head was a mess during their earliest months. On the surface, I did the things I needed to do. I changed diapers, cuddled fussy babies, did the family photo shoots, and tried to keep the house in order. Internally, I was falling apart. Everything I needed to be a good dad – mental and emotional energy, patience, flexible thinking – was at least somewhat drained because of my undiagnosed, unregulated OCD symptoms. For a time, that meant that my family almost never got the best version of me. In retrospect, I can see what was happening: my malfunctioning brain was flooded with intrusive thoughts and obsessions about the things I love most (my wife and boys), and that was causing overwhelming anxiety. I was entering a physically and emotionally stressful phase of my life with frayed neurocircuitry, and I didn’t know it. It was a layer of complexity that I simply hadn’t anticipated, and for a while it made things very difficult.
To be clear, I would never assume that my parenting experience was automatically harder than anyone else’s because of my OCD. That said, I do think the adjustment to parenthood was harder for me than it would’ve been if my OCD had been diagnosed and brought under control before I had kids. Failing to take a proactive approach to my mental health ahead of becoming a parent is one of my biggest regrets, and it’s one of my biggest reasons for sharing my story.
As of this writing, I know that I could manage a flare-up of OCD symptoms if it happened. Back then, I had no idea what was going on in my head, and the only coping strategy I had was compulsions. That meant I was expending the majority of my mental and emotional energy on motions that only brought temporary relief. It was an unsustainable arrangement from the beginning. Here are a few of the ways it affected my day-to-day life.
Having kids is touted as a joyous experience, and in so many ways, it is. For me, though, having kids also meant spikes in stress and anxiety, the likes of which I had never felt before. From the moment I first held my boys, I felt dedicated to their growth, happiness and protection, and I loved those feelings. The problem was, my malfunctioning brain took those natural parental emotions, swirled them up with obsessions, and sent my mind into a tailspin. The instinct to keep my boys safe came with constant, powerful obsessions about terrible things happening that I couldn’t prevent. Bedtime stories and songs were some of my favourite times with my boys, but I also dreaded putting them down to sleep because that meant spending the rest of the night worried that I hadn’t checked their breathing properly, or that I had compromised their safety by not securing their mattress sheets the right way. I loved my boys from the second I met them, but my anxieties and emotions were so out of control that I couldn’t love every moment of raising them, at least not at first. Here’s how those feelings manifested in day-to-day life.
Zero to One Thousand
Baby crying isn’t just an early attempt at communication. It’s a biological chain reaction designed to alert parents to their children’s needs, and to prompt them to act. To an obsessive-compulsive brain, baby crying is like strapping a rocket to a race car – your brain is already in non-stop stress response mode, and then it gets flooded with another round of stress hormones every time your baby cries. Consider, for example, a normal parental response to baby crying:
1. Baby cries.
2. Parent hears the cry.
3. Parent thinks, ‘I need to go check on the baby’.
4. Parent calmly goes to the baby.
5. Parent assesses the baby’s needs and offers food, comfort, and attention as needed.
It’s a logical sequence of baby care, and it’s what I expected to be doing when I heard my babies crying. I was wrong. Here’s what my reaction cycle looked like:
1. Baby cries.
2. I hear the cry.
3. My chest tightens, and my heart rate goes up.
4. I start picturing worst-case scenarios and wondering which one of them is playing out.
5. I bolt up from what I’m doing.
6. I go to my babies and start to assess them for serious injuries and missing vital signs.
7. I realize they’re OK, and I start trying to calm everyone down, including myself.
What you’re seeing is the effect of increased stress hormones on an already-imbalanced set of neurocircuits. The logical parent in me knew that crying was normal and encouraged me to react rationally. The OCD part of me jumped straight to the worst-case scenario. The inner battle was agonizing. By the time I picked up my crying babies, I was already in a heightened state of alert, and in my mind that was a problem because I was subconsciously transferring my anxieties to my kids.
Most of the time, I was able to calm them within a few minutes, but sometimes I couldn’t. Generally, babies cry because they’re hungry, wet, in pain, or simply craving a parent’s presence. Sometimes, though, babies just cry. Yep. No rhyme, no reason, and no eardrums left for dad. Just crying. Ugh.
All jokes aside, baby crying was one of the first signals to me that something was wrong with my emotional regulation. My wife was able to accept our boy’s crying with remarkable patience and understanding, but I saw it as a sign that I was missing some kind of hidden suffering that would eventually lead to an emergency, even though everything and everyone around me suggested otherwise.
The same pattern repeated in minor and perfectly typical accidents. A slight slip during bath time made me terrified my sons were about to drown. Dropping a bottle on the floor meant I had to soak the nipple in boiling water to prevent Hepatitis A. Caring for babies requires consistency from parents and caregivers. Extreme reactions are great for extreme situations, but they’re not practical for responding to the everyday ups and downs of raising kids. Unfortunately, my OCD kept me on the edge of extreme reactions for most of early parenting days. It was a seemingly endless cycle that often left me emotionally exhausted. Speaking of which…
Raising kids takes a lot of patience and resilience. As a good friend once told me, it’s both funny and baffling how your kids can make you feel joy like you’ve never felt, but also take you to levels of frustration you never knew existed. To manage those ups and downs successfully, you need emotional energy. When my OCD symptoms were at their worst, I was running on emotional fumes. Sleep times meant I could relax physically, but it also meant lying alone with my brain and fighting off non-stop obsessions. By the time I went into the nursery to get my boys up for their next feed, it was like I had just returned from hiking on an icy mountain-top. I felt relieved, but I was mentally and emotionally fried.
When my symptoms were at their worst, I was frequently frustrated, irritable, and difficult to be around for my wife and family. Simple messes and spills were an infuriating disaster. Stubbing my toe made me feel like the universe was conspiring against me. It’s not that I’m a petty person. Normally, those things don’t bother me. The problem was I had no patience for minor annoyances because all my emotional energy was being spent on managing my obsessions and compulsions. Over time, getting through the motions of day-to-day life became harder and harder, and the longer I tried to tough it out, the more exhausted I became. Still, I pressed on, thinking it was only a matter of time before things got better. When that approach didn’t work, I tried to find relief by exercising more control over my circumstances.
Overprotective (No, Like Really Overprotective)
It’s natural to feel reasonably protective of your kids, but OCD makes it hard to react calmly and rationally to even the possibility of a threat. In every situation, risks are guilty until proven innocent. If you have obsessions about contamination, for example, you likely struggle to accept a middle ground between healthy exposure to germs and dying of poison. Such middle grounds are necessary for functioning in the world, but if your thoughts about germs are that black and white, you might struggle more than most to allow your child to take reasonable risks with things like dirt, dropped food, and shared toys. If your obsessions are strong enough, you may even struggle to let your kids get dirty at all, even though part of you knows they need to play in dirt to be healthy.
Some of my worst obsessions were based on my kids choking, drowning, and falling from heights. Combined with a parent’s emotions, those obsessions made feedings, bath time, and carrying my boys up and down stairs difficult. I reacted with fight-or-flight intensity to the slightest hint of choking, unexpected slips in water, and even the slightest of squirms when I carried them up and down stairs. In other words, I acted as if there was a real threat based on the possibility of a hazard. OCD is like that. It keeps you stuck in the belief that situations are either completely safe or imminently dangerous, and that your actions are the difference between the two. There isn’t a place or situation on planet Earth that is one hundred percent safe, and kids have to take risks to learn their limitations, but at first, I couldn’t accept that. I asked my wife for reassurance that the boys were OK on an hourly basis, and I reacted harshly any time I felt someone wasn’t being careful enough. Believe it or not, that approach made perfect sense to me. After all, I was just doing my parental duties, wasn’t I? As it turns out, even those were harder than I thought.
I had a lot of trouble learning how to put shirts on my sons. That’s not a typo. I actually had to ‘learn’ how to do it. Here’s why: babies are tiny and delicate. When I pull a shirt over my own head, I line my head up with the hole and pull. I can do that because my neck is strong. It doesn’t move when I put on a shirt. My sons were little, and their necks were delicate. In my head, that meant risk for them, and life-or-death responsibility for me.
For most parents, the delicacy of a baby is just a reminder to be reasonably cautious. For me, it meant I needed a procedure to ensure there was zero risk of breaking my kids’ necks, or of them suffocating if the shirt got stuck at their noses or mouths on the way down to their bodies. Most times I was successful, but when a shirt did get stuck, I had to remove it and find another way to put it on, or find a new shirt altogether. I also tried to only use shirts with extra-wide head holes, and if the head hole wasn’t wide enough, I would stretch it before putting it on (let’s just say my wife – the one who did all the clothes shopping – was none too pleased about that). Part of me knew I didn’t need to stretch their shirts, but it was the only way to calm my anxiety, and a stretched shirt seemed like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for guaranteed safety. Over time, I even started to avoid situations where I had to dress my sons in shirts with head holes. I would only use button-up onesies and other types of clothing that didn’t involve pulling anything over their heads. If we were going out and the boys needed to be dressed up, I would look for button-up shirts, and if my wife asked for them to wear a particular t-shirt, I would always try and arrange for her to do the dressing. Remember, neither of us knew about my OCD diagnosis at first, so there was confusion and frustration all around, and that’s just one of many examples of how OCD interfered with my parenting duties.
Looking back, part of me feels proud that I didn’t let my symptoms ruin my parenting altogether. Dressing my boys was difficult, but I still dressed them. Diaper changes were stressful, but I still did them. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. I just wish I could’ve enjoyed those things without feeling like I was navigating a life-or-death situation. I wish I could’ve gotten through those earliest months without the stress and emotional confusion of undiagnosed OCD symptoms. The problem was, I was locked in a state of flared emotions and rigid thinking. I couldn’t think outside my own head because I couldn’t see beyond my own thoughts. These are things I know now, though, and that's something.
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