A Day In The Life Of A Mom With OCD
Parenting with a chronic mental health condition requires definite coping skills.
I've always been particular. I like to joke that my personality type is "Double A." As a kid, I loved to organize my stuffed animals by size, and in school, I was meticulous about my homework. I even went through a germaphobe phase in junior high, but that passed. I’m no stranger to manic behavior like racing thoughts and hyper-productivity. Following the births of my children, however, my peculiar tendencies became full-blown postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. I'm a mom with OCD, and this is my life.
When most people think of OCD, it’s the compulsions — repetitive behaviors like handwashing or arranging things a certain way — that come to mind. I have them in spades. In fact, attending to my compulsions is how I start my day. Like most moms, mornings come with their share of chores, such as sanitizing the baby’s bottles, unloading the dishwasher, and making the beds. However, I doubt that most moms have to place all the bottle parts the exact same way on the drying rack every time. My husband is great about putting the dishes away, but I can’t resist the urge to “fix” it, so that all the measuring cups and spoons are nested in size order and the Tupperware lids face the same way. It takes me several tries to get the bed made just how I like it.
Another common compulsion is repeatedly checking on things. I’m sure a lot of moms double-check to make sure that the stove is off and the door is locked, but leaving the house in the morning for school and work is an absolute ordeal for me (and not just because I’m trying to get my older kid’s shoes on, although that doesn’t help). Once I get my children in the car and have verified that they are buckled in correctly, I have to go back in and talk myself through each room, all the while assuring myself that every light is off and the hair dryer is unplugged, lest a fire be caused by my own negligence. I’ve been known to circle the neighborhood and come back to the house to ensure that I closed the garage door and set the alarm.
To someone who doesn’t suffer from OCD, I imagine that these behaviors sound crazy, for lack of a better word. When you know why, however, it makes a lot more sense. Many people with OCD engage in compulsions in an attempt to control the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that also characterize the disorder. Rituals provide temporary relief from anxiety caused by those thoughts. I have a long drive on the way to my daughter’s preschool, and since I can’t reshelve all my books while driving, that’s when the bad thoughts come. Obsessions look different for everyone, but mine generally revolve around harm coming to my children, either malicious or accidental (I’ve imagined both). They are terrifyingly vivid and cause intense feelings of distress, as my mind works through what exactly it would be like and, just as scary, what I might do.
One of the things that makes OCD so exhausting is the energy it takes to appear “normal.” I drop my daughter off at preschool and chat with her teacher. Then I head to the coffee shop, shoot the breeze with my favorite baristas as they ooh and ahh over the baby strapped to my chest. I sit down to work, and honestly, I’m usually wildly productive. For the most part, no one would suspect that there’s anything wrong. When you look at me from the outside, you might see a frazzled working mom, but you’d also probably be impressed at what I’m able to get done. That’s because I go to great lengths to hide the fact that I go through my calendar for the past two years to make sure I’ve labeled events consistently and reorganize my purse every time I pull something out.
OCD can be comorbid with other mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, as is the case with me. When we get home in the afternoon, I sometimes sit in the car for a while with the kids still strapped in. I feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks that “have” to be done: unpacking my daughter’s backpack, restocking the diaper bag, going through the mail, not to mention attending to the needs of my kids. The list is so overwhelming that it sometimes paralyzes me. The personal stress associated with living with OCD, combined with the fact that — like many other sufferers — I know that what I’m doing isn’t reasonable, exacerbates my depression. I will sit and feel bad about myself for a few minutes, but eventually, I get out of the car and do what I need to do.
I’m lucky in that my symptoms are not so extreme that I cannot function on a day-to-day basis. My children are fed, clean, and clothed. They go to the park and library and sit on my lap to be read to. Most of all, they receive constant affection and are loved beyond measure. My OCD doesn’t make me a bad mom. It just means that I have to navigate additional challenges. I am religious about taking my medications, and when I sense something isn’t right, I see my doctor right away. Sometimes my kids go to a friend’s house or to hourly care so that I can see my therapist and learn mindfulness strategies to help interrupt the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. I have to take self-care seriously, so if my daughter watches PJ Masks while Mom and baby take a nap, then so be it.
The severity of OCD ebbs and flows, especially as an individual learns to manage symptoms and avoid triggers. In my case, I know from my first baby that it will get better. Although my disorder will never go away entirely (and I’m actually OK with that because some of it — never missing a birthday, for example — is what makes me me), I can reasonably expect for my symptoms to ease up as my new baby gets older and more independent. I would venture to say that the worst part of anxiety, depression, and OCD is thinking that you will always feel this way. Knowing from experience that this isn’t true gives me hope. I'm confident that, eventually, I’ll be able to be the mom I want to be, and in the meantime, my best is good enough.
OCD is a relentless enemy and a thief of time. Being aware of this isn’t the same as being able to control it, but sometimes it helps me take a step back. Instead of refolding towels, I can cuddle up with my little ones in the evening, smell their hair, and express gratitude at what I’ve been given. It’s a small win in a greater battle, but I’ll take it.