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When motherhood becomes a nightmare

By Shanon Cook, CNN
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri March 1, 2013
Motherhood can bring a host of unexpected worries, real and imagined. Experts say such thoughts are normal.
Motherhood can bring a host of unexpected worries, real and imagined. Experts say such thoughts are normal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Experts say terror of violence befalling your baby is common for mothers
  • Hormonal changes may contribute to a sense of foreboding among new moms
  • Shanon Cook experienced these moments of terror, which she thought were abnormal
  • Doctors say sleep deprivation can also contribute to these mental mirages

Editor's note: Shanon Cook is an entertainment contributor for CNN and has interviewed Peter Gabriel, Sting, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Yo-Yo Ma. Cook grew up in Australia and now lives in New York with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @ShanonCook.

(CNN) -- As I pushed the stroller along a tree-lined Manhattan street when my daughter was about 3 months old, I felt elated. Sure, I hadn't slept in eons, but there was a bounce in my step that came from being out in the world. It was gloriously sunny; the sky was a bright, friendly blue; my precious bundle was drifting into a contented snooze.

Then disaster struck.

Not in my physical surroundings. But entirely, bizarrely inside my head. An image of the baby being snatched violently from the stroller by an assailant invaded my thoughts. I could see it all play out as clearly as if it were actually happening: her helpless cry as she was yanked away, me, frantic, propelling myself toward the kidnapper, screaming bloody murder as I give chase, fists ready to unleash untold harm.

In a matter of seconds, this disturbing scene shrunk and vanished, like an image on a TV screen that's been switched off, and I stood, shaken, rooted to the pavement, gripping the handle of the stroller while I steadied my breathing.

Shanon Cook
Shanon Cook

What the hell was that about? Glancing around, everything was as it should be. The sun was still out. Kylie was blissfully asleep right in front of me, pink cap cradling her delicate little head.

What could possibly have sent me from a happy-go-lucky mindset to an I-could-kill-someone rage with no provocation whatsoever? Was I, dare I ask, losing my mind?

Not according to neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of "The Female Brain." She described what I experienced as a "daymare," a common occurrence for new moms in those first few months of parenthood. A side effect of the brain's transformation from non-mom to full-on mom.

"All of these hormones, that post-delivery, post-birth, postpartum state has got your circuitry, your 'mommy brain' triggered to be on high alert," she said. "Aggressive high alert. It's an intense surge of anger and protective hormones and fantasies."

Fantasies so dark I could be useful as an adviser to the show "CSI: NY"?

"It's actually a very normal state," Brizendine assured me. "But no one talks about it."

You can say that again. In my birthing class when I was pregnant, all sorts of helpful information was shared regarding water breaking, epidurals, breast-feeding and baby's first poop, but there was no mention of, oh yeah, those moments when you're prone to imagine despicable things happening to your baby.

Nor did any of the moms -- many of them strangers -- who came up and put a hand on my bump, offering their unsolicited horror stories from the delivery room, mention the horrors I might experience after I left the hospital.

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"Moms feel like if they tell people about it somebody will think they're really crazy," Brizendine said. "You would think moms would talk about this in the mommy groups, but they actually don't. Because in the repeating of it, it almost re-traumatizes you and you're just hoping it will go away."

Brizendine said these daymares afflict about half of new moms and typically last three to six months post-birth.

And we're not necessarily talking about postpartum depression here. Occasional daymares and nightmares aside, I didn't feel depressed at all after having my child. I was tickled pink most of the time, laughing at new discoveries, marveling at this wonderful creature, relishing the cuddles and closeness of breast-feeding. But in sharp contrast to the euphoric highs, would come these random, disorienting and incredibly dark thoughts, sometimes two or three times a day.

As I was stepping into the shower, I might think, "What if someone's strangling the baby right now?" Or on the subway, I might eye up a passenger. "Does that women have a knife? Is she going to kill my husband or my baby?"

A 2007 study published in the journal Sleep showed that about 75% of postpartum women experienced terrifying nightmares involving their infants. And if you scour mom testimonials in forums online, you'll come across torment: "I'd feel a presence in the room and something (someone) would either be chasing me or strangling me" and "(I'm having) nightmares about losing my son."

My friend Heidi mentioned she'd had a dream in which her baby boy was deteriorating before her eyes but she was powerless to do anything. I'd had the exact same dream about my daughter when she was 2 weeks old. The gruesome details were uncannily similar. (New-dad friends of mine have mentioned having nightmares too.)

Brizendine, who is director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, said one of her patients admitted she had disturbing daytime fantasies about attacking her own baby with a pair of scissors or a knife.

While it might sound like this poor mom has what it takes to be the next Andrea Yates, it's important to understand that she's really just adjusting to the "fight or flight" stress hormones that for any new mom or mom-to-be are innate and incredibly powerful, Brizendine said. It may explain why actress Evan Rachel Wood recently lashed out after the paparazzi snapped a photo of her ultrasound. It explains why we say never come between a mama bear and her cub. It explains why a mother feels like she could lift a bus off her child with her bare hands if she had to.

And like it or not, Mama has to feel like that.

When a horse gives birth, its foal gets up and starts walking within 30 minutes or so. Mother sharks abandon pups almost right after birth because they're able to fend for themselves. But as any new parent will tell you, a human baby is born in an incredibly immature state, requiring its parents, particularly its mother, to be stunningly protective. That baby can't do a thing without her. Except maybe cry with Pavarotti-like lung capacity.

Which brings us to an underlying cause of these daymares and sinister thoughts -- sleep deprivation. New moms tend not to get nearly as much sleep as their minds and bodies require, and any sleep expert or doctor will tell you that prolonged sleep debt leads to hallucinations, a loss of perspective, moodiness and lo and behold, intrusive psychotic thoughts.

"Get some sleep," says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore. "Sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of postpartum symptoms. Recruit your partner, a family member or a friend to watch the baby if necessary, so you can rest."

Brizendine said sometimes an intense two-week sleep program is necessary to help mom "reset the brain circuitry."

I'll admit, I was operating on about four continuous hours of sleep a night in the six months post-birth, a far cry from the seven I require to feel rested and better equipped to handle life's demands, parental or otherwise. It wasn't until my daughter started sleeping through the night that my circuitry got the reboot it needed and the daymares wound down.

Kennedy-Moore, author of "What About Me?: 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister," also advises moms to go easy on themselves when dark thoughts invade.

"It's important to remember that thoughts are not the same as actions," she said. "Just because you can imagine your baby falling does not make it likely that your baby will fall. Although in some cases, dark thoughts can be a severe and debilitating symptom of a postpartum anxiety or depressive disorder, usually they are just an unpleasant part of normal adjustment."

She also said it's helpful to remind yourself that you're not a bad mother, you likely just have a vivid imagination.

"Don't try to fight the thoughts. The more we try not to think something, the more it will pop into our heads. Just notice the thought and gently let it pass."

And for the love of your own sanity, don't be afraid to talk to someone about it (and in severe cases, this is a must). A therapist. A nurse. I really wish I had opened up about it at the time.

As it turned out, I did find a measure of relief from a fellow mom, albeit one I didn't know. Actress Tilda Swinton, who has twins, had sobering words about motherhood when talking about her role in the chilling film "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Swinton said parents often shy away from discussing taboo subjects, such as the fear that their children will turn out to be violent or that bad things will happen to their family. She described how her fierce maternal instinct kicked in after giving birth, which was both terrifying and exhilarating.

When I met Swinton at an art gallery opening not long after the film was released (I interviewed her boyfriend, the painter Sandro Kopp), I wanted to hug her (though I didn't dare -- her white suit was too awesome to crush). She helped me see I wasn't necessarily losing my mind, just creating a slightly new one.

Brizendine said she believes there's a silver lining to those horrifying, violent thoughts.

"This level of intense feeling of aggression shows you how intensely bonded you are to your baby," she said. "That's the good news. This is a proof positive of that emotional and biological bond."

Have you experienced the unexpected terror that can accompany motherhood? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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