We all know motherhood can be portrayed as beautiful, with cuddly babies and full of love, but us parents understand the reality—it’s a journey that comes with its fair share of shadows. In early parenthood, behind the peaceful baby Instagram picture can are unspoken fears, doubts, and scary thoughts that every mother battles with. I want to write this blog as an exploration and exposure into the common maternal vulnerability, and the nature of scary thoughts, the overwhelming intrusive thoughts, and the reasons why many mums choose not to share them.

During my first pregnancy, it was this aspect of motherhood that I was naively but blissfully unaware of. However, in those precious days after welcoming my baby boy into the world, it was like someone flipped a switch—I changed. I was no longer the ‘go with the flow, laid-back’ girl; I became someone I didn’t recognise—a sleep-deprived, anxious mess. My body remained in a fixated state of tension, and my mind.. it never, ever stopped. Ever. I was constantly on high alert— thoughts about my son’s well-being, breathing, hunger, and keeping him safe. Then there were the weird, abstract, and intrusive thoughts—what if I drop him? What if he slipped in the bath? What if his pram was run over? What if someone comes through the window? Of course, the continual touching my baby’s tummy to check he was breathing too. This went on for months and months.

It saddens me that it is only 10 years later I’m sharing this. At the time, I wasn’t comfortable or capable of articulating the whirlwind state my mind was in. I feared judgment, the label of being an unfit mother, and how other professionals might view me. I was offered a tick box form to share how I was feeling, but inevitably I lied. In sharing my own experience, I hope to contribute to the idea that flawless calm motherhood does not exist. Like many mothers, I have grappled with scary thoughts that, at times, felt overwhelming—thoughts of accidental harm, feelings of worth, and relentless excessive worry have been constant companions on my journey.

The idea that ALL mums have scary thoughts might be surprising to some, but for many, my hope it is reassuring. Research and mental health professionals affirm that such thoughts are not only common but entirely normal. The spectrum of scary thoughts can be a whole range of concerns, ranging from accidental harm to intentional harm, a baby’s health and safety, sexual thoughts, and distressing images. The patterns of scary thinking may manifest as excessive worry, thoughts about future situations perceived as dangerous, rumination, obsessive thoughts, intrusive memories, and catastrophic misinterpretations.

These thoughts are not indicative of a mother’s personality or capabilities but are often intrusive, unwanted, and fueled by postpartum, psychosocial, and physiological changes.

Emerging neuroimaging research has provided insight into changes in the maternal brain during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. These changes in the brain and the hormone shifts play a large part in why we feel we are at times losing our minds. It is because we literally are. These new brain adaptations and changes help new mothers’ ability to respond sensitively to their babies by ensuring a secure bond between the two. Research has shown that first-time mothers had greater neural responses to infant cues (e.g., infant faces, cry stimuli) than 2nd-time mothers. New mothers also have a heightened reactivity to threatening stimuli that help promote protective behavior towards their babies. Our body is supporting us in helping us become better mothers, however, as I’m sure you know, this state of constant hyper-arousal can be both exhausting and intrusive.

This is why acknowledging the prevalence of these thoughts is so important—allowing the creation of a supportive and understanding environment for parents. I wish this information was shared more freely. When new mums join me for therapy, I will remind them: it is the distress caused by scary thoughts that is my concern, not the thoughts themselves. Research indicates that it is the emotional turmoil, guilt, and anxiety stemming from these thoughts that can impact a mother’s well-being, and this is why many mothers choose not to disclose them (myself included). The fear of judgment—am I a good mum? The stigma surrounding mental health issues contributes to the silence of maternal vulnerability. Mums may be apprehensive about being labeled as unfit or incapable, leading them to internalize their fears, racing minds, and scary thoughts.

The pressure to be perceived as a ‘good mum’ and having it all together can be suffocating and discourages open conversations about the challenges that many modern mothers face. This perceived need to maintain a certain image can isolate mothers and deepens their struggles with scary thoughts, leading them to navigate this inner turmoil of motherhood alone. As Karen Klieman from the Postpartum Stress Centre often states, ‘Do not underestimate the enormous power a postpartum woman achieves by maintaining the illusion of control.

Breaking the silence surrounding scary thoughts is not just personal relief, but I see it as a collective responsibility. By fostering an environment of understanding and acceptance, we can break down the barriers that prevent honest conversations about what’s really happening inside the minds of mothers. Sharing these thoughts diminishes the isolation mothers may feel. Knowing that they are not alone in their struggles can provide solace and help alleviate the burden of guilt and shame that often accompanies scary thoughts. Disclosure also means that mothers seek support from loved ones, friends, or mental health professionals, understanding that seeking help is seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

During the initial stages of peri-natel therapy, I will often invite the partners or close relatives into sessions so we can have open communication for what’s happening for mum, normalising and sharing what she is experiencing. Letting partners and family into her world so they are able to learn what she needs while she navigates through this inner turmoil.

When we are able to challenge societal norms and the myth of the perfect mother and encourage a realistic and insightful view, others can offer a compassionate and empathetic understanding of the challenges mothers face.Acceptance is a powerful tool in promoting psychological health. By accepting scary thoughts as a part of the motherhood journey, mothers can focus on building resilience, coping mechanisms, and seeking the support they need. Acceptance became my ally, and through the journey of self-discovery and as my son and I found our groove and had longer stretches of sleep, my mind eventually calmed.

Really, I write this blog for my past self. The self that needed reassurance in all of this, wondering why I was feeling this way, questioning why every other mother seemed to confidentially and calmly get on with it while I was an anxious mess. It is my wish that postpartum professionals such as GPs, midwives, and nurses can create a path where mothers feel comfortable to speak openly and honestly about what is it they are experiencing. It is a vital step in providing a culture of empathy and understanding surrounding maternal mental health. By dispelling the myth of perfection and embracing the imperfections inherent in motherhood, we create space for open conversations, support networks, and a more realistic portrayal of the maternal journey.

After all, all mums have scary thoughts. I encourage mothers to disclose their scary thoughts, recognising that the distress caused by these thoughts is the true challenge.

Acceptance, both on an individual and societal level can help pave the way for improved maternal mental health, resilience, and a compassionate approach to the beautiful, complex, and challenging journey that is motherhood.

Jo Bealey is a therapist based in Perth, offering online services and specialising in perinatal and attachment therapy. Her focus is on supporting new parents to embark on a calmer, healing, and insightful journey into parenthood. www.jobealey.com