Have you seen I’m Pregnant And... on Discovery Health Network? I just caught my first episode(s) last night. The first one was “I’m Pregnant and…A Hoarder.” For the first 20 minutes, it was indistinguishable from an episode of Hoarders. There’s always some looming deadline — it just happened to be an impending birth instead of a house foreclosure. Then they had the baby, and the music changed from ominous and tragic to sweet harp plucking, and the nursery had miraculously (through excruciating effort on the pregnant hoarder’s part) been cleared of crap.
But the OCD episode was more intense. Because while hoarding sort of goes against the prevailing nesting impulses of pregnancy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder takes what pregnant women feel and puts it into overdrive.
Jenna has been suffering with OCD since she was a teenager. She’s gotten it under control with medication, but stopped taking the drugs when she got pregnant. The result has been a resurgence of symptoms, from compulsive washing of hands, clothes and surfaces to agoraphobia. Jenna acknowledges that she’s basically a prisoner in her own home. She won’t go out for fear of germs. She has to force herself to go to the doctor once a week, where she sits as far away from others as possible to avoid any possible contamination. She does not eat at restaurants because she can never be sure that food is prepared in a scrupulously clean manner and cooked to the proper temperatures. And she won’t allow her son to go to the park because she’s afraid he’ll catch something from the playground equipment.She looks at the slide and sees the footprints of other children wiped all over her two-year-old’s hands.
I know that feeling. OCD is not my problem in general (anyone who’s have seen my apartment will second this). But during my second pregnancy, I had a bout of something similar. My anxiety was primarily fixated on one germ: CMV (cytomegolovirus). Common and relatively harmless in children, the disease can be dangerous to the fetus when a woman has her primary exposure during pregnancy. I was fixated on the idea that my son’s germs were a threat to the new baby. This feeling manifested in compulsive hand-washing and a general sense of germ anxiety, which did not go unnoticed by my two-and-a-half-year-old.
We were at a mommy and me class where the teacher was talking about freedom and asked the kids whether they felt free. Were they allowed to do anything they wanted? Were there things they were not allowed to do? She asked the group. One kid said he wasn’t allowed to run into the street. My son’s contribution: “We’re not allowed to have germs.”
Pregnancy germphobia is pretty common. It may be a valid defense mechanism on some level, but I think it’s mostly a byproduct of the medical anxiety that surrounds the experience of childbearing (and life in general) in our culture. Studies have shown that pregnancy can trigger new OCD cases as well as worsen existing ones. And it doesn’t always get better when the baby’s born. In fact, it sometimes gets worse.
In Jenna’s case, the symptoms were ratcheted up when she had a newborn in the house. She became fixated on her baby’s vulnerability and her behavior was becoming unbearable to her husband and family. She would not let her mother in law or mother hold the baby for fear that they might communicate some illness. She resisted going back on her medication for fear it might affect the baby via breast milk. But after a couple of months and what seemed to be a unanimous push from everyone in her life, Jenna went back on her meds. This, not the birth, was the triumph of the episode. We don’t know find out what happened from there, but judging from the jangly guitars, I think we’re supposed to think the story has a happy ending.
Next up: “I’m Pregnant And…A Nudist.”