Obsessed With Cleaning & Organizing: Coping With Postpartum Anxiety

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postpartum OCDOn yet another symptom of postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD:

It was one of the most precious rooms we’ve ever created in our home. Each item was painted, hung, and constructed with love and anticipation of our baby. Its cheery yellow walls and the sweet smell of lightly scented baby powder would always invite me to come in every time I walked past it. I would often take a seat in the antique rocking chair, smoothing my hands over my swollen belly, excited and ready to fill this room with all the daydreams I had. The sleepless nights, the changing, the cuddles, the smiles, the happiness and the love would all take place there.

Those daydreams never came to life when we brought him home. That room, that cheerful loving room we created instead housed tears, anxiety, rage, and pain.

1…2…3…4

Was the number of times the washcloths had to be folded.

1…2…3…4

They were placed seam side down according to color.

1…2…3…4

If the washcloths weren’t perfectly aligned or folded or color coordinated or placed in the changing table perfectly I would start over …

And over …

And over.

I would spend anxiety-riddled hours toiling over the changing table’s organization. The diapers had to be aligned with the front facing out. The burp cloths where folded 3 times — no more, no less. The Vaseline label, wipe container label and baby lotion label had to be facing out. The changing pad cover was never to have any creases or lint.

And no matter how many times I tore it apart and organized and reorganized its drawers, it was never perfect enough. Because of this, the anxiety I was already experiencing was fuelled to crippling proportions and the rage I felt towards myself for not being “perfect” was terrifying. I remember my husband doing the laundry once and haphazardly putting the washcloths away. I was so enraged that I punched a wall and locked myself in the bathroom. While I was in there, my husband refolded and reorganized the cloths the way I specifically wanted. Then I ran in after him and redid them after he left the room.

It didn’t stop at the changing table. I had my baby’s closet organized by color. His socks were done by color. His books organized alphabetically and by size. There was to be no dog hair in his room. I swept his floor every hour.

After feedings or changes there would sadly be no cuddles or smiles or kisses. I would hurryingly and anxiously put him back in his crib so I could resume cleaning and organizing. I just couldn’t stop myself.

For the longest time, I thought that I was the only person in the world who was a changing table/nursery room Nazi and I had kept this little secret to myself. Then one night, I read a tweet from Katherine. She mentioned that she too had struggled with obsessing over burp cloths and washcloths and that this behavior was actually more common than I had thought. This is why I am writing this today.

I was never diagnosed with postpartum OCD, however, my psychiatrist said that this was a coping mechanism for me … that when I cleaned and organized, I was taking control because my mind and my world felt so out of control. Controlling what I could gave me a sense of power over my situation.

One of the things that helped me to let go of this behavior were 2 simple statements that my psychiatrist has said over and over at every appointment. I actually have them written out and placed in various “go-to organization” spots in my home, like the changing table.

“There is nothing in this world that is worth all this worry.”

When I find myself starting to fold and feeling the postpartum anxiety gripping my lungs tightly, I will repeat this line. After a while it does make me laugh. Like duh, why am I worrying about how many times I’m folding these wash cloths? Is it going to kill me if the green washcloths are mixed with the blue? No, so stop worrying about it.

The second statement:

“I only have to be good enough.”

This one took a while to sink in since I have always had issues with perfectionism, only postpartum depression and anxiety made it 100 times worse. I insert this statement when I feel tempted to rip apart a closet or my husband for not lining up the diapers correctly. It enables me to stop and to walk away.

Two years later, I still find myself rushing to organize something when things get overwhelming or when I feel out of control, but it is definitely better. Now my son’s room isn’t a trigger for anxiety, or sadness, or anger or rage.

It is a place that is finally filled with my daydreams of smiles, love and happiness.

Did you ever find yourself obsessing over the way things were organized or with constantly cleaning? Were you diagnosed with postpartum anxiety or postpartum OCD? What types of methods help you to overcome that compulsion?

Kimberly

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. What a powerfully moving article. You truly captured the essence and ravages of OCD. A demanding taskmaster without mercy who gives no leeway. Thank you for this article…others who may read this can now put a name on the tortured rituals which may overwhelm them in the postpartum and know there is help. Thank you.

  2. Yes it is extremely terrifying when you're in that whirlwind and can't stop. "demanding taskmaster" is the perfect term for how I felt.

  3. This was amazing to read – I'm so thankful for people sharing different facets of PPD… so many women will be helped by this!! Thanks for your transparency :)

  4. You know, I went through some of this myself though I never realized it at the time. There were so many things that caused me overwhelming anxiety that when I finally sought treatment I was frankly astounded at how little there was to actually be anxious about once I got the PPA under control.
    I still have a need for my house to be in order, but I have it under control. I actually use the Motivated Moms iPhone application which is about the most OCD chore planner I have ever seen. I love it because I only do the things listed on the planner for that day while knowing that all of the deep cleaning things that need to be done are covered at some point. I

  5. I honestly thought that I was the only one who fretted and obsessed with the change table until I spoke with Katherine on twitter. That's why I ha to write about it ;)

  6. When you actually put the things youre worried about in perspective, you realize how silly those fears are. It took a long time and practice to recognize them.
    I still need my house in order but like you said, I can walk away when I know things are getting out of hand. I've learned that my house just has to be "good enough" ;)

  7. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I love this post. It's such a great description of the way I felt as well. I had little basket in my family room with diapers and burp cloths and things and I must have reorganized it 10,000 times. Everything had to be squared off and as neat as possible.
    I still find myself starting to clean and organize when I get stressed out. At other times my house is a mess, but when I'm stressed it looks great!

  8. The constant taskmaster, the whip and torture, of "perfection" is what haunted me for so long. Except for my moments of mania, I responded more in the reverse to you but I can FEEL the ache and remember the fear, anxiety and anger. Instead of constantly trying to achieve that standard that felt SO important, I gave up entirely because there was no chance of my every being good enough. I was so far from perfection that it was better to give up than to try and fail miserably every time. The standard, so impossible, was the same.
    To this day, even as a I sit here "recovered", I still feel that bar hanging about me and have moments of despair, however fleeting, that I'll never get there and even just attempting it is an insult to the universe at large.
    Thank you for sharing this, it helps so much to be able to relate even when the actions are different from my own experiences. And your mantras are going up on my fridge. "I only have to be good enough". WOW.

  9. I have an 8 month old. I have been dealing with ppd and pp anxiety since she was born. I have found it to be very busy in order to cope (3 kids, under the age of 5 lends itself to that). My midwife had to hospitalize me back in October. Thankfully she was then able to connect me with a specialist in ppd who has me on the right meds. My midwife saved my life. My house was very clean at the height of the crisis because I could not sit still at all, and I still go a little bananas cleaning on a bad day, but I get to call it progress toward mental health when my house is messy!
    I tell the bulk of my ppd story on my December 25, 2010 post.

  10. This was one of my symptoms when I was suffering from PPA. Visitors and other moms would marvel at my house and ask if I had a maid. But it was driving me crazy to keep my house so clean and organized while caring for a new baby and working. I was constantly exhausted. This is a tough symptom for me because I loved hearing the praise (and occasional envy from other moms) for my clean house. In the midst of my illness, keeping a clean house felt like the one thing I could do right. Letting things get a bit messy (by my standards) was actually a sign that I was recovering. I had to make sure people like my husband and mother knew to be supportive of some mess rather than critical that things weren't kept as clean as they were.

  11. MamaRobinJ says:

    Great article, Kim. I didn't have this type of OCD, but I definitely have it to a degree. When I'm anxious or stressed, cleaning helps. Sometimes I feel like the crazy lady who vacuums ;)

  12. Just wanted to add that sometimes OCD can be only the Obsessive part, no compulsion. Mine takes the form of intrusive thoughts, horribly violent, and almost always involving me doing something hideous. they are like a flash of an image, then they are gone instantly. I was so relieved when the Dr diagnosed it as OCD! I still have them, but know what they are and they are far less.

  13. That's funny that you mentioned that when youre stressed your house looks great…mine too ;)

  14. That ideal perfection was never ever achieved. I am and always have been a perfectionist only PPD made it that much worse. But I do get those feelings where I find myself giving up before I've even started because I know that I can't or won't be able to do it perfectly. Just the thought before the task can be more anxiety ridden than actually doing it.
    But knowing and accepting that all I have to be is "good enough" has helped me so much.

  15. My psyhciatrist told me that the people who have immaculate homes are the ones we should worry about ;) I remember that feeling of being in constant motion. Always doing never relaxing. I lost all but 5 pounds of my pregnancy weight in 6 weeks because I never slept and kept going.
    I am so glad that your midwife recognized that. Bravo to her. That's wonderful.

  16. Oh my gosh yes! My mom and my aunts and ever other "mom" I knew would be stunned at how well my house was kept. I even remember my girlfriend calling me "anal" when I opened up the change table drawer and all of the washcloths were perfectly folded and colour coordinated.
    When I had to stop breastfeeding I really jumped into the housework bc it gave me a sense of not only control but purpose.

  17. Even to this day, when I'm stressed, I'll clean. Obviously not to the degree that I had during the thick of PPD. It helps me to feel in control and I am able to walk away when I feel myself getting out of hand.

  18. It's funny (as in "ironic") that the more out of control I felt, the more I needed to organize/tidy/control my surroundings. In reality, it was another thing that was controlling me. Thanks for this great post.