We all have unsettling intrusive thoughts — thoughts that just come to us, beyond our control — and these can be particularly traumatic for new parents like Emilia, who are understandably reluctant to talk about them for fear that their children will be taken from them.

Once she emerged from the haze of those first days of motherhood, the sight of knives resumed tormenting her. Images of stabbing the baby flashed through her head. She didn’t want to do it — and couldn’t fathom why these thoughts were showing up in her mind. But she felt a heavy dread that she would somehow lose control and act them out.

When she gave her son his first bath, she felt the dark force gathering again. As she leaned over the blue plastic baby tub and rinsed his little limbs, she had a vision of him sinking under the water and drowning. She quickly scooped him up and dried him off. Next time he needed washing, she took him into the shower with her instead.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow explores the phenomenon at New York magazine. Are some people more prone to these thoughts than others? (Yes.) Do they mean you might actually hurt your baby? (In most cases, no.) And do they serve a purpose? (Maybe.)

For many people, the first few months of parenthood are rather like standing on the top of the Empire State Building, or in the midst of a particularly high-priced china shop. Worst-case scenarios crowd the mind. In any given scene, the brain, as though operating some devilish Photoshop app, swiftly rearranges all of the elements into the most catastrophic possible outcome. While thoughts of deliberate harm can seem almost antithetical to fears of accidental harm, they may actually come from the same place. Fairbrother finds it plausible that both may be adaptive, alerting you to what not to do: “Even those thoughts of, ‘What if I throw the baby off the balcony?’ versus ‘What if I drop the baby off the balcony?’ is the same effect.” That is, you hold your child a little closer.

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