Every night since my second daughter was born, I’ve done the same exact thing: at 7:30 on the dot, I tuck my almost 4-year-old into bed, then rock and sing to my 18-month-old, and put her to sleep in her crib. Then, no matter how stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out I’m feeling, I start cleaning. First I tackle the kitchen, then the dining room, the living room, the bathroom, and the playroom. And the entire time I’m racing through my house, frantically putting things away, organizing toys into bins that will be dumped out first thing in the morning, washing dishes and pump parts, wiping down counters, and sweeping, I think to myself, Why am I doing this? I could be reading a book in silence or catching up on work. But I can’t stop.
Here’s the thing: cleaning is not on brand for me. Growing up, my family called me “messy Jessie.” When we first moved in together, my husband took care of most of the cleaning and organizing, and any mess that did appear didn’t bother me that much. My compulsive need to tidy and scrub didn’t start until I had my first daughter. Clutter had started accumulating in never-ending piles around my house. My moody baby I could (mostly) deal with, but the disorder? It drove me nuts. One morning, after waking up at 5 a.m. to feed her, I cleaned the house instead of going back to bed. When I was done, I was exhausted but weirdly energized. I couldn’t control every other change that had happened to my life when a child entered it, but I could control the mess in my house.
When my therapist suggested I go a whole day without touching the dishes in the sink to see what would happen, I canceled our future sessions.
It wasn’t until I had my younger daughter that the cleaning became more than just a way to release pent-up frustration. Between having a toddler and a new baby, the stuff in our house had tripled, and any control I once had slipped away, seemingly forever. I now felt an absolute rage when I walked into a room cluttered with random toys, bibs, cups, and socks. The hold the kitchen sink had on me was like no other. Any dirty dish in there, whether it was a silicone plate or used pump parts, got under my skin like nothing else.
I tried a new therapist in those first few months of the postpartum period and I talked to her about it. When she suggested I go one whole day without touching the dishes in the sink to see what would happen, I canceled our future sessions, telling my bewildered husband, “She just doesn’t get it.” I felt like she didn’t understand the full spectrum of what I was going through and it left me feeling frustrated and misunderstood. It wasn’t as simple as just not doing the task I was obsessing over.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my obsession with cleaning was about more than a frustration with dirty dishes. Naturally, I Googled it, and found that “anxiety-cleaning” is most definitely a thing. “While anxiety can impact different areas of the brain, those fear and anxiety networks are connected to the part of your brain that is responsible for movement: the cerebellum,” says Nicole Amoyal Pensak, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey who specializes in anxiety and postpartum mental health.
Basically, anxiety stimulates us, and makes us want to do something with our hands. Jehlisah Vaccarella, a licensed social worker from Pennsylvania, puts it this way: “Anxiety produces restless energy that we often do not know what to do with. Some individuals resort to cleaning as a way of releasing some of that energy or distracting the mind from the anxious thoughts.”
On top of that, cleaning really does give one a sense of control. “It can be a way to ‘do something’ when you can’t actually do something about the thing that is causing anxiety,” Pensak says. “In this way, cleaning can be a way to self-soothe, which is adaptive.” Both explanations make sense to me. I have a constant need for control, and I felt like I lost a lot of it with two little kids running around. I have also dealt with anxiety my entire life, and I always feel better when I am busy.
I began having a nagging sense that my cleaning had itself started to get a little out of control.
And, as it turns out, cleaning to relieve anxiety isn’t necessarily bad. Pensak explains that there are two coping strategies to manage anxiety: emotion-focused coping (distraction, mindfulness, and relaxation) and problem-solving coping (finding solutions to whatever is causing the anxiety). “Cleaning can be both a problem-solving coping strategy and an emotion-focused strategy,” she says. “If the mess is causing you anxiety, cleaning can be a problem-solving strategy. Alternatively, if you are anxious about something that is out of your control, cleaning can be a good distraction to get your mind off of your worries.”
That said, there is a big difference between this kind of restless anxiety and perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder, a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder that is often overlooked, says Paige Bellenbaum, a licensed clinical social worker and founding director of The Motherhood Center.
The difference between postpartum anxiety and perinatal OCD is the behavior we attach to the feelings we’re having, explains Bellenbaum. With perinatal OCD, she says, there’s a “loop” new mothers experience: “She’s having thoughts of feeling out of control, she’s feeling anxious because the dishes are not being done, this causes her to feel anxiety in her body, to feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps she’s spiraling around the thing that she feels she needs to do, and the only way that she can silence that rumination in her mind is to go and do the thing,” Bellenbaum says. “We have the obsessive thought that leads to a behavior to satisfy the distressing thought, then the act is done, and then shortly thereafter, the obsessive thought starts again.”
Perinatal OCD can also manifest in other ways, like laying awake at night stressing over whether or not your baby is OK, to the point where you feel you need to go into their room to check on them repeatedly throughout the night.
This all made sense to me. The mess all around me does make me feel anxious, which is a big part of why I spend so much time cleaning. But, as a mom, I also feel anxious about so many other things I don’t have control over: the safety of my children, the state of our world, working from home with two small kids, the ever-increasing price of everything around me, my breastmilk supply, and so much more. I can’t change so many of these things, but I can clean.
However, I began having a nagging sense that my cleaning had itself started to get a little out of control. I nearly missed a work deadline because I couldn’t pull myself away from detail cleaning my kitchen. My kitchen, you might have guessed, was fine and did not need to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. I’ve been in therapy for anxiety before — I know that when a behavior like this starts to disrupt your normal life, it’s becoming a problem. This, according to Bellenbaum, is when it’s time to consider whether your problem is more than just “anxiety-cleaning.”
I recently read that it’s OK if your house looks like kids live there, which, strange as it sounds, I hadn’t truly considered before.
“There’s a point when the process starts to create so much distress in someone’s life and becomes so intolerable and uncomfortable that it’s rinse/repeat, rinse/repeat,” she says. “It’s one thing to be spiraling cognitively with anxious thoughts. It’s another thing when, as a result of those anxious thoughts, we do something to turn them off. That’s where we start to step into the potential realm of perinatal OCD.”
Hearing this from Bellenbaum instantly gave me a sense of relief. I wasn’t her patient and her comments were certainly not a formal diagnosis, but hearing the symptoms of perinatal OCD and thinking about my own behavior made me realize that maybe I was grappling with something beyond my normal anxiety. When I first sought out information about anxiety-cleaning, I concluded that my need to scrub and straighten was normal for a postpartum person, and the cleaning gave me a healthy sense of control. This explanation almost excused my behavior, though I knew deep in my heart that it was not normal for me. The realization that my exhausting post-bedtime routine could be diagnosed as a perinatal mood disorder made me feel like it’s fixable, which was a relief for me.
Knowing when you need to seek professional help can be hard, but Bellenbaum encourages women — and especially new mothers — to listen to their gut. “Everybody has a different threshold of tolerance,” she says. “There are some people that live in a highly anxious category. They like it there and they feel productive there. To other people, observers or even clinically speaking, where they live might be uncomfortable. But it really has to do with the individual.” She says that if these types of thoughts and behaviors are interrupting your ability to complete daily tasks, or if you’re thinking about it more than you want to or can’t focus on other things, then you should seek a professional assessment and treatment.
If a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder such as perinatal OCD is not addressed, Bellenbaum says, symptoms could become more acute. She strongly encourages new moms to seek support and treatment from a perinatal therapist or reproductive psychiatrist who specializes in the perinatal period. These professionals may recognize symptoms of perinatal OCD more readily than others and are able to recommend the proper treatments and/or medications that are safe throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Since realizing that I’m in a little too deep, I’ve tried to calm down. Moms who might be on the same path, a warning: it’s not easy. So far, a few things have helped me. First, having one room that I always keep clean (for me, it’s the kitchen). As long as that room is tidy, I can feel a little more relaxed about the rest of the house. I also try to time my cleaning so that I can get something done (because, realistically, I can’t abandon it altogether), but still have time for other things. I still feel anxiety over the state of my home and I still can’t stand to see dirty dishes in the sink. But there are now more days where I don’t put aside other important tasks to clean than the days I do. I hope I can eventually find the right balance, but for now, observing myself and knowing what’s going on is a good first step.
It’s important to note that while my feelings of anxiety over cleaning did dissipate over time and I felt I could mostly manage those feelings on my own, this isn’t the case for everyone. Looking back, I wish I had seen a therapist who specialized in postpartum anxiety disorders when my symptoms were at their most severe. I don’t know for sure if I had (or have) perinatal OCD, but I wish I got assessed and found help instead of just trying to muscle through on my own.
I recently read that it’s OK if your house looks like kids live there, which, strange as it sounds, I hadn’t truly considered before. That’s right, I thought. They do live here. Why am I constantly trying to make it look like they don’t? So, in the toppling stack of board books that appear on the floor no matter how many times I put them away, I now see my daughters’ burgeoning interest in reading, and it warms my heart. When I really look at piles of broken crayons and crumpled-up pieces of paper, I notice the cute drawings they’ve both done. I even allow mountains of dirty silicone dishes to serve as a reminder that I’m doing my best to feed my girls things they love. Looking at the mess in this light makes things just a little bit easier.
Nicole Amoyal Pensak, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and the owner of Atlantic Coast Mind & Body in Little Silver, New Jersey
Jehlisah Vaccarella, licensed social worker based in Pennsylvania