Mother’s intuition vs. anxiety

As a childbirth educator and doula, I hear the term ‘mother’s intuition’ a lot.

Experienced mothers attempt to reassure moms-to-be or new moms with, “Don’t worry: You’ll just know. It’s just a mother’s intuition.” 

I’ve been guilty of using this form of advice myself, knowing quite well that when I get this little nugget of misinformation, I find myself bewildered and wondering why I’m not one of the special moms who’s lucky enough to “just know.” 

Because I also struggle with anxiety, I often wonder: Are the fearful feelings I sometimes have just my mother’s intuition trying to tell me something important or is it my anxiety creeping in?

I sat down with Hannah Godbout, a Minnesota clinical psychologist and mother of two, to discuss, anxiety and mother’s intuition. 

“Anxiety at its core is functional, necessary; it is part of our instinctual drive to keep us safe, and so likely part of how we keep our babies safe as well,” she said. “The pitch of a babies cry, for example, is designed to drive us crazy, make us anxious, so we take care of them. I’m sure this ‘instinctual anxiety’ is present in many of our mothering moments, as part of keeping our children out of danger.”

A light bulb went off inside of me: This could be the motherly instincts I’ve been daydreaming about having (and perhaps had all along). In other words, there’s a positive to anxiety.

Healthy and normal

Following my conversation with Godbout, I found myself in a situation in which my three kiddos (not swimmers yet) were about to enter deep water. 

Even though they were safely secured in lifejackets, I felt a rush of anxiety come over my body. With Godbout’s clarification in mind, instead of feeling ashamed about my anxiety and suppressing it — or immediately overreacting and removing myself and my children from the situation — I felt empowered. I knew my feelings were HEALTHY and NORMAL (two words that all doulas love to hear). 

The anxiety I felt was appropriate for the situation. It was my motherly instincts telling me to protect my children. So, instead of reacting negatively to the situation, I was able to recognize my natural reaction to potential danger, and I was able make the best choices to keep my kids safe.

Unless it isn’t

So how do you distinguish between anxiety as a problem and functional anxiety (in the form of mother’s intuition)?

There is, Dr. Godbout explained, a difference between what would be described as healthy or functional anxiety and what is defined as dysfunctional. 

“If a mother feels that her worry/fears are significantly interfering with her ability to function (get out of the house, respond to her baby, continue other relationships), or her anxiety keeps increasing and is not starting to ease after six months or so, or it is clearly present in many areas of her life, we can more easily say that this is not typical worry about her child, but perhaps something that needs to be diagnosed and treated,” Godbout said.

For example, if you jump out of bed at night and fly to the crib because you heard your baby cough and have a gut feeling that it didn’t sound normal, you might call that functional anxiety. 

But to stay at the crib all night watching the child sleep, just in case, for months, would be dysfunctional, Godbout said. 

Finding help and hope

If you’re unable to shake the feeling of anxiety, if you constantly find your mind thinking of would-be worst-case scenarios long after a stressful event has taken place — or way before it before there is anything to stress about — it may be the time to take action. 

Evaluate how often your fears affect you and those around you, and allow yourself to receive help if you need it. 

I wish I’d sought help earlier. It took me far too long to recognize that, at times, my anxiety was dysfunctional.

Now, after seeing my general practitioner, receiving medication and some good therapy, I no longer spend my days waiting for disasters. 

I now recognize the beautiful moments of functional anxiety in which I’m providing my children with my focus and protection. I feel proud when it shows up. 

But I’m happy I’m able to shut it down, too. 


Amy Beseth is a mother of three and the owner of Pride & Joy Doula Services, serving St. Paul, Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs. Learn more at prideandjoydoula.com.