Photo: Edvard March/Getty Images
Not long after her baby was born, in February of 2016, Emilia began hiding the knives. She and her husband had a standard set — a serrated bread knife, a small paring knife, two larger ones — and she tried to avoid them altogether. Instead of cooking, she often asked her husband to pick up a pineapple pizza from Papa John’s or tofu curry from the nearby Thai restaurant. She had never been much of a cook anyway, and her husband didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. “It’s funny what you can get away with,” she told me.
This strategy was not without its limits. At times, knives were unavoidable. If she had to put one away, she buried it quickly in a drawer that contained a jumble of spatulas and wooden spoons, until she could no longer make out the blade underneath. The barrier wasn’t exactly impenetrable. But it did make her feel a little safer.
The couple lived in a second-floor Miami Beach apartment with their beloved sable chihuahua. Emilia, then 32, had a ready smile and a penchant for bright colors. (To protect her family’s privacy, she asked me to use her middle name.) She dyed her brown hair flaxen-blonde; liked to dress in hot pink and electric blue; painted her nails sparkly gold or lime green. But beneath her cheerful exterior, she was often struggling to resist the tugs of anxiety and gloom, the legacy of a difficult childhood. It was as though the vibrant hues she favored were an attempt to perk herself up. She was not one to wallow. “She’s a fighter,” a friend of hers told me.
When Emilia learned she was pregnant — after eight months of trying, and two days before starting a new job at a small marketing firm — her anxiety shot up. She tried to hide her condition at work, fearful of annoying her employers. She frequently went to the bathroom to vomit and prayed that nobody heard; she clandestinely kept a lime at her desk because she’d read that sniffing citrus helped alleviate morning sickness. Then, when she was six months along, on her way back from dropping her husband off at the airport, she got into a bad car accident. No one was hurt, but her Volkswagen Beetle was totaled. “I got really, really anxious,” she recalls. “I started seeing dangers everywhere.” She stopped driving and took the bus to work instead. At home, she began repeatedly checking the burners on the stove, afraid she’d burn down the building.
Around this time, something else began to trouble her, something so distressing that she could scarcely acknowledge it to herself. If she caught a glimpse of a knife, in the drawer or left out on the counter, unspeakable images flooded her mind. She felt the presence of a “dark force,” she told me — a premonition that something was going to take over her body and she would stab herself in the belly and kill the baby. It felt like PTSD in reverse: a pre-traumatic flash-forward.
Giving birth brought more stress. The baby had a condition called meconium aspiration, meaning he’d breathed in some fecal matter in the womb. As a result, Emilia had an emergency C-section, and her son — six pounds, seven ounces, with a head of wispy dark hair — spent nearly a week in the NICU. When he came home, he slept in a co-sleeper bassinet placed in the middle of the couple’s queen-size bed. Emilia lay next to him with an arm across his tummy, feeling it rise and fall. Because his entry into the world had been so precarious, she was determined to monitor him at all times. “I literally had to be there looking at him or he would die,” she says. After three nights of this, she reluctantly decided to go to sleep but found it impossible. Only after she got a prescription for the sedative Klonopin and took a dose was she able to drift off.
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.
Afraid her child would be taken away, Emilia told no one about the horrors in her head. She believed that by avoiding the triggers, she could keep the morbid images at bay. The knives remained buried; she’d never give her son another bath. But she thought she might be going crazy.
Although Emilia didn’t know it at the time, “intrusive thoughts,” as psychologists call them, are common among new parents. What distinguishes them is the way they jump into our heads and feel beyond our control. For new parents, they usually involve harm befalling the baby, often thoughts of causing it themselves — whether intentionally, accidentally, or unclear. They can be vividly visual. When I held my own newborn, I saw her falling from my arms. I had never experienced anything quite like this before, and it was deeply unnerving.
According to Jonathan Abramowitz, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, intrusive thoughts are virtually universal among both new mothers and new fathers. “If they say they don’t have them,” he told me, “they’re lying.” I’ve spoken to women who had thoughts of throwing their babies out of windows and putting them in the microwave — not at times of frustration, but at otherwise neutral moments. Another was haunted by images of finding her baby dead and blue in the crib. (Researchers don’t yet have good data on whether the thoughts are particularly acute for first-time parents or recur with every child. What we do know is that they tend to occur in the parents of infants.)
For a smaller percentage of parents, these thoughts become persistent and highly distressing, so much so that they can interfere with a new parent’s ability to function. In these cases, the images or impulses can develop into postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that has only recently gained recognition among researchers and remains poorly understood among many front-line clinicians. And while both mothers and fathers experience intrusive thoughts, mothers are more likely to be vulnerable to the out-of-control fixations of OCD.
We tend to associate OCD with certain textbook symptoms, such as excessive hand-washing or lock-checking. But it actually takes a wider variety of forms. In some cases, it manifests primarily in intrusive thoughts of harm that are so unrelenting they become obsessions. The compulsions, in these cases, may be more internal, such as mental attempts to suppress the thoughts, or, as in Emilia’s case, avoidance of whatever seems to trigger them.
Estimates of the prevalence of postpartum OCD range from under 1 percent to 11.1 percent. A precise figure is elusive, in part because mothers, like Emilia, fear they’ll lose their children if they confide in health-care professionals. While feelings of depression can also be hard to admit, specific thoughts of harming babies are even more stigmatized. Further muddying the statistics, postpartum OCD frequently overlaps with other mood disorders. OCD is one manifestation of anxiety , and often coexists with others. Severe postpartum OCD, meanwhile, is likely to be accompanied by depression.
Haunting both mothers and clinicians is the specter of postpartum psychosis, which, in rare but media-hyped cases, can lead to tragedy: Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in 2001, was diagnosed with that illness. In fact, though, OCD and psychosis are utterly unalike. For women with postpartum psychosis, thoughts of harm are part of a larger delusional worldview and make sense to them within that outlook (Yates reportedly believed she was saving her children from Satan). For women with OCD, by contrast, the thoughts feel alien, not like their own — psychologists call them “ego-dystonic.” The thoughts that plague a mom with OCD are the ones she least wants in her head.
In 2001, Nichole Fairbrother was studying anxiety disorders as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia when her first child was born. She was delighted to be a mom. Shortly after giving birth, she was walking through her house in Vancouver, and she had a thought: “I could just throw him out the window.” Her response was markedly different from Emilia’s. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy mackerel, that’s an unwanted intrusive thought! I don’t have many of those,’” Fairbrother told me. “That’s really cool!”
As an anxiety researcher, she was very familiar with the phenomenon. “We have kind of random thoughts all the time,” she says. “We only notice them when they carry some depth of meaning.” But she wondered how her reaction would have differed had she not happened to possess doctoral-level knowledge about the topic. Would she think she was a terrible mother, or worry that people would see her as a danger to her child? “Surely,” she remembers thinking, “there’s a way to turn this into a career.”
The same year, Jonathan Abramowitz, who was then at the Mayo Clinic, became a parent, too. He and his wife would take turns getting up in the middle of the night to feed the baby. “One night I’m sitting there, I gave the baby the bottle. I’m trying to burp her.” And the thought came to him: “What if I reached back and just slapped the crap out of her?” As with Fairbrother, his response was not dismay but an excited sense of recognition: “Wow, this is what someone with OCD would be freaking out about.” Before long, he and Fairbrother found each other and started collaborating.
By 2001, it had long been recognized that the perinatal period (the weeks before and after birth) was a time of increased risk for developing psychiatric disorders. But the vast majority of attention had gone to postpartum depression. Throughout the 1990s, a handful of papers had drawn connections between the perinatal period and OCD. Their observations arose largely out of studies not of new parents but of OCD patients: Researchers noticed that a disproportionate number of female patients reported that their OCD symptoms had started during pregnancy or after the birth of a child.
The papers generally pointed to the hormonal flux of the perinatal period as a plausible explanation. During pregnancy, levels of estrogen and progesterone soar; after birth, they drop rapidly. Those hormones are believed to play a role in regulating serotonin, and disruptions in serotonin are thought to play a role in OCD. One 1994 study also linked OCD with oxytocin, which is involved in birth and breastfeeding. The paper found elevated levels of oxytocin in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with OCD.
But Abramowitz and Fairbrother saw it from a different perspective, through a cognitive lens. They perceived a logic to how OCD might develop postpartum even in the absence of hormonal chaos. Their hunch was reinforced by the fact that new fathers can experience OCD as well: Abramowitz co-authored case studies of several fathers with severe symptoms. One had images of shaking his baby violently; another had fears of losing control and harming his children when he was holding scissors. (Little is known about the susceptibility of adoptive parents, or the female partners of women who give birth. These questions could be promising avenues for future research.)
Intrusive thoughts tend to occur in stressful situations, Abramowitz says. If you’re standing on the roof of a tall building, you imagine falling, or jumping, because the possibility is hard to ignore; if you’re in a china shop, you imagine breaking porcelain dishware. Attempts to suppress the thoughts typically fail, and in fact backfire. We all know what happens when someone tells you not to think about elephants.
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.
People with OCD tend to have an inflated sense of personal responsibility, and an acute sensitivity to causing harm. The conditions of new parenthood, then — actual increased responsibility, terror of harm — are strikingly similar to the mental conditions of OCD. For this reason, some researchers have begun to believe that mild OCD symptoms are a normal part of early parenthood.
But for parents who are predisposed to obsessional thinking — or perhaps, who have a hormonal susceptibility — the symptoms can become torture. One mother told me that she saw images of stabbing her daughter with scissors when the baby was on the changing table. “It just was going in a loop, over and over,” she said. “I felt like a monster.” Carla O’Reilly, co-author of the 2008 book The Smiling Mask, about maternal mental illness, had postpartum OCD after the birth of her son in 2003, and described it this way: “It’s a horror movie that’s going on in your head,” she told me. “This was a horror movie about my own son.”
A few months after her son’s birth, Emilia was still struggling. He was not an easy baby. She speculated that his first experience of the world — under the NICU’s harsh lights, with little human touch — had lasting effects on him. He cried for hours at a stretch. She was often afraid to take him out in public because of his incessant wailing.
Emilia recalls that shortly after the birth, her psychiatrist, whom she had started seeing toward the end of her pregnancy, diagnosed her with postpartum anxiety and depression. It was easy for her to tell him about these emotional difficulties, but the intrusive thoughts she kept secret. She reluctantly went back on Effexor, an antidepressant that she had been taking until she learned she was pregnant. But she hated the idea that her baby was getting exposed to a drug through her milk. Besides, it didn’t seem to be improving her mood.
She usually Googled all her questions: How to prevent morning sickness? How much crying is normal? But she was afraid to consult Google about her macabre thoughts — afraid the internet would only confirm her fears that she was a danger to her child. Instead, she continued her avoidance strategies and, when the thoughts did come, tried to push them outside her consciousness. She didn’t have many friends in Miami, and wasn’t close to her family. Her husband knew about her anxiety and depression, but she never considered telling him about the thoughts.
Some mothers with frightening intrusive thoughts avoid their babies, which leads to a whole other obvious set of problems. But Emilia did not — on the contrary, she was more afraid that he would come to harm in someone else’s care than her own, and felt a compulsion to be with him at all times. “I felt like if I took certain steps, I would be safe and my baby would be safe,” she says. “But I couldn’t guarantee what anyone else was doing.”
After the four weeks of leave she’d received from her job were up, Emilia requested more time and was granted eight additional weeks. But when the time came to return, she couldn’t bring herself to go back to the office. She couldn’t trust anyone else to care for her son. She believed she could perform her job just as well from home, but her bosses disagreed, and they let her go.
During this time, one of her only sources of solace was a postpartum support group she’d joined when her son was 2 months old. It met on Thursday mornings in a two-story house repurposed as a center offering services for families. The vibe was cozy — hardwood floors, overstuffed couches, pillows on the floor for the moms to sit on with their babies. Wooden toys were strewn around the room; tea and cookies were sometimes served. Discussions were led by a clinical psychologist named Shelly Orlowsky.
Dr. Orlowsky recalled Emilia as “a very loving mother, very caring, very attentive, very gentle.” While the women sat on the pillows with their babies and talked, Emilia was strikingly candid. One of her strengths, said Orlowsky, was “her ability to be open to talking about how difficult her experience was … ‘What did I get myself into? Is this what it is? Is this how it’s gonna always be?’ That’s a very real feeling that moms have.” Yet not everyone can admit it, Orlowsky told me. “Other moms who probably were experiencing very similar feelings were too embarrassed or ashamed to share, for fear of being judged.”
But, unbeknownst to Dr. Orlowsky, there was one thing Emilia kept to herself: her thoughts of harming her baby. She never even came close to bringing those up. Especially since she openly expressed her doubts about parenthood, what would people think? “You can’t go and tell anybody,” Emilia says. “You’re all alone.”
When Emilia’s son was about a year-and-a-half old, Dr. Orlowsky sent an email soliciting participation in a project. She and two other women had recently co-founded the Miami chapter of Postpartum Support International. One of her co-founders, a documentary filmmaker named Maureen Fura, wanted to film women talking about their postpartum mental-health issues, for a short video to distribute to local health-care providers and policy makers.
Fura had had her own searing psychiatric experience, although Emilia didn’t know about it at the time. In her case it started early in her pregnancy, in 2008, when she was a 32-year-old graduate student in Monterey, California. The day she found out she was pregnant, repugnant thoughts began to besiege her. What if I stay in my garage and turn on my car? What if I hang myself from a tree? What if I pour bleach in my husband’s drink? The thoughts were so intolerable that she sought help immediately, but without success. She saw 28 care providers, and none were able to provide any relief, until, when she was five months pregnant, one finally prescribed a low dose of sertraline (the generic version of Zoloft). At that point, the frequency of the thoughts eased from “once every second to once every three seconds,” she recalls. By the eighth month, another provider had diagnosed her with OCD, and the thoughts had basically stopped. If she did have one, she’d say to herself, “‘That’s not a real thought, that’s an OCD thought.’ They wouldn’t terrify me. I could drive again, I could cook again, I could sleep again.”
A few years later, she became an advocate for maternal mental health. She got involved with Postpartum Support International and a California-based organization called 2020 Mom, and in 2014 released a documentary called Dark Side of the Full Moon about her ordeal and those of other mothers.
Emilia invited Fura to her home. In the living room, as her son played nearby, Emilia spoke about her anxiety and depression. After Fura put her camera equipment back in her bag, Emilia mentioned taking the metro. Fura said, “I could never have done that when I was pregnant. I would have thought, ‘What if I run on the track?’” Emilia looked at her. She told her that she had those kinds of fears, too.
“Yeah, it’s not like you want to,” Fura said. “It always starts with ‘what if?’” She explained to Emilia about OCD. “It has a name. You’re not alone. A lot of women have it, with knives, with scissors. And women don’t tell each other.”
Emilia was stunned. “I had no idea that anyone else was struggling with the same issue,” she told me. Or, she corrected herself, “Maybe I figured that people were but from news headlines where people do horrible things.”
When Emilia went to her next appointment with her psychiatrist, she resolved to tell him about the thoughts. She was still “very, very nervous,” though. She figured there was a decent chance he would call social services to report her.
To get to his office, she had to take a bus first, then a train, pushing her son in his gray UPPAbaby stroller. She was standing near the tracks, and a thought came, a ghastly vision. She could see herself pushing the stroller onto the tracks. “I could see people running to me and the police coming,” she says.
Part of her wanted to scream, “If I do anything crazy somebody stop me!” But she didn’t. She steered the stroller away from the tracks over to a bench, sat down, put the brake on, and took a breath. She waited an agonizing three minutes. The train pulled in, and she maneuvered the stroller into the car, and said to herself, “Now we’re safe.”
When she arrived at her psychiatrist’s office, Emilia started tentatively, “not wanting to look too crazy.” She mentioned her interview with Fura, and learning about OCD. She said that she was too scared to drive because she feared she would veer off the causeway into the water.
To her surprise and enormous relief, her psychiatrist told her he wasn’t worried, she recalls, and that there was a medication that could help her. “And that’s when I broke down,” Emilia says. She started sobbing with “relief that someone actually doesn’t think I’m crazy. That you don’t have to hide anymore … That somebody doesn’t see you as your symptoms. They see you as a person who’s struggling with something they can help you with.”
Emilia’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Newport, told me that when mothers tell him about thoughts of harm to their children, “the thing that I look for is … how does she respond to them? If the thoughts are intrusive, unwanted, disturbing, she’s going to try to create some distance between herself and whatever that is.”
Women with psychosis do not resist their thoughts; women with intrusive thoughts find them appalling and are exceedingly unlikely to act on them. “Postpartum psychosis is an emergency,” Dr. Newport went on. “It’s important for clinicians if they’re not certain to err on the side of safety.” But, he says, experienced clinicians can confidently make the distinction between psychosis and intrusive thoughts.
Emilia told me that he diagnosed her with OCD in addition to anxiety and depression, and switched her prescription from Effexor to sertraline (Zoloft). “He normalized the condition,” she says. “It’s a part of an illness that I happen to have. I think that’s really empowering.”
On that front, at least, Emilia was lucky. She was already seeing a psychiatrist, and he was well-informed about maternal mental health. Other women are less fortunate.
In January of this year, in Sacramento, a woman named Jessica Porten went to a postpartum checkup four months after giving birth to her second child. The next day she described her experience in a widely circulated Facebook post. “I tell them I have a very strong support system at home, so although I would never hurt myself or my baby, I’m having violent thoughts and I need medication and therapy to get through this.” Shortly thereafter, the police appeared. She was told to drive with her daughter to the emergency room at a nearby facility, with one cop car in front of her and another behind. She was detained until midnight — about ten hours after she’d arrived for her appointment. “They called the fucking cops on me,” Porten wrote. “I was treated like a criminal and then discharged with nothing but a stack of xeroxed printouts with phone numbers on them.”
Porten is white and straight; she pointed out that the situation might have been worse for a mother without those characteristics. Kay Matthews, founder of the Shades of Blue Project, a Houston-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting women of color with postpartum mood disorders, agrees. She told me she fears that for a member of her community, “It wouldn’t have been, ‘Let us follow you’ — the doctor called the cops on you, you’re going to jail.” This fear itself can no doubt act as a powerful deterrent, making it that much more difficult for mothers of color, in particular, to seek help.
To be fair, providers are in a difficult position. Calling the cops is extreme, but milder precautions may seem reasonable, given the stakes. Precautions can carry their own risk, though. British psychologists Fiona Challacombe and Abigail Wroe published a study of the consequences of OCD misdiagnosis, citing two patients whose contact with their children had been restricted. “This reinforced the mothers’ own fears that their symptoms meant they may harm their babies, thereby severely exacerbating the OCD and impairing the mother-baby relationship,” the authors wrote.
Better education for clinicians — all clinicians who come into contact with postpartum mothers — could help. There are isolated cases where anxiety can bleed into psychosis, but as a rule, intrusive thoughts are common, and psychosis is rare, occurring in about one in a thousand mothers. (And only a small minority of those mothers will actually harm their children.) If all clinicians were aware of that, the dynamic could change.
Of course, better education could not only help distressed parents; it could also proactively prepare parents before birth. Abramowitz designed a prevention program targeted at women identified as vulnerable to obsessive-compulsive symptoms: those who exhibited certain cognitive biases such as equating thought with action. In a controlled experiment, the program was incorporated into a standard childbirth education class, helping participants to restructure their distorted beliefs. The mothers who participated reported significantly lower levels of obsessions and compulsions than the control group.
Complicating matters, however, talking about intrusive thoughts can have unintended effects. For women who suffer from them, learning that they’re not alone is hugely comforting, but hearing about specific thoughts can trigger similar ones in their own minds. If a new mom hears about thoughts of drowning, for example, she might have them the next time she bathes her child. Ultimately, though, psychologists believe that what matters is dispelling the stigma and the ignorance. The thoughts themselves are not the problem, Abramowitz told me; the problem is the reaction. “That’s what OCD is, is when people have these thoughts and they take them literally,” he says.
There’s an emerging consensus in the field that new mothers should be routinely screened for OCD, as they are now for postpartum depression. In their book Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts, therapists Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel recommend that all clinicians who see postpartum mothers should ask a simple question — “Are you having any thoughts that are scaring you?” — while making clear that such thoughts are common.
For women who are diagnosed with postpartum OCD, effective treatments are available. In addition to or instead of SSRIs such as Zoloft, cognitive behavioral therapy has proved life-changing for many patients. It teaches them not to take their thoughts so seriously, to interpret them in such a way that they lose their threatening character.
Diana Wilson, co-founder of the U.K.-based nonprofit Maternal OCD, had severe OCD from an early age, and when she became a mother, her obsessions focused on harm to her children. After the birth of her fourth daughter, she finally sought help and participated in five sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. “That was all it took to give me my life back after 26 years,” she told me.
In the course of reporting this story, I asked several experts if they thought raising awareness could actually avert cases of OCD, because mothers would be less alarmed by their intrusive thoughts and less prone to becoming obsessional. “Yeah, I think it definitely could,” said Fiona Challacombe, the British psychologist. She told me that many of her patients said, “If only someone had talked about this. One line, a leaflet, anything.”
Not long ago, on a humid and sunny Saturday afternoon, I met Emilia in a Starbucks near her apartment in Miami Beach. Wearing jeans, a black V-neck T-shirt, and bright-pink espadrilles, she was warm and friendly, looking me in the eye as she spoke. Her curly-haired son, now 2-and-a-half, sat calmly in her lap as she fed him pistachios.
“It kind of feels like a really bad nightmare,” she said of early motherhood, cracking open a pistachio. Now, about a year after her OCD diagnosis, she was feeling much steadier. She was working a few hours a day at a children’s summer camp, leaving her son with her mother, who was visiting. Long-term, she had a new ambition: She was studying for the GRE, with a plan to apply to master’s programs in public health. She wanted to focus on maternal and mental health.
Her depression had lifted, and her connection with her son had grown stronger. For her, love had not been instantaneous but had blossomed over time. She wished she had known more about the varieties of maternal mental illness before she’d been thrust into them. Her awareness had been limited to postpartum depression. “It’s almost a fancy thing to have, if you’re a celebrity,” she noted wryly.
The intrusive thoughts were still unsettling to recall. “I’m vegetarian, trying to be vegan. I don’t want to harm anything, I don’t even kill cockroaches … and then that kind of thought toward your child. It’s disturbing.” For some mothers with OCD, the worst part is the fear that the thoughts represent some suppressed hostility toward the child. But Emilia never felt that way. While she readily acknowledged maternal ambivalence, she did not believe the thoughts of harm were related to that. “I think maybe the fact that he was so fragile and I was responsible for him … and then the fear, I have all the power to do something, and that scared me.”
But the thoughts had abated. Perhaps the medication had helped. And the fact that he was older and less fragile now, and that every day she had more evidence that she wasn’t going to hurt him. Something else had made a difference, too. Although she had not undergone cognitive behavioral therapy — her insurance wouldn’t cover it — she had been able to open up about what had been a shameful secret. The validation from her psychiatrist had helped immensely, as had subsequent conversations with friends. “Even if I have an intrusive thought, I can normalize it in my head. I finally have power over my thoughts and they don’t rule me anymore.”
In fact, she said, she had recently cooked a mushroom risotto with her son. He was full of energy, and she was looking for an activity to focus it. Modifying a recipe for squash risotto, she got out mushrooms and rice and Parmesan. They took the cutting board over to the dinner table, and she stood over him, holding his hand, which was holding the knife. Until she told me about it, it hadn’t even occurred to her that she had done anything remarkable. They had chopped mushrooms together, whiling away the afternoon. And then her son had scampered away from the kitchen, happy and unscathed.