True Crime Was My Stress Outlet — Then I Had My Daughter, and It Changed Everything

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Last August, I reclined in a stuffy hospital room in Central Pennsylvania, waiting for my epidural to kick in. To calm down, I did something others might find slightly unusual: I turned on my go-to true crime comedy podcast, My Favorite Murder, where hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark recount murder cases while cutting the tension with funny personal anecdotes and off-the-cuff jokes. While other soon-to-be moms relaxed to their recorded wind chimes and yoga music, I was tuning out to the crimes of serial killer Robert Spangler.

Ever since I was a teenager, watching true crime was my hobby, my stress-relief, my “thing.” It was a way of relieving my — often unrelenting — anxiety. Even though the podcasts described horrible crimes and high-stress situations, they helped me feel prepared for the worst, giving me a sense of control that translated into a feeling of calm.

I know I’m not the only woman who felt this way. Saturday Night Live even did a song sketch about women watching “murder shows,” with Kate McKinnon and other female cast members singing, “Late night, true crime, this is my relaxing time.”

But there’s truth behind the joke: A 2018 study found that 73 percent of true crime podcast listeners are women. Kelli Boling, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University Nebraska Lincoln, says that some women, like me, identify with and feel comforted by true crime stories. “Listening to these experiences of other women can feel very empowering. To think, ‘If I’m ever in that situation I might know how to get out of it.’ Also, if somebody else has been in that situation, it’s cathartic to see how she got out.”

For me, the survivor stories taught me that it’s possible to fight back against predators, who, my anxiety said, could be around any corner. I joined true crime-loving Facebook groups, called in sick from work when a new docuseries dropped on Netflix and bonded with strangers over JonBenét Ramsey theories.

But that all changed as soon as the delivery nurse handed me my goopy baby. The moment I left the hospital in August 2020, I couldn’t listen to my podcasts or watch my true crime shows anymore. I found the whole genre suddenly unbearable.

Through therapy, Pretzel has found stress outlets other than true crime.

Courtesy of Jillian Pretzel

At first, I felt this sudden true crime sensitivity was probably natural. True crime and motherhood seem naturally at odds. Who could listen to the death of someone else’s child when you’re always worried about your own? But it turns out that motherhood isn’t necessarily a true-crime turn-off. There’s a whole podcast called Moms & Murder, hosted by two mothers. It boasts more than 16,000 Instagram followers and a 4.6 rating on Apple Podcasts.

Still, as I sat home with my baby, episodes of Crime Junkie and Serial started stacking up on my phone. I clicked past episodes of the (once much anticipated) Forensic Files reboot in favor of lighter fare, like old episodes of The Office.

Meanwhile, all the crime stories I’d heard over the years kept me up more than my newborn. I’d lay in bed, terrified someone would break in and snatch my baby at night. Every night, I checked the locks on the doors and windows four or five times before going to bed.

This worry extended past the six-week mark, when Dr. Google said “baby blues” should dwindle. So, I started seeing a therapist over Zoom, who diagnosed me with postpartum anxiety (PPA). I had heard of postpartum depression (PPD), which affects roughly 20% of moms, but I didn’t know about PPA, which affects only half that. Unlike PPD, I didn’t feel down or hopeless. I felt scared. I was compelled by a jump-up, grab-the-baby, run-as-fast-as-you-can urge daily.

As the months went by, I missed my old podcasts. But on the few occasions when I tried to tune in, all I could hear was terrible things that could happen to me or my baby. I realized that not only had I lost my hobby, but my 15-year coping mechanism wasn’t working on this new, heightened anxiety. It was like being too sick to swallow medicine. Thankfully, my therapist said it was normal to feel sensitive. Over the following months, we talked about feeling vulnerable as a new mom. We talked about wanting to guarantee my daughter’s health and safety. We talked about feeling a lack of control. True crime had taught me that the world is a scary place, I just wanted to protect my daughter from it.

I try to remind myself that the world isn’t always such a dangerous place.

“When we become anxious, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of danger and the severity of the danger,” says Jonathan S. Abramowitz, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We also underestimate our ability to cope. So, the world seems more dangerous and threatening than it probably is. It makes sense that scary or threatening stimuli would trigger an anxiety response and become associated with these unpleasant thoughts and feelings.”

After a few months of therapy, I started feeling a little less anxious. I stopped jumping every time the house creaked and I learned to check the locks only once or twice before going to bed. I wasn’t better, but it was a start.

When my daughter was around seven months old, I opened my podcast app, almost without thinking, and started listening to the latest episode of My Favorite Murder. The cases of the week weren’t particularly gruesome but I still couldn’t bring myself to listen to the episode all at once. Listening to the show was difficult, but I liked it. I found myself laughing once again at the hosts’ witty one-liners and amusing tangents.

Now, as my daughter reaches her first birthday, I still work with my therapist every week. I soak up a little true crime now and then, and I try, every day, to remind myself that the world isn’t always such a dangerous place.

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