“This is the happiest time of your life; savor every moment of it!” The words rang in my ears. I heard them over and over again—from strangers at the grocery store, from women in my church, from imaginary voices that would not be quiet as I struggled through the 24/7 endless cycle of caring for a newborn. And yet it was not true of my experience. I was in the throes of one of the most difficult times of my life, and I was ill-equipped to reconcile my reality with these voices. While preparing to care for a newborn, I somewhat expected the dark and lonely hours of the night. It was the dark hours of the morning that blindsided me.
Undergirding all of the circumstantial and hormonal realities that left me vulnerable to an experience of depression in this season, were the deeply embedded remnants of some larger cultural values. I grew up in a context where health was functionally defined by maintaining the veneer of being impressive, having it all together, caring for those “less fortunate” than we were. Struggle was understood to be the fruit of bad choices. This baby was a good gift, so why was I struggling?
In my twenties, I had begun to discover the beauty and freedom of Grace, and to shed the performance ethic in which I was so steeped. But now, at the age of 30, the rubber met the road. I found myself to be more needy and desperate than I imagined was possible, and struggled to acknowledge the “okay-ness” of my desperation and to seek help. I expected to be a great mom with happy children, and I had no category for an alternate experience of motherhood.
It is estimated that as many as 70% of new mothers experience “baby blues,” which is characterized by temporary mood swings, irritability, and tearfulness, and dissipates within a few weeks. Hello, wanting to sleep all day, being grouchy with your husband, putting the coffee pot in the fridge, and only applying mascara to one eye. Postpartum Depression, on the other hand, is distinct from “baby blues” in its severity and in duration. Some of the symptoms of postpartum depression include a depressed mood for much of the time, diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities, fatigue and loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, a diminished ability to think or concentrate, and indecisiveness. Hello, matching your baby’s lament in being outside the womb, tear for tear. The organization Postpartum Support International, estimates that postpartum depression is experienced by 15-20% of women. That's almost 1 in 5. Translation: if you consider yourself to be one of these women, you are not alone.
Postpartum Depression can be a scary diagnosis for many reasons. It carries a stigma, and is often misunderstood. The potential presence of psychotic features paired with the vulnerability of the life of an infant is an alarming combination. Motherhood is a significant aspect of the identity of women as a gender, and it can be devastating to struggle in this realm. It can unleash the voices that tell us that we are deeply flawed, that we are not enough. Being exposed as needy and flawed can feel like a threat to our very identity as women.
But what if it were not? What if we understood that we are designed to thrive only in the context of community? What if we recognize that needing support is wired into our very being as humans, and we begin to view our struggles and deficiencies as opportunities to lean into the resources we have—in community, in professional care, in medication, in grace? What if our struggles can become the path to our flourishing? We fear the light. We fear exposure. We fear the reality of our imperfections. And ironically, it’s this fear of reality that often enslaves us to it.
We live in a broken world that is not as it should be, and consequently, we must navigate realms of pain and woundedness that can be devastating. Through my own struggles, and through walking alongside so many others in their struggles, I have come to recognize what an invaluable gift it is to have help in navigating our lives and our relationships. We need community; we need friends who enter into the behind-the-scenes of our lives; and we often need the help of those who have been professionally trained to guide us on the path to wholeness and healing. The invitation to enter into people’s heartache—in the sorrow and distress many of us are struggling to bear—is a sober and weighty privilege. May we steward this privilege with tremendous care.
Depression During Pregnancy & Postpartum. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.postpartum.net/Get-the-Facts/Depression-During-Pregnancy-Postpartum.aspx
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.