I briefly mentioned my struggle with postpartum depression in A Letter to My Son. My flesh would like to just leave it at that, thank you very much, but the Lord seems to want me to go there. Again and again, the subject is laid on my heart, and each time I say, “Lord, I’m just not comfortable with this. It’s too heavy and dark a topic.” As much as I want to skirt around this ugly section of my personal history, the way this story weaves into my overall testimony makes it worth sharing, because it was on this muddy, messy path that I encountered Jesus like never before.
What exactly is postpartum depression? The Mayo Clinic describes the following symptoms, which usually develop within the first few weeks after giving birth, but may begin later — up to six months after birth:
- Depressed mood or severe mood swings
- Excessive crying
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
- Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Intense irritability and anger
- Fear that you’re not a good mother
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
I experienced 10 of these 15 symptoms. They lasted a full year, presumably because I failed to seek medical help and was unable to get adequate sleep…and also because it took me that long to open my eyes and reach out and grab the life preserver that was floating beside me the whole time.
Things started getting nasty 3 months after giving birth, when Evan began waking up more frequently at night and my sleep deprivation was taken to the next level. It didn’t help that his reflux and fatigue made him extremely irritable and fussy. I thank God that I never hurt Evan and that he doesn’t have conscious memories of that time (and I have asked the Lord to remove subconscious effects that may have lingered). On my best days I was flat and lacking energy. On my worst days I was stomping at him and screaming obscenities, desperate for his crying to stop at any cost. I found myself googling things like, “I hate being a mom.” This led me to postpartum depression resources, but I didn’t think I needed help- I wasn’t crazy, after all. I just needed to sleep and for my baby to stop crying, for goodness sake! It wasn’t unusual for me to text or call my husband or mother-in-law to come as soon as possible, because I wasn’t confident that I wouldn’t hurt Evan. I told Aaron one day as we drove to a family gathering, “I have thought of every possible way out of this situation, and I’m stuck. There’s no hope, no end in sight. I could run away, but where would I go? What would I do? I would feel empty and regret it. I could kill myself, but that would just leave both of you in a mess. I don’t want to do that to y’all. I couldn’t live with myself if I killed Evan. Plus, I know he’s going to be great someday; he deserves a chance. But I can’t go on like this. I don’t know what to do.” Then I went and visited with my family as if I wasn’t teetering on the edge of a very disturbing cliff. I despised myself for the thoughts that struck me, without my invitation or consent. I loathed myself every time I handled my baby too roughly or spoke cruelly to him. I hated myself for not being a good enough mom to overcome my emotions. I was ashamed of myself because a “good Christian” doesn’t have these thoughts and impulses. The best way to describe the way I felt is dark. I was discussing those days with a few close friends recently, who were shocked because they had no idea I had gone through that (of course they had no idea; I made an Oscar-worthy effort to ensure that…isolation is a tactic of the enemy, after all). My best friend interjected, “If y’all had seen the demon in her eyes, you would have known what was going on.” We all kind of laughed uncomfortably, but she went on, “I’m not joking. It was like something had ahold of her.” Silence. It felt that way, too.
Spiritual warfare is as real and relevant as any other warfare going on in our world right now. Scripture confirms this in 1 Peter 5:8 “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” In my experience, attacks don’t often come in the dramatic ways depicted in horror movies, but in more subtle ways. For example, Satan began feeding me lies that, in my weakened state, I believed, even though they contradicted biblical truths. “You’re just not cut out to be a mother.” “You should do this child a favor and leave.” “It’s never going to get easier. There is no hope.” But God tells us that “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Luke 12:7), and that “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psalms 127:3-5). God knows me more intimately than anyone else, yet He made the decision to bless me with Evan. This is truth.
In the summer of 2015, it seemed like my little family just kept getting its feet knocked out from under it. After a massive sleep training effort and short-lived victory, Evan was back to waking up 3 or more times each night. I felt depleted, depressed, and hopeless again. Then came the next wave of the plague: illness. Evan had gastroenteritis, for two weeks. Night after night spent desperately trying to comfort my baby as he writhed in pain, day after day of constant diaper changes, can after can of Resolve carpet cleaner used to clean up vomit, hour after hour of fussing, clinging, and whining. A fruitless visit to the doctor, then another appointment when the intensity increased. A narrowly avoided hospitalization. Then another phase of the plague: more illness. Before he had even gotten over the gastroenteritis, Evan had contracted a respiratory virus that caused croup, easily treated with an oral steroid…that had a delayed side effect of agitation, combativeness, and hyperactivity. It was during this time that I cried out to Jesus in the night and for the first time, witnessed His tangible response before my eyes. After over 24 hours of thrashing and whining with fever that wasn’t touched by medications, Evan suddenly went still and calm as he relaxed against my body. I sobbed with praise as he became drenched from the sudden break in his fever.
Evan’s decreased appetite dragged on and on, he was unable to tolerate formula due to his irritated GI system, and since he had almost self-weaned when he became ill, my milk supply was not adequate. Again, I cried out to God, asking Him to increase my supply so that I could meet my son’s needs. I pumped and nursed as often as I could, and took so much fenugreek that I couldn’t walk straight and reeked to high heaven of maple. One day, I pumped a total of 4.5 hours in 9 separate sessions, while continuing to nurse. I still couldn’t make enough. Then, two friends (Godsends to whom I am eternally grateful) shared their stored breast milk with Evan, buying his tormented gut a few days of healing time, as well as providing essential hydration and brain-nourishing nutrients. It wasn’t enough time; now, since formula had caused an upset stomach and vomiting so often lately, Evan refused to even taste it. Again, God provided in an unexpected way. A stranger heard of my need and offered to share her stored milk as well. After ensuring that the milk was safe, I eagerly accepted 130+ ounces of breast milk for my son. (I smile as I type this, because today, Evan is freshly weaned at a ripe 16 months old. My milk supply did eventually come back…but not until after God had had the opportunity to prove to me His sovereignty. How gentle, kind, and merciful our God is.)
This stranger shared her radical and unique perspective of God, and learning about her relationship and experience with God encouraged me to pursue Him more intently. I found myself craving the Word for the first time ever. I got on my knees and prayed. I started praying out loud, first with Evan, then with Aaron, then with friends. I started thirsting for worship music, playing it constantly in my house and in my car. God began transforming my heart and my mind. My eyes were opened to the warfare that had been waging inside and around me. And in Christ, I was free at last from the prison of postpartum depression.
God has blessed me; I shudder to think where I would be spiritually without my steady rock of a husband who never condemned me when I shared the horrifying things going on inside of me, strong Christian women to battle for me when I was injured and unable to fight my own fight, my sisters who walked with me in the pit and came and prayed in my home, my friends who inexplicably shared the exact scriptures I needed to keep my head above water at a particular moment, or without Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Some things happen in life that can’t be explained, but for me, it’s clear that my experience with postpartum depression was a turning point in my faith. Satan attempted to use it to instill doubt and cloud my understanding of what was true and real, and he nearly succeeded. Ultimately, God used it to bring me into a more intimate relationship with him, and now, to give Him glory.
Maybe you are repulsed by the things I’ve divulged about my postpartum experience. Or maybe the things I’ve said hit a little too close to home. Maybe you’ve been there, or somewhere mighty close to there, and you still carry the weight of shame for an illness beyond your control. Maybe you’re there right now. If this is the case, please, please don’t delay seeking medical help and/or counseling from a professional. If you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, tell someone you trust now, ensure your and your baby’s safety, and call 1-800-273-8255 for help. Please just don’t walk this road alone. Tell your husband, best friend, minister, or whoever you trust. Tell me. Let me pray with you and for you.
Maybe you are seeing these symptoms in someone you love. Don’t just assume she is experiencing normal baby blues- talk to her, gently, firmly, and without judgement. Encourage her to discuss her feelings and symptoms and to seek professional help. Lift her up in prayer.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:10-17)