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How the Church Helped Me Through Postpartum Depression

My depression overwhelmed me; Jesus and his church saved my life.
How the Church Helped Me Through Postpartum Depression
Image: ORKIDIA / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Two toddlers are sleeping, all arms and legs and tangled blankets, and it is a glimpse of glory. My boys have it in their contracts that I must witness this little miracle after an especially unhinged day of the toddler-crazies. Tonight as I tiptoe in and nestle their soft heads with my hand, whispering prayers over their sleep, I breathe deeply. Charlie snuffles at me and for a moment, his eyes open. He looks like a newborn, weighed by sleep, squinting and groping for my hand.

Four years ago, when I would tiptoe in at night to reach out to my new baby, my prayers sounded like this: "I can't do this. Help. Please." I would stare down at the tiny head with all that goose-down hair and feel . . . nothing, or worse, duped. Resentful. My body was drowning in a cocktail of hormones, and within days I was choked by dread. I dreaded the waking cry of a hungry baby. I dreaded facing the mirror. I dreaded visitors. I dreaded my husband's increasingly confused and probing questions. I dreaded going to sleep because I knew I would have to wake again to that mewling insistence.

I dreaded myself. I had failed motherhood. I wanted to change my name and live in Wyoming as a ranch hand (yes, I actually did let myself wander to that state in my twisted musings). All the while, I fed Charlie, changed him, carefully swaddled and walked with him, but he just felt so very heavy.

Darkened Rooms and Darker Thoughts

After we brought Charlie home, it seemed like my house was all shut doors and drapes, darkened rooms and even darker thoughts. And then my mother came to visit, which, as you know, can be easy. Or it can be hard. With my mom, it was a mixture of both, mainly because I was trying so desperately to act like what I thought a new mother should be. Beatific. Peaceful. My hair smoothly tied back with a ribbon, nursing Charlie, and gently singing a lullaby. Rocking. Smiling tiredly—or something like that.

My mom opened shades and shutters and hummed a lot and kept up with my charade for a few days, busily cleaning and cooking and puttering about. She is a master at the putter. However, all the while she was watching her girl, her baby, until at one point, she saw me trudging with Charlie up and down our hallway, and she witnessed the raw terror on my face.

It was that evening when I finally found myself having a real conversation about how I was drowning. My words came slowly, dropping like stones. "I don't feel anything. I don't love him. I don't love anyone. I just want . . . out."

My mother is very wise. For a long moment, she said nothing. (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a miracle in itself.) Then she took a deep breath and stated, "I see a mother who is getting up at all hours to care for a baby in a totally loving way. You speak kindly. You are gentle. Your thoughts might say you don't love him, but your actions clearly tell otherwise." She gave my shoulder a squeeze and proceeded to make me a peanut butter sandwich with grape jelly and a large glass of milk. As per her contract, food is always involved. The start of a miracle unfolded with those words and that sandwich.

Slap on a Smile and Cringe Inside

Sunday morning. I pulled on the dreaded maternity hose and searched for my hair ribbon; I was going to show off my baby, and for some reason my shade of lipstick seemed very important. At church, I sucked in my tummy and tried to insert a smile into my voice. I was exhausted in eight minutes.

The thing is, pain chokes you. It was a suffocating hand on my throat, and I could not speak. I passed my Charlie off to some eager grandma's hands, but I did it with a varnished smile. She had no idea. The smile trumped the pain in my eyes, and she was too smitten with Charlie's tiny adorableness to notice. What I should have said, when I offered him over, was, "This baby, this tiny thing? His tiny, scrunchy face? My oxygen is gone. Everything is impossible. I am so scared." Instead I chirped about nursing and the help of pacies and thanked her for the baby blanket.

My postpartum depression had solidly hunkered down.

God Provided a Miracle on the Road

And then the miracle decided to grow a little more because my husband, Brian, interfered. At the time it seemed a horrible breach of contract. My pastor and his wife showed up at my door while I was sticky with spit-up and despair. Julie, the pastor's wife, smiled and said, "Dana, we are here. I am going to take Charlie now." I handed him to her and something inside me tore with anger and relief.

Jeff, our pastor, took Brian and me into counseling, and we made the appropriate doctor and therapy appointments. Julie would watch Charlie whenever these (many) appointments occurred. And I stepped onto the road. No detours. No off-ramps. None of this felt miraculous.

Trudge. Talk to the therapist. Check in with the doctor. Agree to the medication. Talk to my husband. Get outside. Go to a mom's day out. Talk to a friend. Trudge on.

My miracle kept stretching toward the sun, kept growing. Our second son, Henry, was born. And the postpartum depression came back. Full-throttle. But yes, a miracle. I started the trudge again. The doctor visits. The search for a counselor. The visits with our pastors. The walks. The talking. The long road. I yelled at God. I cried to my husband. I allowed myself to find a space in my heart to sit, to rest, to grow. My church knocked loudly again on my door, took my babies, sent me to get help, and gave them back to me when I returned. And the boys thrived. The church brought me food: cherry Jell-o and chicken burritos and green bean casseroles. And blankets for the baby. And a soft, fawn-colored blanket for me. The church sat and held my hand on my front porch as I sobbed so loudly the lawn guy across the street looked over, concerned. And we sat and rocked on the porch swing, my sweet church and I, and she listened. Just listened.

The Church Hunkered In

You see, my vision of a church was this: bricks, windows, Sunday time slot, 48 times a year. It meant a few Bible studies, some bills in the offering plate. It was a destination where I compared sassy shoes. But the truth is that my church is breathing. She's alive. She leaves her bricks and mortar every day. She knocks on doors. Loudly. She holds hands and listens. She knows the dizzying pain and betrayal of loss, of sickness. Of death.

And yet, my church has a terrific sense of humor and a lot of casserole recipes. She simply wouldn't leave me alone. She wants to help. Of course she does. That's the easy message. Of course we go to the church when we need help. But here's the big message and the even bigger grown-up miracle: The church didn't necessarily ask me to get better. She handed me peanut butter sandwiches while she gently told me truth. She sat beside me and held my hand and reminded me to just hunker down. But not alone, silly girl . . . with Jesus. The getting better part was just a side note.

The church saved my life because she taught me to abide with my Jesus.

So the big miracle for me was that Jesus asked me to go through. Not around. But during all those difficult months he was holding me, wrapped in his arms, just as I carried my tiny babies. Jesus wanted me to learn something from all of this: He was actually interested in Dana enough to work me into his lesson plans. The lesson was a doozy. And the teacher was my church.

Jesus will never leave me nor forsake me. He will hunker down. It's the truth; you can look it up. It's part of his contract.

"This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9).

Note: This story does not provide specific steps on how to aid postpartum depression, nor is it analyzing the positives or negatives of depression medications. However, postpartum depression is not something to ignore. I believe strongly that the first step is to talk to someone (a therapist, a counselor, a pastor) and then see your doctor. The second step is to realize that Jesus might ask you to go through the depression, or he might ease you around. Either way, he is with you. God bless you.

Dana Bowman is a mom, a writer, a runner, and a teacher, living a busy life in Lindsborg, Kansas. She is married to a very patient husband and has two small boys who are often a blur. She is living life with lots of coffee and Jesus.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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