A Spiritual Response to Postpartum Depression
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A Spiritual Response to Postpartum Depression

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Postpartum depression is the cruelest trick: You’re supposed to be happy, but you’re not. Here are some strategies, practical and spiritual, for getting through to the other side.

 

by Susan Windley-Daoust

This article is adapted from chapter twenty of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Post-P” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.

Read a review of The Gift of Birth in Church Life magazine.

. . . I was completely unprepared for the anxiety disorder that accompanied my pregnancy hormone surge.

I had always been a “worrier.” But whatever worries or anxiety I had experienced before paled in comparison to the panic and fears that took over my barely pregnant body.

When my son finally arrived, I was overcome with love. I adored him. But I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely force air into my lungs.

. . . .

[The nurses] all talked about their children and I remember staring at them wondering how they had survived becoming mothers and actually returned to the world.

I couldn’t imagine an hour without tears, let alone life as a working mother. I was sure I was destined to forever experience this fear and worry. I loved my new little baby too much. It was too much to bear. It was all just too much. Fortunately, a week later at my baby’s check-up, the doctor immediately recognized my condition, and I began to get help for my anxiety and postpartum depression.[1]

Postpartum depression seems like the cruelest trick: after months of waiting and preparing for the new baby, swaddled in hope and love, you can’t get out of bed. Life seems meaningless and you burst into tears at the drop of a hat. You’re overwhelmed and can’t function. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, you think.

On top of that, no one else seems to think anything is other than lovely. “Oh, what a beautiful baby! Aren’t they so sweet at this age? You must be so happy!”

Yet postpartum depression (PPD) is common—eight to 19 percent of new mothers report symptoms of PPD[2]—so it is good to be aware of it. While most women go through a short period called “the baby blues” a week or so after the baby is born, if you increasingly feel miserable, trapped, and emotionless, you may have crossed the line into PPD.

 

Risk factors for postpartum depression

If you have a history of depression, you are more likely to experience PPD. If you have had a stressful year for any number of reasons, that too is a risk factor. But even if you had a pleasant year and no history of depression, PPD can occur. The causes are various: the massive hormonal shifts that occur after birth, lack of sleep, the challenge of recovering after a C-section, and lifestyle changes (having a baby is almost always a lifestyle change!).

There are resources out there, and your medical team probably made you aware of them. It’s hard to reach out when you are depressed and overwhelmed, but do it. You do not have to feel this way, and PPD is treatable.

Consider some of these ways to proactively head off PPD:

  • Plan for extra help around the home for a few days or even weeks after the baby’s birth.
  • Lower your expectations for household cleanliness.
  • Accept free meals from friends (indeed, hint that this may be welcomed more than knickknacks for the baby!).
  • With the help of your husband or friends, try to schedule time out of the house every day (even just a walk)—baby will be okay without you for a little while. Take that walk with baby in a stroller or carrier if you have to.
  • Find a way to get sleep. Being sleep deprived never, ever helps.

These may sound like luxuries, but they aren’t. The first few weeks are tough. Then it gets better. We used to live in cultures that supported childbirth through community and extended family efforts, and now, when many family members live far away from each other and we don’t know our neighbors, we simply don’t. It is a loss and makes the first weeks harder than they need to be.

But even with decent support, PPD happens. It is not a character flaw or something to be ashamed of; PPD is a disease, period. You would see someone to treat strep throat, so go see someone to treat depression! The very best thing you can do for yourself and your baby is to see a doctor or counselor. If you cannot see someone soon through scheduling, go to urgent care or even the ER. There are antidepressants that can help, and can be used with relative safety while nursing. Conversation therapy can be a real aid as well, and an antidote to feeling overwhelmed and alone.

 

Spiritually handling postpartum depression

Spiritually, depression is very difficult to deal with. The nature of the disease is that it can make you feel isolated and hopeless. PPD can sabotage any contentment you have in your new vocation. I would encourage readers with PPD to remember that the feelings are part of the disease and are, by definition, not accurate markers of the reality you are in. You feel worthless? You are not, that’s PPD speaking. You feel like you are a bad mother? Once again, PPD talk. You feel like you will never be happy again? PPD, not reality. Many of the saints have said that while we must pay attention to feelings and where they are coming from, diseased emotions may fool you into thinking God is not your anchoring love. They may fool you into thinking you have been abandoned by Christ. Prayer of any sort that is honest and places some kind of trust in God is important. Having others pray for you is important. Praying with others, and letting them do most of the work of praying (because it is hard to pray when you are depressed), is important.

There are many saints who were depressed—and not just before a conversion experience, but also during their lives in the Church. St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Dymphna, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and St. Francis Xavier describe states that sound very much like depression, and there are many others as well. Asking them to intercede with God for your health and clear sight could be helpful.

Dom John Chapman, OSB, rather famously said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Wise words, especially for those who are exhausted and depressed. If you are depressed, ask for concrete help, see a doctor, and ask friends and families for prayers. In the meantime, consider praying the prayer below, or adapting it to your situation.

 

For prayerful reflection

Consider speaking to God honestly through this prayer, or one of your own creation:

Dear God,

I don’t want to get up. I feel overwhelmed.

I feel like I want things to go back to the way things were: Baby in the womb, meals at regular times, going out with friends . . . just what was normal.

I can’t figure out nursing, or sleeping, or anything.

I’m up all night by myself with a crying baby and feel like I can’t make it better.

It feels like this is never going to get better; that being a mother to your child will never get easier.

I don’t want to get up, but I want to run away, too. I just want to cry.

As the blind beggar said, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”[3]

Heal me of this depression.

Help me to remember that this time is temporary.

Help me to remember that this child was meant for me, to bring me happiness.

Help me to love, even when my brain seems to be blocking the way.

Help me to feel the care of people around me. Help me to feel your love and peace.

Help me find the help I need today; help others find me. Son of David, have pity on me and heal me.

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you.

I beg you, weave your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, around me and the baby like a ribbon of love and light.

Jesus, help me to trust in you.

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[1] Janice Croze, “Surviving Postpartum Depression,” Guideposts, https://www.guideposts.org/surviving-postpartumdepression?nopaging=1.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc. gov/reproductivehealth/depression/ (accessed December 31, 2015).

[3] Luke 18:38.

 

Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.

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