Huddled in the corner, using the glow of my laptop to shield myself from a filthy kitchen and a baby I didn’t know what to do with, I saw myself as a failure before God.
I had been taught all my life that mothering would come to me naturally, just because I was a woman. I had been taught it was the most important thing, the most fulfilling thing, that I could ever do. So when I felt no desire to play with my new baby girl, when I felt trapped in a dark, sticky hole of a home where I was sure I would spend the rest of my life peeling poop-soaked onesies off my child’s squirming body–when I couldn’t shake the intrusive, repeating thoughts of harming the baby or myself–I believed I was a bad parent, and a bad person as well. I thought my female soul was supposed to be inescapably tied to the instinct to care for children. Therefore I feared my reactions were sinful; even inhuman. What kind of mother would think these things? What kind of woman?
I repented. Again and again. I ground myself into the dust repenting. Praying. Despairing because I could not bring my feelings in line with what I thought was the Lord’s will for me. Thinking that if wickedness never was happiness, that of course my unhappiness must be a sign of wickedness.
I tried to be a better mom. I stopped playing World of Warcraft when I noticed I was using it to distract myself from my duties. I stopped writing. It’s wrong to devote my heart to silly stories and selfish goals that could tempt me into a career, I thought, My family should be first and only. I stopped practicing karate. No point in trying, I thought, because I’ll only be pregnant again soon anyway. I pictured our home, perfectly clean and perfectly organized, perfectly color-coordinated. But the more I pictured perfection, the more I could not even bring myself to start. I couldn’t be perfect. And so I was paralyzed.
One afternoon, I glanced over the rim of my laptop at a moldy kitchen sink with dishes overflowing onto sticky counters and realized that there was something wrong about the way I was treating myself, and that my inability to handle everyday life couldn’t be normal. I did a few quick searches online, about feeling sad all the time and having unwanted thoughts about my baby.
The results did not surprise me: I had postpartum depression. It affects ten to fifteen percent of new mothers and can happen any time during the year after a woman gives birth. (1) I quickly found out that I needed to seek treatment so that my depression did not interfere with my ability to help my child develop properly. (2) I made an appointment with a therapist, and through months of hard work, he helped me learn some very important things:
It wasn’t my fault I felt bad. In fact, the depression was completely beyond my control.
The depression wasn’t a punishment from God or a sign that I was a bad mother.
Feeling depressed was not a sin.
I loved my baby. The frightening thoughts did not mean I wanted to harm her, and they were not my fault.
Cutting non-mom-related activities like writing out of my life had increased my anxiety and depression and backfired on my family.
I was so relieved. I also realized that I had been suffering from depression and anxiety for years before giving birth. These conditions had affected my grades, my happiness, and my relationships, and I had blamed nearly all of it on myself, believing I had a spiritual problem. Though it took years of work for me to fully accept that I was a good person and that the sadness and negative feelings did not reflect poorly on me, I did get there eventually, with the proper medical attention.
Elder Alexander B. Morrison addressed the subject of mental illness and spirituality. I’d like to see his words framed in the lobby of every church building. He said,
“Most often, victims blame themselves. Many seem unable to rid themselves of terrible though undefined feelings that somehow, some way, they are the cause of their own pain—even when they are not. Parents, spouses, or other family members also often harrow up their minds trying futilely to determine where they went wrong. They pray over and over again for forgiveness when there is no evidence that they have anything of note to be forgiven of. Of course, in the vast majority of instances none of this works, for the simple reason that the victim’s thoughts and behavior result from disease processes which are not caused by the actions of others, including God.
Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy which would better be used to increase understanding of what actually is happening—to get a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, to understand the causes, to get proper medication and learn behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process” (“Myths About Mental Illness”, Ensign, October 2005)
I had postpartum depression–a medical problem, not a spiritual one. Repenting could not make it go away. Neither could reading my scriptures or doing more service for others. What did help was learning more about my condition, attending therapy, practicing stress relief, and maintaining proper balance in my life. I kept balance by getting proper sleep, having goals and hobbies outside of child-rearing and housekeeping, and setting aside a few minutes to relax every day. For many people, medication is also necessary. Taking medication and getting therapy and other help is a sign of courage and strength, not a sign of weakness.
What about prayer? I once had a well-meaning Stake President tell me that my feelings of sadness were the result of a lack of the Spirit in my life, and to fix the problem I should read the scriptures while on my knees, praying at the same time. That made me feel better for about a week, until it didn’t any more, and then I felt like an even worse person for failing.
Prayer can give you excellent guidance in seeking healing, as well as general comfort, but it is not a substitute for medical treatment. Pray for patience with yourself and understanding from family members. Work openly and honestly with your family so they can understand what is going on and what they need to do to help. For example, having postpartum depression means needing extra help with chores, and requires a supportive spouse and/or friends and relatives who will help take care of your baby and make sure you get the time you need to take care of yourself.
What healing role can your Relief Society president and bishop play?
“We must understand…without in any way denigrating the unique role of priesthood blessings, that ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and not mental health professionals. Most of them lack the professional skills and training to deal effectively with deep-seated mental illnesses and are well advised to seek competent professional assistance for those in their charge who are in need of it. Remember that God has given us wondrous knowledge and technology that can help us overcome grievous problems such as mental illness. Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, so too we should not hesitate to obtain medical and other appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness.”
Bishops are given charge of ward members’ spiritual guidance and healing. Depression is not spiritual. A bishop’s inspiration in taking care of his ward is not a substitute for medical training. A bishop can help arrange for financial assistance in seeking treatment if needed, and a bishop or Relief Society president can arrange for other assistance with household chores, babysitting, meals, and so forth. But a bishop can’t tell you how to heal from depression. Seek help from a person with the right medical training.
If you are suffering from mental illness, please know that it is not your fault. There should be no shame or guilt involved. In his talk, Elder Morrison said, “There are some who mistakenly believe that the mentally ill just need to “snap out of it, show a little backbone, and get on with life.” Those who believe that way display a grievous lack of knowledge and compassion.” Not only should we be compassionate with others, but with ourselves. Don’t tell yourself to snap out of it! Love yourself and get the treatment and the help you need.
(1) http://www.cdc.gov/Mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5714a1.htm, the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” 54(14) 361-366, April 11, 2008. Accessed June 4, 2013.
(2) McLearn KT, Minkovitz CS, Strobino DM, Marks E, Hou W. Maternal depressive symptoms at 2 to 4 months post partum and early parenting practices. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006;160:279–84.
Photo 1: By Liz MC
Photo 2: by Mick Amato
Photo 3: by torbakhopper
Photo 4: by Leland Francisco
Photo 5: by Forest Service-Nothern Region