The Blackness of Baby Blues
It’s like the ebb and flow of the tide, I journaled. When the tide is out, life is calm and peaceful, but slowly the tide comes in, and each wave grows bigger and stronger until they are crashing over me, again and again, dashing me against the rocks, backbreaking, relentless. That’s when I feel like I’m drowning. The waves drag me under; I lose control, come completely undone.
Finally the waves start to recede as the tide goes back out, and I spend the next few days picking my shattered self off the rocks where I’ve been tossed like a useless piece of rubbish. Bruised and aching, I try to rub life back into my limbs so I can start functioning again.
Just when I’m back in good form, having had a few weeks of optimism, strength, fun and laughter, the tide turns and starts coming back in. I can see it coming, but am powerless to hold it at bay. I just have to ride it out and hope that this time it’s not fatal.
As the shades of blue blacken with the deepening sea, so the blues of the baby blues blacken in me.
It was one of the most painful and disorienting seasons of my life. I had given birth to our second son in the capital city of Uganda and then had returned shortly afterwards to our home in the far northwest of the country. Noah was colicky right from the start, and his incessant crying started getting on my nerves by day three.
We tried every form of medication for him, but nothing worked. I changed my diet completely, giving up cabbage, beans, milk, chocolate, spices, etc., but he kept on crying.
The local women had their own ideas: ‘Your milk is not enough, the baby is too hungry.’ This did nothing to boost my self-confidence. I felt inadequate as a mother, weary and stressed out.
Slowly the depression crept in, subtle at first, like the gentle laps of that in-coming tide. But it quickly gained momentum, joining hands with anger and pity, until I found myself overcome by a debilitating concoction of negative emotions, all equally uncontrollable. I became a stranger to myself—and most likely to my husband and older son.
I could not predict from one minute to the next how I was going to feel. The smallest incident could set me off without any warning. One morning I was headed to the communal eating area when our night watchman stopped me, holding out a tangled black mass towards me. They were the remains of a brand new pair of shoes my sister had sent out for our oldest son. He must have left them out in the yard overnight where the dogs found them.
Horrified, I grabbed the shoes and stormed into the dining area, dangling them in front of my husband and son who were calmly eating their breakfast. ‘See what happens when you leave your shoes outside!’ I harangued Aidan. Then I broke down and cried. Father and son sat and stared at me in stunned silence. My world had just ended and no one seemed to get it.
Several similar incidents occurred until I began withdrawing from the community. I did not want the others to see me like this—I was too ashamed of my lack of self-control. Wasn’t that one of the fruits of the Spirit, along with love, joy, patience and all the others that I did not possess?
Yet I was a missionary! I was supposed to be overflowing with joy and happiness. I had two wonderful healthy boys, a loving husband, and a great community of fellow missionaries. What was wrong with me?
I knew I should pray, but I did not feel like it. I knew I should read God’s Word, but I barely touched my Bible. I just wanted to throw a big party for pity and me, and wallow in my own misery.
Thankfully I had some good Christian friends who understood what I was going through. Missionary moms themselves, we would walk and talk and they would share their own struggles and how they coped with them. I realized that I was not alone, that I was not some weak Christian who could not withstand Satan’s pot shots, that the baby blues syndrome is no respecter of occupation. I knew in my head that post-partum depression is a common and recognized physical illness that many women suffer from, but in my heart I felt ashamed that I, a missionary, could become a victim. I naively assumed that having the Holy Spirit indwelling my heart would make me impervious to these kinds of attacks.
The truth, however, is not that we are impenetrable bodies of holiness, but that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ. I had to accept the fact that I am vulnerable to radical mood swings, but I do not have to be ruled by them. I learned to recognize the approaching storm and develop strategies to diffuse the pressure. Whether it meant retreating to my room, going for a walk, or getting my husband to take the kids out for a while, I needed to be proactive in dealing with my broiling emotions. Journaling the frustrations, pain, and anger was a great source of release. My rambling journal entries usually turned into prayers, cries to my Abba Father for a lifeline in the turbulent ocean of despair.
I know He heard my prayers. Time after time He lifted me out of the miry clay; He set my feet upon the Rock, soothed my frayed nerves, and refreshed my parched spirit. Once in a while I would be watching my children, loving them and adoring their special ways, when I would hear God whisper, ‘You see them? That is how I look at you. You are my precious daughter, and I love you.’
Eventually my hormones stabilized, the baby stopped crying, we all started to sleep through the night again, and the emotional upheavals subsided. But the memory of that experience is still vivid. Now, seven months pregnant with child number three, I look forward to the birth with a sizeable amount of apprehension. Will it be a repeat of last time? Worse? Will my coping strategies work this time?
I do not have all the answers, but I know the One who does. Like Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘I can do everything through Him who gives me strength’ (Phil 4:13). My daily prayer is that I will always remember Who my Source is, and that I will draw from Him rather than my own limited reserves. I cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit unless I am rooted in the Lord. And may I not live under the fear of man, oppressed by self-imposed expectations of how a missionary should behave; I must rather receive the grace from my loving Father and enjoy this season of my life.
Resources for Postpartum Depression:
- 1.PSI: Postpartum Support International, www.postpartum.net. An international support organization with coordinators in 26 countries that you can email directly for help, resources, and support.
- 2.The National Women’s Health Information Center, www.womenshealth.gov. US Dept. of Health and Human Services site. Excellent FAQ on postpartum depression. 1-800-994-9662.
- 3.American Academy of Family Physcians, www.familydoctor.org .