The night I brought my firstborn home from the hospital, I broke down and cried. In the hospital, I had been giddy with happiness. At home, I felt panicked. I realized that for all my preparation, I had no idea how to care for a baby. This wonderful, vulnerable person I had fallen so deeply in love with was now my responsibility. I was pretty sure that even if I managed to keep her alive, I'd probably ruin her life.
After a few days at home and a growing confidence that I could, in fact, keep her alive, the tables turned, and I began to suspect she would be the one to ruin my life. I was unprepared for the emotional strain of the frequent feedings, little sleep, dramatic transition, and distance from our families. Though that initial panic passed, it was months before the clouds began lifting and tears weren't always imminent.
I now believe I had at least a mild case of postpartum depression, which I failed to recognize because, like many new moms, I didn't know what caring for a new baby was supposed to feel like. I also refused to recognize it for several reasons: I lacked the courage to face what I perceived as my own weaknesses. I wanted to believe I was completely capable of handling motherhood, which I had longed for. I feared the stigma of mental-health treatment. And I was desperate to distance myself from my mother, who has schizophrenia. For many years, my worst nightmare had been inheriting her condition and being a mentally ill mother myself.
When I brought home another newborn three years later, I couldn't believe the difference. I was just as sleep-deprived, just as stretched, just as overwhelmed with the feeding demands. This second baby was colicky and in several ways harder to care for than my first. Yet I was so much stronger emotionally. The black clouds I had been waiting for didn't settle on me—that's when I realized the depression I had felt the first time didn't just come with the territory.
And now, after crawling out from under the shame I felt over my mother's mental illness, and coping with my fear that I would inherit her condition, I realize that very shame and fear kept me in pain when I could have found relief and made a much healthier start as a mom.
A New Postpartum Disorder
Postpartum depression has been on our radar for a while, but according to a new study, it's not the only mental illness to commonly strike new mothers. While only 2 to 3 percent of the general population suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), 11 percent of mothers exhibit significant symptoms of the disorder in the first six months after giving birth.
Considering the physically seismic and pervasively life-altering experience that is childbirth, it should be no surprise that the experience can create conditions that might foster mental and emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. And in the words of Dr. Dana Gossett, the study's senior author, women who suffer such symptoms should be reassured "to hear that their thoughts and behaviors are very common and should pass." But that doesn't mean they should be ignored.
OCD is a serious mental illness, but in our widespread cultural misunderstanding, we don't always take it seriously. People tend to glamorize it, saying, "I'm a little OCD," when they mean, "I'm detail-oriented, highly responsible, and well-organized." But for people who actually have OCD, the disorder is not a joke. It isn't a secret to their success in life. It's more like prison.
OCD is a mental illness in the broad category of anxiety disorders. People with OCD have anxiety-fueled obsessive thoughts, which they deal with through compulsive behaviors, such as certain rituals or checking and rechecking to be sure something is done. They can't control it and require treatment through therapy, medication, or both. Like all anxiety disorders, OCD represents a misfire of a very natural and normal process—our emotional and physical response to fear and anxiety.
It might be easy to dismiss this report as hype over the natural impulses of new moms, but by definition, symptoms of OCD impair—and can even cripple—everyday functioning. True OCD, according to Gossett, "becomes maladaptive and pathologic." This is not a simple matter of adjustment to a huge new responsibility.
A Word to the Suffering
If you're a new mom (or anyone, for that matter) and you find yourself overwhelmed by worries, behaviors, or feelings you can't control, please seek help from a counselor. You can start with your doctor or obstetrician and request a referral to someone who can help you. God made us to care deeply about our children, and motherhood is not easy. But God does not call us to live imprisoned by fear and anxiety. He is a God whose love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), who longs to set us free (John 8:32), who replaces our anxiety with his incomprehensible peace (Phil. 4:6-8). He has created gifted, caring people who can assure you that you're not alone, teach you to manage your fears in healthier ways, and help restore balance to the chemical chaos in your brain.
Here are a few more things you should know:
• It's OK to acknowledge the realities of motherhood—to yourself and others. Not every day is Mother's Day. It's hard, especially at first, and you're not the first woman to realize that.
• It's OK to acknowledge if you have an illness. It doesn't make you weaker than other people, and it doesn't make you a bad mom. In fact, seeking help and working to get healthier (and deepening your experience of God in the process) can make you a better mom.
• God has called us to help bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2). Make your needs known, if you can, to safe and caring people. It's possible some will reject you or will not know how to respond, but you might be surprised how many other women have gone through similar experiences. Reaching out to them, you can get support and connect with others who might later need your support.
• If you're diagnosed with a mental illness, get educated and understand what's happening with your body. With an anxiety disorder, your body does excessively what it's made to do in moderation. Removing the mystery may help you manage your health.
• Depending on your church background, you may have the impression that your illness is demonic in nature or caused by a lack of faith, cured with a simple exorcism or a few hours of Bible study and prayer. Such an approach completely ignores the chemical factors at work, the role of stress, and the power of a loving community. Understand that your problem is not essentially spiritual, although spiritual practices may be part of your treatment. At root, all mental illness, like other illness, is rooted in our sinful condition. But you didn't develop this because you deserve it or because you don't have enough faith. Your suffering does not mean God has turned his back on you (Romans 8:35-38).
• You owe it to your child and others who love you, to care for yourself and get better. You owe it to Christ to manage your illness in a way that frees to you contribute your gifts to his body, the church.
I know what it's like to live with a mother who is mentally ill. While God has redeemed my experience and grown good things in its painful soil, I was left with some deficits no caring mother willingly creates for her children. You have a choice—you can pursue health. Please take care of yourself.
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.