“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”
“The guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of child raising is not the child but the parent.” ~Frank Pittman
People say having children will completely change your life. When I was expecting my first child, I knew that my life was about to be permanently altered. My days would soon be filled with dirty diapers and eskimo kisses, discipline and childlike-wonder, cuts and scrapes and bedtime stories. I expected to experience new levels of worry, frustration, and love. What I wondered, a little bit desperately, though, was would it change me. Would this new little life inspire me to change and grow? Would the love I would feel for this child and the little eyes I knew would be watching me closely finally be the motivation I needed to leave behind old habits and fears I longed to be rid of? I didn’t want to put that pressure on my unborn child, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope for it anyway.
The longing I felt for God to use my new role as mother to change me was about to be fulfilled, but not before I’d plunge deeper into despair over it all. While I couldn’t have asked for a more delightful child than my precious baby boy, my adjustment to motherhood was rocky at best. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had many of the risk factors for postpartum depression, including recent major life changes, lack of local support system, and post-delivery complications. With my husband’s long days at school and long nights of studying, all my friends and family two states away, the other new mothers I just met all going back to work, and my son too small and sleepy to really interact with me, depression became my regular companion. I loved my son and was never unhappy to have him, but I felt guilty for not feeling the instant, head-over-heels bond with him that Hollywood had led me to expect, guilty for stealing much-needed naps on the couch while my son sat in his swing, guilty for not keeping up on housework when I was home all day, and guilty for not being able to make myself snap out of the depressed feelings I felt when I knew they were probably impacting my husband and son. I knew I had a lot to be thankful for. And I wanted so badly to be a good mother to my little boy, but every day I was coming face to face with my inadequacies. I didn’t always know how to best care for him, and I was usually unable to stay on top of even the most basic tasks, so it was hard not to feel like I was failing. I now know how common those feelings are for new mothers and that most of the guilt was unwarranted, but at the time I simply felt like I was drowning and neither I nor anyone around me was able to pull me out. I was also coming to see that some of my old habits and sins were contributing to my inability to thrive in this new season. Sometimes “tiredness” was a clever disguise for laziness or a failure to prioritize what was most important. And far too often I did as I had done for many years and retreated to the internet to escape stress and difficult feelings instead of dealing with them and being proactive to meet challenges.
I knew that God was intimately aware of my feelings, even when no one else understood, and that he must have the power to change me and lift me out of the depression I felt, even though it was hard sometimes to believe things would change. Whenever I took the step of actually crying out to him for help rather than trying to go it alone, he never failed me. One day when feeling particularly overwhelmed with despair, I cried out to God with the only word I could muster, “Help.” And he did. Another new mom from church soon called out of the blue to respond about something we had discussed earlier, and when she discovered I was having a rough day, she offered to go for a walk with me and keep me company. I felt rescued. Another similarly down day when I was feeling the effects of lack of time with Ben and the financial constraints of our situation, I again muttered a brief cry to God in the grocery store parking lot, and at just the right moment I received a text message from another woman I hardly knew from church who was offering to babysit so Ben and I could go out for Valentine’s Day. I was blown away by her generosity and God’s perfect, timely provision. Both these instances also led to wonderful new friendships. I knew all these things were gifts from God, because there were many days when I did not call out to God and did not receive that kind of encouragement but instead stayed stuck in the mire.
In addition to directly asking God to help me through difficult days, he also helped me through the tumultuous early months of motherhood by guiding me in some of the many decisions there were to make about how to parent my son. During the months when it became clear that Elden needed a more regular sleep schedule, I agonized over the decision of whether or not to let him “cry-it-out” to learn to take naps on his own. It may seem like an obvious decision to the many people who hold strong views on either side, but for me, as someone who is blessed and cursed with the sometimes almost paralyzing ability to see things from both sides, I was plagued with indecision, which was accompanied by fear that my actions would significantly impact my son’s personality and our relationship (a fear fueled by the websites, acquaintances, and even hospital staff who share their opinions on this currently-controversial subject with great passion and often judgment). But my son’s sleep-deprived misery and mine were not going to allow me to avoid making a choice. As silly as it sounds now, dealing with this issue was the peak of my depression, and it was all-consuming. One night, as I sat rocking my son in the dark, I asked God for wisdom. It wasn’t a gentle request. It was almost a demand. But a demand he graciously allowed me to make because he promises in his Word to give wisdom to anyone who asks and believes that he will give it. And I was claiming that promise, a promise God made good on (I decided to let my son cry, though if you’re struggling with a decision like that I highly recommend asking the Holy Spirit to guide you personally to whatever he knows is right for your family).
Sleep was not the only issue for which I required wisdom. I was being faced with numerous decisions about how to care for my son, decisions I didn’t even realize existed, or ones that looked a lot different to me now that they were my daily reality instead of a philosophy by which I formerly evaluated people with children. So many decisions, and my son wasn’t even old enough to talk or walk or get into trouble yet! My, how little I knew.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” –James 1:5-6
I wanted to be a good mother. More than just a good mother, I wanted to be the kind of mother that could cultivate a truly Christ-centered home, one in which I could nourish my son spiritually and teach him the most important things about life, most important of all how to know and love God and live out the full, passionate, joyful life God intends for him. I knew that would require more than just going to church, having certain rules, or saying grace before meals. I longed for it to be deep and genuine and for Christ to be the source and heart of our family. Unfortunately, I had very little idea what that should look like or how in the world to go about it, since, sadly, even in the church such vibrant and authentically Christ-centered families are hard to find. I was starting to catch a vision of who I wanted to be, but the despair lingered at first, not only because I was well-acquainted with my own shortcomings and struggled to believe I could do it, but also because I literally did not know how to do it.
So I asked God to teach me how to be that person I yearned to be, how to build that flourishing family I aspired to build. He knew how it could be done, right? And suddenly, I started coming across books and blogs I didn’t even know existed by people like Elisabeth Elliott, Sally Clarkson, Michelle Duggar, Ann Voskamp. Women who had the same deep desire I did to honor God through motherhood but who had some of the experience and practical ideas I lacked. As simple as it may seem, God placing these resources in my path was the biggest turning point in overcoming my depression, because it gave me hope. Instead of thinking about the kind of person and mother I desperately wanted to be and feeling like I would never measure up, I finally started to see not only practical ways it could be done, but also the power and gentle guidance God was willing to give me to get me there.
And he has been. I still have not managed to get us on a consistent daily routine or memorized the bedtime prayer I took great care to pick out for him (some days I’m just lucky if I remember to brush my teeth). But I have written out a prayer list of the most important hopes I have for my son’s heart and life and framed it to help me be intentional about praying and cultivating those things in him. I have the Duggars’ definitions of character qualities hanging on my refrigerator in the hopes that God will teach them to me so that I can then model and teach them to my son. I enrolled in an intensive Bible study course instead of a moms’ group this year because I believed building a solid foundation and consistency in my own relationship with God was going to have a bigger impact on my family than any specific child-rearing skills I could learn. I’ve got a certain Bible verse sing-along CD on my mental wish list for the future, to help plant the Word of God in my son’s mind and heart from an early age and to reinforce it in mine, and I’ve got several other ideas filed away, many of which I plan to bring to fruition rather than letting them become good intentions that never come to be.
So while I’m not yet all that far from where I began, I’m collecting ideas, taking steps, and, most importantly, having my heart formed by God a little bit each day into one that cannot help chasing after this vision he has given me for purposeful motherhood. This stuff truly inspires me and makes me come alive, and I think that is a lot closer to God’s design for the role of motherhood than the misery I waded through in the beginning. I still have down days, but those days are much less frequent now, and they serve the important function of reminding me of my need for God. And to this day, every time I cry out to him, he somehow turns my day around, filling it with music, laughter, a kind word from a friend, a little time to myself, a cuddle from my son. Indeed, his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30