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Postpartum Depression

Truth in Love 156

The Bible offers hope in the midst of postpartum depression.

May 29, 2018

Heath Lambert: Earlier this year, I announced that I would be stepping away from my leadership of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors in order to devote my full-time attention to pastoring the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. As much as I love the ministry of ACBC, and as much as I value the ministry of biblical counseling, it is very clear that the Lord has directed me in a bit of a different direction. As I make that transition, one of the things that I’m most excited about is the leadership of Dr. Dale Johnson, who has been appointed by the ACBC Board to be my successor as the Executive Director of ACBC. I have the highest respect for Dr. Johnson, and he is going to do an incredible job as he leads our association when he becomes the Executive Director in October at a special ceremony at our Annual Conference in Fort Worth.

One of the many responsibilities that I will let go and that he will receive is the obligation of hosting the Truth and Love podcast. I am excited to see how he discharges that responsibility in the months and in the years to come. As we prepare for that eventual transition, I am really excited that he, as our next Executive Director, is going to be our guest host on the podcast today as we talk about this crucial issue of postpartum depression. He is going to be joined on the podcast by Sean Perron, the Operations Director of ACBC, and you are going to get to listen in on their important conversation right now. 

Sean Perron: We received several requests to address the issue of postpartum depression on the Truth in Love podcast. As we think about this issue, there are a lot of things that we could say about the topic. What is the problem of postpartum depression that counselees are facing and what would you say are some factors that biblical counselors need to be aware of when they encounter someone facing this difficulty?

Dale Johnson: That’s a great question. As we think about postpartum depression and what’s described in that way in a secular world, biblical counselors often are categorized as if they think that these types of things don’t exist. The reality is that these are real symptoms, real factors, real issues that women struggle with after having a child.

If we think about a description of what encompasses the symptoms of postpartum depression, we would think about women who struggle in so many different ways. We typically describe them in emotional realms, as if they are depressed and very downcast, they struggle even to function in their new role as a mother. They often wonder why it is that they’re struggling to be excited to mother this child, when that should be an exciting thing, but they’re really struggling to be excited about this new role. They find themselves even paralyzed in basic tasks where they can’t take care of their child. They don’t feel like they can even feed them properly or nurture them and care for them properly, and things begin to mount in their heart and their mind, and they get so discouraged and find themselves in deep, deep dark places of despair. 

You hear many women describing their experience in this type of light. As we think about factors, there are all kinds of factors that we can talk about as well. Factors would include things like sleep deprivation; it could include things like expectations that we have about what mothering will be like. When we talk about sleep deprivation, I mean, that’s a real thing. We know, medically speaking, that when you have a child in the house and they are not sleeping well through the night and you’re not allowed, really, by the child to get a full night’s sleep, you’re up feeding every couple of hours, the baby’s crying when they’re supposed to be sleeping, that factors in a great deal. My wife and I have six kids. I can remember the first two or three or four months after having a child just seems like a fog, like you cannot process things. Well, part of that has to do with you are not getting regular sleep, that certainly is a factor, a main factor.

Not to mention the fact that your body is going through all kinds of changes. You’ve just gone through what we have termed in the English language as “labor,” and that’s no accident. It’s a difficult thing. You also are now dealing with a new body, a new child that you’re responsible to take care of, a child that really can’t do anything for themselves and you feel the weight and responsibility very legitimate responsibility to take care of this child.

All of those factors included, and we act as though life should go on as normal and there should be no effect, there should be no ill responsibility relative to our emotions, we should be able to respond to everything appropriately and perfectly. All those factors bring about what is very normal and natural for a woman to feel in a state of despair or confusion, like she can’t function in a way that would be pleasing in the cultural world.

Another factor that we need to consider are the physical changes that a mother is going through. Her body has been preparing for nine months to go through this process of labor, and now she’s given birth to a child that she feels, in so many ways, her responsibility to take care of. Her body’s changing, preparing to feed the child. Let’s take, for example, if breastfeeding doesn’t go well. There are all kinds of factors where she begins to feel like she’s not measuring up to what a mother should be like. So many expectations that we have relative to mothering, we act as though she should be able to be fully functional in every facet, even a week or two after she’s given birth. I think that minimizes motherhood.

In the reality, she has a great responsibility now that God has entrusted to her a child. With the help of her husband, with the help of extended family, this child could be taken care of. Really take pressure off her in so many different ways by helping her to care for the child and giving her permission to recuperate physically, to recover from this process of a nine months and then the actual labor, and I think that would be helpful for us to give her permission to recover. 

Sean Perron: Well, so you’ve described the problem and the factors that can be involved with it. There’s more to say about that, but really quickly on the podcast, go ahead and tell us what does the Bible have to say about this issue? Is the Bible relevant for helping women who are struggling with this?

Dale Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. I think certainly you are not going to look in the Scriptures and find the description of postpartum depression. But when we look in the Scriptures, what we see are the description of symptoms that a woman would experience as she’s walking through some of these issues, the same things that she describes as being downcast and feeling in great despair; even when she should be feeling joyous, she doesn’t feel joyous at all. That all compounds some of her guilt that she would describe and maybe even shame that she feels, so the Bible speaks to all those issues as we would point those particular factors out in the way we would describe those symptoms.

Think, for example, with me of Psalm 42, which describes this picture of a person’s soul being in great despair, even to the point where they’re not even totally sure how and why that’s happening, and they describe themselves as weeping day and night in great despair and loss of all hope. Women find themselves in that way many times after they’ve given birth to a child, wondering why can’t they enjoy the company of this child? This was something they were so excited about, but now they feel like they can accomplish the task of what it means to be a mother.

Places like Psalm 42 and Psalm 6 describe the open, soulish struggle and strain that we have, and this is one aspect in normal life, normal function of God’s design of life where life can be strenuous, life can be difficult, life can be a struggle, and the things that we feel like we should be excited about, we’re not. The Bible speaks particularly about how we can respond appropriately to these strains and struggles both physically and spiritually to help the woman respond appropriately to these particular situations.

Sean Perron: For our listeners, what is one practical thing that they can do to help people that they love who are dealing with this issue? What would you say is just one area where they can immediately begin to apply what you’re talking about?

Dale Johnson: Well, it’s hard to narrow down to one, so I’ll do my best here. One of the things that we have to do is not to act as though these types of symptoms after birth are abnormal. These types of things are very normal for the human experience, particularly for women after having childbirth. So many things are changing. So many things are changing with their environment, so many things are changing with their physical body, and so one of the things we can recognize is this is not abnormal. We pause for a second. I think we look at some of the physical factors like sleep and allowing the mom to rest when she needs to rest and not feel like she has to be the primary caretaker at that particular moment just after a week or two after birth.

Those are some particulars that I think it’s really important for a counselor to listen to, to hear the symptoms that she’s struggling with, and to help her to see that first of all, they’re not abnormal, second of all, there are particular ways that we can help alleviate some of those problems by helping her to get rest and helping her to refocus her expectations, and then bringing her to the Scripture to help her to see that there is hope for her as God would use this particular strain and struggling and trial and difficulty to refine her, to sanctify her, to bring her to a place to where she can now love this child in a way she never thought possible before.