When "Baby Blues" Turn Purple
by Everett Nielsen (July / August 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 4)
Serious birth-related problems, such as postpartum depression, continue to arise among new mothers. Here are ways in which leaders can shape a supportive congregational life for families of newborn children
Christ's call to serve provides ministry staffs with both challenge and opportunity. As "wounded healers" (Henri Nouwen's label), we ordained pastors and rostered lay ministers know both the anguish and the satisfaction of bringing the powerful presence of Christ to meaningful moments in life. Childbearing is one such significant event. How do we minister to those involved?
Most of us view childbirth as a time for rejoicing. Nevertheless, part of the experience sometimes falls into the "unpleasant to downright depressing" category for new mothers.
Depending on the research, between 50 and 80 percent of new mothers experience the "baby blues," a time of significant sadness and of feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of a baby.1
As one woman told me, "I turn purple when some busybody from church comes up to me, cooing about motherhood. They either don't know or can't remember what it's like to be a feeding machine and diaper dispenser. Not to mention what it's like trying to go to the bathroom." Not everything about new babies is sweet and cute.
Furthermore, about 10 percent of all new mothers suffer the devastation of postpartum depression, a serious but treatable illness. About one in a thousand develop postpartum psychosis, a critical medical emergency requiring professional treatment and hospitalization.2 Perhaps one of them is someone near you.
In the recent past, the media reported three vivid tragedies connected to postpartum depression. Marie Osmond, an engaging entertainer, left her family. Andrea Yates, a Texas mother, was found guilty of the capital murder of her five children. Melanie Stokes, a successful sales manager, jumped to her death in Chicago.
Fortunately, Marie Osmond got help, has written a book (Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression, Warner Books, 2001) and is now an internationally known spokesperson for dealing with this frightening and devastating condition. Andrea Yates sits in jail as a consequence of her actions, whatever their cause. The family of Melanie Stokes grieves its loss, left with a motherless baby.
We may think we have precious little but prayer to offer those we read about. Still, we who respond joyously to births as a natural part of our ministry, may be in a position to make an important difference to new mothers living in our community. All new parents deserve more than "ordinary" attention.
When asked to make a short list of places to turn when she's feeling blue about her new baby, a faithful church member said, "I never considered my congregation for support." How come?
Do "the faithful" send unintentional messages of shame and judgment to moms who feel afraid, frustrated, irritable, or a host of other normal feelings? What message are we sending to new dads who are confused by such feelings from the mother of their baby? By our silence about the mixed emotions related to new babies, do we allow mom to believe God is judging her, condemning her to suffer for sins of the past? Sometimes. As Paul wrote, however, there is a "still more excellent way."
New babies present an incredible challenge to parents. Tiny, vulnerable, and mysterious, they are fully dependent on the adults around them for survival. When living with a new baby becomes difficult, and the parents turn to the church for support, what may they expect? A faithful ministry staff helps the congregation carry out its healing mission, meeting needs for support.
Imagine with me a typical congregation, Ordinary Church on the Corner. The pastor congratulates Emily, the expectant mom, and includes the family in the prayers of the church. The Nursery Roll Committee puts a rose bud on the altar the Sunday following baby Hannah's birth and sends her a "congratulations" card. Someone brings the family a casserole and asks when they can expect to see them in church. Plans are made for baptism within the first month or two. That's about it until someone asks the pastor, "Is Emily okay? I haven't seen her in church."
Many churches provide such ministry, and for some moms, it's enough. However, for others, something extra would be helpful. Extraordinary Church on the Corner includes the ministries of Ordinary Church — but with extras. Here are four basic "extras" for consideration.
Going the Extra Mile
Prepare. Get acquainted with the resources on postpartum depression. Consider it part of your continuing education. The Postpartum, International Web site at www.postpartum.net offers the most comprehensive list of resources available. Click on "Introduction to Postpartum Illness" to learn the basics. A bookstore link yields dozens of books on the subject. While not everyone is connected to the internet, most libraries offer free service.
Check local medical and therapeutic personnel in your community. Discover who is qualified to treat postpartum depression.
|New babies present an incredible challenge to parents. Tiny, vulnerable, and mysterious, they are fully dependent on the adults around them for survival. When living with a new baby becomes difficult, and the parents turn to the church for support, what can they expect?|
Educate. Prepare couples by enrolling them in pre-wedding workshops using one of many excellent suggestions at www.smartmarriages.com . The one I know best, PREPARE-ENRICH at www.lifeinnovations.com , includes excellent opportunities to discuss the realities of child raising, including the issue of baby blues. Introducing information just before a wedding means it will need reinforcing later. The optimum time is during pregnancy.
Offer coaching classes for expectant parents. The sessions can provide information about the professional resources available in the community, and the kind of congregational support available. Connect them to the postpartum Web site. Educational and spiritual support materials are available at Augsburg Fortress, www.augsburgfortress.com, and other sources.
Such classes provide a good opportunity to invite nonmembers and to involve competent community professionals as leaders. In churches with few births, written, video, and web-based resources can be offered individually.
Organize. Identify some willing volunteers to form a "Ministry With New Parents Team." The main focus may be on moms, but new dads are deeply involved with child raising and deserve support, too.
A Parish Nurse or Stephen Minister, if you have them (check out www.stephenministries.com ), might be assigned. A single mother and a married grandmother whose experience and sensitivity make them natural confidants to new parents might collaborate. A kindly grandpa or recent father could be part of the team.
They can be trained to see symptoms needing attention and to develop trust so parents can ask for professional help. At the very least, walk them through the key points in "Part IV: Treatment and Prevention" in the essay, "Introduction to Postpartum Illness," mentioned above. (Caution: Leave therapy and medication to the professionals.)
Support for new parents is best received from persons known and trusted. Building relationships before and during pregnancy will make it more likely that helpful support will be sought when needed.
Combine prayer with an encouraging presence, and offer tangible items like meals for a week, and necessities to lend such as cribs, strollers, and car seats. Some new parents need transportation assistance or adult social contacts. Mental, emotional, physical, and social aspects combine within the spiritual dimension, all deserving attention.
Worship. Offer the ministry of the whole congregation through worship and receptivity to babies. Nursery care, pre-schools, play groups, and cooperative childcare demonstrate inclusiveness.
Recognize that worship attendance is challenging for new parents. Provide for home communion if desired, and easy entry and exit to the worship center. Be sure there is a comfortable place for nursing the baby.
Schedule the baby's baptism during a Sunday worship service so the extended family and friends can share the joy and ongoing support present in the church family. Apply generous portions of water with the Triune God's promise, and lift the baby high to celebrate her identity as "child of God" and "member of the community of faith."
New moms need not "turn purple" because of the "baby blues." No one needs to face postpartum depression alone. As reflectors of the Light of Christ, congregations of all sizes can make a huge difference — by adding something "extra" to "ordinary" ministry.
A. Everett Nielsen, an ELCA pastor, now retired, has worked in congregations and synod offices over the years. Also a writer, he now lives in Santa Barbara, California. A shorter version of this article was first published by the Santa Barbara News Press, entitled "Everyone benefits when new mothers don't have to do it alone" (Faith and Values section, "From the Pulpit," March 2, 2002).
1. "Introduction to Postpartum Illness," www.postpartum.net . The statistic is verified with references to the National Institute of Mental Health.