The Best Side Dish for Poppy Seed Chicken: A Story of PPD

SARAH LOWMAN REYNOLDS|GUEST

After my first daughter was born, the hands and feet of Jesus prepared and delivered meals to us for weeks and weeks. “Up north” in Memphis, we received no less than three pans of Chicken Enchiladas. In South Mississippi, it’s the perennial Poppy Seed Chicken or Chicken Divan. Included was a ten minute (no more than twenty; that’s bordering on being an imposition) visit where I smiled and answered the “How are you,” “How’s the baby sleeping,” and “Aren’t you just blessed by this bundle of absolute, unending joy” questions. It would end with a “So happy for you! Just pop that in the oven, 350 for thirty minutes and let me know if you need anything.” The door would close, the smile would fall, and as I preheated the oven, I wished for nothing more than to walk out of the house and never come back.

The Birth of PPD

On June 2nd, 2014, my body gave birth to two things: my daughter, Gracie, and Post-Partum Depression. Unlike the obvious presence of Gracie, I didn’t know what else was going on inside of me. Something new was living in there, though. It had large hands that encircled my throat and squeezed— no matter what I did, I couldn’t loosen its hold. During the day I could pretend it wasn’t there—I filled my waking hours with work, cleaning the house, watching television— but the moment I stopped moving, the grip would tighten. Nights were the hardest. My body desperately needed sleep but my mind— and my child—had other ideas.

I knew something was wrong; I even mentioned it to my OBGYN during my post-delivery check-up. He said I was feeling what every mother felt, and to give my “baby blues” a few more weeks. After that conversation, I retreated inside myself and never talked about what was happening to me. Through the distorted lens of depression, I believed I was inadequate to handle the basics of being a mom because clearly everyone else seemed to be handling it better. If everyone else felt the same emotions and had the same struggles as me, and yet they were happy and smiled and loved their babies, then there was something lacking in me.

And so for eight months, Post-Partum Depression sat on my chest. I thought it was just me and how I was wired. “Not everyone is a baby person,” I told myself, “it’s perfectly fine that you don’t feel any sense of attachment. Motherhood is a job—not a joy— and you just need to put your head down and do what needs to be done to keep this baby alive.”

Post-Partum Depression is experienced by 1 of every 9 mothers[1]. Just as every woman is different, PPD (and its ugly stepsister, Post-Partum Anxiety) presents itself in a variety of ways. It can begin immediately following birth (like with my first child), or it can rise up weeks to months later (like with my second child). Symptoms can be similar to depression, but can often present as incessant worry, inability to connect with your child, anger, and crying. Post-Partum Anxiety can present as being unable to do day-to-day activities (leaving the house for fear of some disaster) or difficulty handling excessive energy and adrenaline (inability to sleep). Both PPD and PPA can be treated with medication; an SSRI like Zoloft (which is safe to take while breastfeeding) enables the body to produce the correct amount of serotonin, much like diabetes medications enable the body to produce the correct amount of insulin.

Both PPD and PPA are chemical imbalances, not character flaws. Both of them cause women to feel isolated; to feel a sense of shame; and most importantly, for most women, make it difficult to seek help. While medical providers are making strides in addressing early signs of PPD/PPA, there is still a strong stigma in not only the secular community, but also in the church. Mental illness doesn’t check itself at a church door. Just under twenty percent of adults and young adults struggle with mental health[2]. The uniqueness of women who struggle with Post-Partum Depression/Anxiety is that the church shows up at their doorstep, carrying Poppy Seed Chicken.

More than Bringing a Casserole

Preaching the Gospel to a woman suffering from PPD/PPA means more than delivering a casserole. Because of a chemical imbalance, their emotions are their reality. Women in crisis are unable to put on the armor that Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. I was unable to put on the belt of truth because my hands were clawing at the anxiety wrapped around my throat; I needed women to use their shields of faith to protect me from the fiery darts of self-doubt. And above all, I needed women to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication…being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:17-18).

The role of women in the church is to use their armor to protect those who can’t put it on themselves. The heartbeat of Biblical community is in crisis and long-term suffering, not on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. And as Paul said above, women need to be “watchful,” praying that God would open their eyes to needs that may not be readily apparent. One of the ways of being watchful is being educated on the signs of Post-Partum Depression, and Post-Partum Anxiety (and in a much grander scale, learning more about chronic mental illness).

The plethora of culinary delights given to me by women in the church during those days of early motherhood were indeed a blessing. And while I’m not advocating for spending several hours with new mothers when dropping off a meal, I would suggest several things to add alongside those casseroles.

  • Get to know the mother before the baby arrives. Handing a new mother a Pyrex dish and immediately asking, “are you experiencing signs of Post-Partum Depression?” won’t garner you a heartfelt thank-you note. Admitting our struggles is hard enough with our close friends; even more so when a strong sense of shame is connected to them. Establishing a true community— where members share their struggles in every stage of life— gives women a sense of safety and acceptance.
  • Be specific when offering to help. We all throw the “let me know if you need anything” phrase behind our shoulders as we’re leaving someone’s house. Offer to keep the baby while mom goes to her post-partum appointment (or come with her to be an extra set of hands!), tag along to a pediatrician appointment— or even to the grocery store!
  • Minister to the husband. My husband bore the brunt of my anger, fear, and frustration during my PPD/PPA. My inability to handle my emotions meant they were all directed at him when he came home from work. Husbands are the first ones to see the signs of depression but rarely have anyone to talk to about it. Young fathers are just as scared and confused by a new baby but tend to be overlooked when people are offering to help.

A strategic victory for Satan is to make believers feel isolated. The greatest victory of the Gospel is unifying members in the Body of Christ. Even if you’ve never experienced Post-Partum Depression/Anxiety, given birth, or even felt like a good mom, the Gospel gives us this universal truth: we are all broken, and we all need a Savior. Christ gave us this common bond to unite us as we walk through life; that regardless of mental health status, stage of life, or life experiences, we have all been saved by the same God who loves us despite our weaknesses. Relieving the burden of cooking dinner is a blessing, but feeding her soul as you walk alongside her will satisfy her greatest appetite. It’s the best thing we can give a new mom when we show up at her doorstep.

 

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/depression/index.htm

[2] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

About the Author:

Sarah Lowman Reynolds

Sarah Lowman Reynolds grew up as a pastor’s kid who dressed up as Kat​harina ​Luther every year for Reformation Day. She has a M.Ed. in Student Affairs, working as an admission counselor and guidance counselor before becoming a stay at home mom. A perfect evening would include an uninterrupted conversation with her husband, the girls eating all their vegetables, and a conspiracy theory podcast to listen to during kitchen cleanup. Sarah resides in Brookhaven​,​ Mississippi​,​with her husband​ ​Asa, their ​​two​ young​daughters, and a very fat Welsh Corgi named Willis. They are members of Faith Presbyterian Church.​ ​

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