Before I married my husband I gave him two ultimatums. Don't ever ask me to move to South Dakota and don't ever grow facial hair. No beard, no mustache, no goatee, nada. I felt that these were entirely reasonable ultimatums to issue. After all, South Dakota is a barren wasteland whipped by unending blizzards in the winter, tornados in the spring, and dust in the summer. And facial hair is itchy. Acceptable on other men, just not on the one I'm kissing.
Well, I now live in South Dakota. My husband is a man of his word though and never asked me to move here; the idea was all mine. I am, however, happy to report that there are far fewer blizzards, tornados and dust storms than previously imagined. In fact, South Dakota is a very lovely state most of the time. A bit windy, and it could use a few more mountain ranges sprinkled about the state, but it has a beauty all its own, a beauty that can be alternately quiet and wild. (I still remember my first South Dakota thunderstorm and how I sat by the window for almost half an hour that night watching the lightning turn the sky into a giant strobe light.)
The facial hair ultimatum, however, has remained unchanged and is likely to remain that way.
Ultimatums. Those uncompromising demands that carry the threat of severing relations if they are rejected. Life on OUR terms. Now obviously I love my husband, and I would have married him, South Dakota, facial hair and all. But am I guilty of issuing ultimatums in other areas of my life? Am I guilty of issuing ultimatums to God?
I grieved deeply when some close friends had a daughter born with a congenital heart defect that meant she would live for only a matter of days. I drove up into the mountains and I hiked and climbed and prayed. And I tried to strike a deal. "God, heal her and I PROMISE that the first thing I write that sells, all the proceeds are yours." Yes, I was trying to get God to do two things for me at once.
Ultimatums, deals, call it what you like; often I want God to operate on my schedule, to conform to my fears, my likes and dislikes. I want God on MY terms. I hold back from turning over my whole self to him because what if he wants me to do something I don't like? So I hand over little bits and pieces, with ultimatums and deals attached. "Ok, God, you can have this part of me if you will PROMISE never to make me go to Africa or any other place with bugs. OK, God, I will be faithful to say what I sense you want me to say, as long as its on my blog and NOT in front of the church. OK, God, I'll give up this, but don't take that, ok?"
We miss the point. God is God. He can do whatever he wants. He doesn't need our petty little deals and he doesn't have to abide by our ultimatums.
By the word of the Lord were the heavens made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.
The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.
(Psalm 33: 6-11 from the NIV)
I'm issuing ultimatums to the one who was before all, is in all and rules all? I think I'm going to strike a deal with the one who is able to foil the plans of nations? Sometimes I question God. Sometimes I don't quite understand His ways or His plan. But this I know, God is God. He doesn't become less God in my mind if I question him, but he does if I start to think I can control him.
Lord, today, let my honest prayer be to listen for your purpose and your plans. No ultimatums, no deals, just every area of my life open to your will.
Sometimes when my husband is out of town I allow the boys to come spend the night in our bed as a special treat. (OK, really I'm just afraid that they'll need me and I won't hear them.) It always follows the same pattern, but they always want to do it and I'm always willing to let them try. Still, getting two small boys to fall asleep in the same bed is no small feat; it's like they are some unstoppable energy machine that has to keep on making noise and wiggling until 'boom' the battery runs out and silence and cessation of motion ensue instantly. It was no different this time. There were repeated cries of "Mom, he's bothering me," and "Mom, he's poking me." And finally there was the ultimatum. "Mom, I don't want Indy to be a part of our family any more."
Oh dear. What is a parent supposed to do with THAT statement? I'm not even sure what heinous crime Indy committed in order to deserve banishment from the family, something about scrubbing that was keeping Gates awake. I gently told Gates that we are all part of this family and I would be very sad if anyone was missing because I love them both so much.
I suppose it isn't that uncommon to hear from our children. I can recall wishing every now and then that my brothers belonged to a different family (or that I did). (Sorry guys.) What made me sad as I thought about it today is that sometimes we carry that attitude with us into adulthood and into the church. Sometimes there are people in the church that make us think "Boy, I wish they weren't part of the family; I wish they'd go someplace else."
I'm not talking about the people who are making things difficult for the church, I'm talking about the people that we just don't like. Maybe their personality irritates us. Maybe they have a disability that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe they don't dress 'right'. Maybe they challenge our faith in areas we don't want to be challenged in. Somehow they 'scrub' us the wrong way.
We don't want you in the family, you talk too much. We don't want you in the family, you need too much. You aren't up to my standards of what a church member acts like. You're too emotional. You're too philosophical. You're too distant. You're too clingy. It isn't fun to be around you. Your personality is scrubbing up against me and it irritates me.
God, forgive me for the times I haven't wanted people in my church family that you had placed there. When we stop seeing people as part of our family, we lose the ability to BE family to them. We forget that God put them there, just as surely as he placed each of our children in our earthly families.
Who don't you want in your family? Are there still people I wish weren't a part of mine? If I'm being honest, sometimes my hangup to being invitational isn't so much that I'm an introvert, it's that I don't want that person to be part of MY church family. It's a whole lot easier to invite someone who acts like me than it is to invite the person I wish would just disappear from my life.
A very wise friend of mine has said that if someone irritates you, pray for them. Continue to pray for them. You may not like their behavior any better, but you will find yourself being filled with love for them. You will begin to see them as part of your family. I've seen it played out in my own relationships; I need to be more diligent about continuing the practice.
Paul had some things to say about the church acting as a body:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Colossians 3:12-15 (NIV)
One body. One family. We strive to cultivate things like compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience in our own families. Can we humble ourselves enough to cultivate them in our church family as well?
It was easier to write and publish this when no one I knew was reading it. It was easier to hide it away and pretend it didn't happen to me. But something happened when I first published this on my blog two years ago. Women read it. And one after the other they commented about how much they needed to hear it, about how much it helped them, about how suddenly they didn't feel so alone any more. And that's what I want, because if someone had told me this story eight years ago it would have made a world of difference. I'm willing to risk the vulnerability of putting this out there again if it helps just one woman to understand something that I didn't, if it helps just one woman to feel less vulnerable, less afraid.
Postpartum depression is talked about; it's understood to a degree. But there is another type of postpartum mood disorder, one of many, a type that I never knew existed until Gates was almost six years old. This is a story, my story, of postpartum OCD. This isn't a story just for women, it's a story for every man who loves a woman as well. Because the thing about postpartum OCD is that we don't talk about it because we are scared, we need people in our lives to ask the tough questions, to see the signs when we can't see them ourselves, to love us through the pain and the darkness. This is my story.
Sometimes I wonder how time could pass so quickly without my notice. It seems like such a short time ago that I held Gates in my arms for the first time and yet it is so hard to remember how small he was, how helpless. But here he is, another year older, and I am remembering. Remembering and finally healing.
There is a common saying, turned into a commercial for baby products, which tells us "Having a baby changes everything." And it does. The sleepless nights, endless loads of tiny laundry, the inability to just head out the door with ease whenever you want, the worry over every cough, the endless debate over every decision because it now affects a third person in your life. The first real smile that melts your heart, the celebration of every milestone, big or small, the pride that fills your heart that this is YOUR child. Having a baby changes everything.
I was ready for change, ready for the responsibility, ready to be a mother to this tiny little being. I held him in my arms and I loved him. The first week wasn't easy. There was recovery from a traumatic birth experience, the struggle to nurse him, the fear that he might have to go back to the hospital, the suspicion that I might be sliding into postpartum depression.
But I could handle it. I was tough. Having a baby changes everything, I just needed to adjust.
I don't remember when it first happened, but I remember where I was. I was sitting on our couch by the window. Blue fabric couch, reclining ends, middle that folded down into a table so that I could sit there for hours just holding Gates, everything I needed right at hand. I was holding him, looking at him, marveling at his perfection, loving him. And then the thought hit. "What if I put him in the oven?" What?? Where did that come from? I'm not that kind of parent. I love this child; I would DIE for this child. "What if I put him in the oven?"
And so it began. The endless parade of thoughts that I couldn't stop, thoughts that horrified me, thoughts that made me feel so unclean I wanted to scrape them off my body like the sticky residue of unseen spiderwebs. Oven, microwave, knives. In my mind I pictured myself hurting my child in a multitude of ways. I stopped watching any show that involved victimization of children, it just added to the list of horrible things I might imagine myself doing to Gates. It made no sense. How could I be holding my child and loving him and at the same time be thinking these things? I begged God to take the thoughts away. I cried and I begged and the thoughts didn't stop. I couldn't understand it. Wasn't I supposed to be a good Christian mother? Was I really as evil as I felt? Had God turned his back on me?
Having a baby changed everything. If I was evil, I had to work doubly hard to hide it. When people asked how it was going I smiled and proclaimed how great motherhood was. I couldn't let them see the cracks, the doubts, the uncertainties because they might see though them to the part of me that was evil. I couldn't tell anyone about the thoughts; they'd declare me unfit and take away my baby. I couldn't tell my husband, what would he think of me? Would he reject me? I deserved to be rejected, or so I thought.
As Gates grew the thoughts slowly subsided, only manifesting themselves rarely and in other bizarre ways; but the effect remained. No matter how well I parented, I was a failure. I'd failed at the most basic aspects of motherhood, therefore I was a failure. Having a baby changed everything.
Fast forward several years. Major life changes, major stress. I was sinking back into deeper depression and there at the center, waiting to confront me was the part of me that was evil. And I had had enough; I couldn't continue living with the fear that the shell would crack open and what was inside would lash out and hurt the boys. So I finally gave up. I couldn't do it all on my own, I couldn't fix it and I needed help.
At my second counseling appointment I finally spoke the words I had been holding inside for all those years. Slowly, hesitantly the words trickled out of me, telling of the thoughts that wouldn't leave me alone. I told of how evil I felt. And then my counselor spoke the words that changed everything. "It sounds like obsessive thought patterns to me." I came home and started Googling. What I found changed everything.
I found that postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder is part of a whole spectrum of postpartum mood disorders and is estimated to affect 2-3% of new mothers. It is most likely under-reported, however, because of the shame it produces and the fear that our children will be taken away from us. Postpartum OCD is NOT the same thing as the more widely sensationalized postpartum psychosis. Women suffering from postpartum psychosis believe their thoughts are rational; women suffering from postpartum OCD know that their thoughts are not normal but are unable to get rid of them. Mothers with postpartum OCD rarely act on those thoughts, instead they typically (not always) develop any number of rituals in order to avoid them or avoid the possibility of acting on them. It can affect women with a previous history of mild OCD as well as women who have never had it before.
Do you want to know what grace feels like? Grace is taking your deepest, darkest secret, exposing it to the light of day and having it washed away with just a few words. Grace is finding out that even in those dark moments, when I didn't understand why he wasn't taking the thoughts away, God hadn't turned his back on me. Grace is knowing that although I am altogether human, I am NOT a monster.
I don't know the answer to 'why me?' Why did I get this disorder that changed the course of my early parenting years? I will probably never know. I know that it has taught me that secrets held too long leave their mark. I know that in some ways it did make me a better mother because fear gave me the desire to seek out parenting solutions that were gentle. I know it reaffirms the depths of love that my husband has for me, that when I finally told him he didn't turn away, he didn't reject me. I don't know all the answers, but I know the peace that comes from being finally set free.
If you'd like to know more about postpartum mood disorders, including postpartum OCD, you can find many great resources, support and links at Postpartum Progress.
For another mom's story as well as some more in-depth posts on the subject, please visit Angela at Becoming Me. I 'met' Angela after I posted my story and she shares the same heart to help women navigate the depths of postpartum mood disorders. Anything else I could post on the subject would simply be re-inventing what she has laid out with such grace and gentleness.