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Jessica Mannen KimmetApril 18, 2024
Photo via iStock

He wouldn’t stop talking about the laundry. 

I stood in the back of the church, wiggly toddler in my arms, walking that ever-precarious balance between teaching my child to participate in Mass and keeping him from disturbing those in the pews around us. He was going through one of the many phases of exploring the world that no one had thought to warn me about. In this one, his favorite pastime was to grab fistfuls of my neck skin between his chubby fingers, and he pursued this goal relentlessly. 

In the meantime, our freshly ordained associate pastor stood at the ambo delivering what I’m sure was, on paper, a lovely homily. He was talking about the sanctifying power of love, and he pointed to moms as an example. Mothers take up so much for their children, shouldering never-ending errands and housekeeping tasks to keep their families happy and healthy, he said. They do laundry, and dishes, and laundry, and tidying, and more laundry (the laundry example was, for some reason, really sticking with him). 

But moms take all this on, he said, out of love for their children. I think he talked his way into a quote attributed to Mother Teresa, whom he credited with saying, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” If you love your child enough, he seemed to say, it doesn’t hurt anymore. My brain filled in the rest: If it’s still hurting, you don’t love your child enough. 

In the meantime, my child had his nonmetaphorical fingernails dug into my literal neck skin, leaving me longing for the days when I had been blissfully unaware that I even had enough neck skin to grab. I loved my child, but unsurprisingly, this truth did not cause his tiny razor fingernails to stop hurting. 

And that was the least of my pain. Ten months prior, I had pushed a nine-pound human out of my body, which tore my perineum and left me with a web of scar tissue that made exercise uncomfortable and marital intimacy excruciating. My sacroiliac joint had been pulled out of place by the weight of pregnancy, and I was deeply naïve about the kind of rehabilitation my body needed after birth. My efforts to “get my body back” resulted in injury—I kept hurting my back, over and over again. I had yet to discover the healing power of physical therapy for the pelvic floor. (I don’t think I even knew yet what a pelvic floor is.) And I thought all this was part of the normal pain of bringing a child into the world. 

And beyond the physical pains, my mental and emotional health was in shambles. My mental capacity was diminished. My patience, my problem-solving, my persistence were all gone. I wasn’t bonding with my baby the way I thought I should be. I often felt anger and resentment where I expected the overwhelming rush of love that everyone had promised. I was sure I’d made a mistake, that I had somehow been wrong my whole life about my desire for children and my very call to motherhood. 

I had wanted this baby so badly. I’d been so scared that my irregular cycles would mean my fertility would be compromised. I’d charted those cycles and consulted multiple doctors and given up sugar and taken hormone supplements. When our first year of marriage had been nearing its end, my husband and I had traveled to Lourdes to pray for this intention, and we found out we were pregnant one month later. 

When I found out I was pregnant, I was surprised not to feel wholehearted joy taking the place of this wholehearted yearning. Others reassured me that this was common but that I would feel it when he was born, that when he was placed in my arms I would experience an overwhelming rush of love like nothing I’d ever felt.

I did not. I should have felt nothing but gratitude and wonder toward the tiny blessing in my arms. The guilt at feeling anything else was overwhelming. 

And it quickly became clear that having a baby was much harder than I realized it would be. We lived far from the support of family and often felt adrift as we figured out our oldest. He was one of those babies who never wanted to be put down; any semblance of separation from us led to urgent panic. He was (and is, seven years later) a tough sleeper, stubbornly resisting all our attempts at sleep training. 

Where Was the Goodness?

In hindsight, I see many signs in myself that were consistent with a diagnosis of postpartum depression, with which I would be formally diagnosed after my second child was born. After the first, though, I thought this was standard, just what life was like now that I was a mom. I thought I’d be in this physical and mental pain forever.

And this man would not stop talking about the laundry. 

I bring up this homily because I think it represents well the lack of connection I have often felt between what the church has taught me about motherhood and my own lived experience of it. This is a church that (rightly!) affirms the goodness of children and the sacredness of mothering. As a young adult, I was eager for motherhood, impatiently counting down the days until I met my husband, we married, and we started trying to have a baby. I expected this to be the pinnacle of my life, the most love I would ever hold, the closest I would ever get to God as I participated in God’s life-giving nature. Maybe it was all that. But it also hurt. A lot. 

Where was the goodness I had been promised? Where was the joy with which motherhood was supposed to fill me? I was participating in God’s loving and life-giving work; where was the consolation my faith had always seemed to promise? 

Then I remembered: Both can be true at once. Motherhood can be both the best thing I’ve ever done and the hardest. The absence of a fickle human emotion does not equate to the absence of God. And suddenly a lot of other things made sense: Time with my kids is both interminably long and heartbreakingly short—there’s room for both of these.

To smooth over these contradictions would be to do myself a disservice. Motherhood doesn’t always fit into tidy containers—it is, after all, a participation in the life-giving work of an infinite God. My human heart cannot always hold these contradictions in their fullness, but when I try, there is a paradoxical peace to be had. 

Life flourishes within these tensions. While it’s not always easy to welcome them in all their complications, doing so opens us further to a God who is always bigger than we can imagine. 

It took time to grow into motherhood; I suppose it still is taking time as my children continue to surprise and stretch me. My recovery from postpartum depression was supported by compassionate medical and mental health professionals—and it was also supported by prayer (which, I should note, does not substitute for medical and mental health care). My greatest gifts from God came from reading Scripture, which dynamically spoke to my real life. 

In Scripture, there are no stories about postpartum depression specifically. But I found words of hope and healing that spoke to my experience. I found companions like Mary Magdalene, who did not recognize Jesus at the tomb even as he accompanied her in her grief. I was reminded that good things can be hard, too—that the suffering motherhood brought me made it no less good. And most important, I found God’s hand outstretched to me in my own grief. I found that even when my pain blinded me for a time to God’s presence, God was faithfully waiting all along.

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