Two Perspectives

This post is one of a pairing. The first part was my wife’s story. My wife suffered from severe postpartum depression for three years after the birth of our youngest child. This was probably the most challenging season in our marriage, bar none. As people often do, my wife and I learned a lot through the pain of the struggle with postpartum depression. Still married and thriving, we decided to write this series of posts to help equip both husbands and wives walking through this incredibly difficult circumstance. Our goal is to talk bluntly and honestly about realities that are so raw and painful; people often neglect to talk about them at all. This leads to people feeling isolated and buying into the lie that they are the only ones genuinely suffering in this way when there are scores of us who have been there. 

A Husband’s Postpartum Depression Story

It was one of the most painful, desperate seasons of my life. It’s hard to describe what it does to you to see your best friend, the love of your life, fall so far into a pit that you can’t reach her. As husbands, we have this ingrained, and I believe God-given, protectiveness for our wives. 

You’d put yourself in the path of a bullet for her. It’s a fire in your chest, which makes it indescribably painful when you find yourself helpless and unable to strike against the thing that is hurting her because postpartum depression is an invisible force inside of her, deep down where your hands can’t reach it to kill it. 

“We would fight. Horrible, senseless fights.”

We would fight. Horrible, senseless fights. She was so raw, so broken, that she had no love left to give me, and it felt like she resented me for needing her love. In fact, life was so dark for her, all she could see were the negatives — the negatives in our life and the negatives in me. 

My attempts to get her to see the positives or focus on scriptural truths always came across as trite and insensitive. I’d try and fail, and hold my tongue and hold my tongue. And eventually, I would hit my limit, and my selfishness and hurt would be exposed, and I’d find myself fighting against the very person I most wanted to protect. 

I would get so triggered by these interactions that I’d just shut down entirely and go away from everyone. I couldn’t understand how the cycle was so strong that it felt like I couldn’t get out of it, even when I could see it coming. Why was I unable to “turn the other cheek” and maintain a gentle posture, knowing her condition and that she didn’t mean the things she was saying? 

Separating Her From Her Postpartum Depression

I remember one day, I realized that I was angry. But not at her — I was mad at the depression. Angry is an understatement. I was livid. Livid the way you’d be livid against an intruder who has entered your home with the intent to harm your family. I had a death-dealing wrath inside me and nowhere to aim it. 

I hated postpartum depression for what it was taking from me — my wife’s beautiful smile, and her tender touch, and the childlike way she would look up into my eyes and laugh. And every so often, I’d be unable to distinguish it from her, and I’d find myself fighting her. This was an important realization for me. I had to find a way to keep the two separated in my mind and heart — my wife and her depression. 

Below are some things I learned about how a husband can lovingly walk with his wife through postpartum depression. 

The War Against Entitlement

I remember dozens of memories, all rolled into a single scene that played itself out again and again during those three years. My wife and I would have a negative interaction — may be a fight, or maybe she’d say something that would cut me to the bone. I would go into the garage and even into the van because I needed a place where no one could see me or hear me. And I would cry out to God, with the pain in my chest as thick and tangible as a black smoke that was choking me. I would weep over the problem, and my failures, and the hopelessness of it all. It was unfair! I deserved better than this! 

I learned something significant during that time. Actually, I didn’t deserve better. Let me explain. The idea that “I deserve better” is an idea that deserves to be questioned. Did I deserve better? Better than a wife with depression and beautiful children, and a life together? Did I deserve better than having to endure hardships? 

We’re Not Perfect

First, let me point out the obvious that sometimes eludes us in our most profound moments of hurt. I am not perfect. I have done bad things in my life, as we all have. And daily, I still fail. And yet here I stand, above ground, with a mind that works, and lungs that work, and skin to feel the sun. I married the woman of my dreams — a strong, beautiful woman who I’ve always respected.  

I have a family. Never thought I’d have a family. I have a place to live and food on my plate. The list could go on for the next ten thousand miles. And none of it, not the smallest fraction of it, is deserved. It’s all grace and favor and mercy. On my worst day, I have one billion times more than I deserve. 

Grace Abounds

This perspective of grace washed over me. As a Christian, the example of Jesus, who died for people who didn’t deserve it — because he loved them — provided a model for me to pursue a higher love — a sacrificial form of love. I wanted to learn to love my wife in a way that didn’t require her to deserve it. And the necessary foundation for loving her in this way was the profound realization that I was not entitled to reciprocation.                                                

I began to fight the narrative in my chest — the devilish whispers of how unfair my life was and how I deserved better. I would wrestle, crying out for strength, speaking truth to my own tormented heart until the truth would win out. 

The Multitude of Counselors

I learned another vital lesson during that time. There is an ancient proverb that says there is safety in a multitude of counselors. In other words, it takes a village. In this season of my wife’s postpartum depression, I was at my weakest. I was fighting every day to bear somehow burdens that seemed too heavy for me. I began to reach out to other men that I knew — brothers who I knew were strong and faithful and wise. And I began to share the burden. 

So often during that time, more times than I can count, I’d be in that garage or the van, hurting and fighting for my life and fighting for hope, and feeling my weakness and inability like a suffocating boulder on my chest. 

We Need Help

And I gave myself permission to need help. I gave myself permission to not have all the answers. It is a sweet and wonderful realization when you let go of this crap machismo that we men internalize. When you let go of the myth that needing help is weakness. When you stop hiding the fact that you are struggling.

I would call one of my church brothers, in that moment of weakness. If one didn’t answer, I’d contact another. And I’d tell him what was going on, and ask him to pray for me and give me advice. I got help. 

An ancient proverb that says if we walk in transparency, it leads to authentic fellowship with others. Vulnerability and authenticity create intimacy, and we often miss out on the very thing we crave because we can’t bring ourselves to share the truth about our suffering with others. Part of forging great friendships is inviting others into your pain and giving them the gift of having the opportunity to tend to your wounds. And you will do the same for them. And this is beautiful and good, and the way it’s supposed to be. 

A Non-Transactional Way to Love

I believe that men are called to love our wives with a non-transactional love. Not a love that checks the boxes of the one who is being loved, keeping accounts, and making sure that we are getting the equivalent of what we are giving out. 

If we are honest, we often love our wives with transactional love. This is shown in our petty, angry, or sullen responses. My wife’s depression, and my reactions to her depression, showcased this for me in painful detail. 

I had to confront the fact that I had a running tally in my mind. How many ways had I tried to serve her? How many arguments had I been the first to apologize? Now, how about her? Was she keeping up? Wasn’t it her turn to initiate? 

We have been taught this idea that marriage is transactional. We were most likely taught this by the conditional and transactional ways that we have been loved in our lives. We’ve been taught that both parties need to carry their weight, and if they don’t, then it’s time to make an escape plan. 

Mutual love and respect are incredibly crucial in marriage.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Mutual love and respect are incredibly crucial in marriage. But they are not the foundation of marriage. The foundation of marriage is non-transactional love, unconditional devotion. This kind of love makes it possible for us to endure extended periods of non-reciprocation if need be.

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Two Choices

As a husband, you will endure seasons where your wife is unable to reciprocate. You may be in such a season right now. When this season comes upon you, you can do one of two things. You can a.) hold on to the ledger in your heart and mind. Keep track of the disparities and how she is not keeping up her end of the bargain. This will build resentment and anger, and it will nurse a sense of entitlement.

 Left unchecked, it will destroy your marriage, either causing you to pursue the fantasy of a better situation or hollowing you out and causing you to cease trying, cease engaging, and check out. Or you can b.) seek to love your wife non-transactionally. Fight the ledger in your heart and mind. Seek to love her with no expectation of return. This is hard, brothers. I’d argue that it’s impossible apart from help from above. I urge and encourage you not to grow weary of the fight, for, in due time, you will reap the reward if you don’t give up. 

Fight for Hope

I am saying this as a man who has faced the mountain of hopelessness. I almost couldn’t dare to hope because hope puts you at risk of being disappointed, and when you are that fragile, another disappointment feels like it will be the death of you. 

But just as there is no fire without a spark, there can be no blaze of victory without a spark of hope. You have to nurse that tiny little spark. Like the Psalmists of old, you must both acknowledge the reality of the pain while also fanning the weak ember of hope by shouting hope down into the cavern of your chest.

Practical Steps for Postpartum Depression

On top of the bedrock of your war against entitlement, and your willingness to ask for help, and your quest to give non-transactional love, and the fight for hope, here are some practical tips to help you navigate postpartum depression with your spouse.

  1. Counseling.  This may seem too obvious to mention, but counseling can usually provide you some tools for navigating the season with more health. This ended up being helpful for us.
  2. Tell her you love her often. Even if you don’t feel it, even if she doesn’t say it back, even if it doesn’t seem to make a difference. You are learning that the truth doesn’t always need to be felt to be accurate, and you are showing that your love is consistent. 
  3. Grand gestures.  Similar to above, you can buy her flowers without feeling like buying her flowers, or a thousand other gestures to show you are still dialed in, you still care. Keep showing up.
  4. Artistic expression / emotional outlets. Often, art is where we process deep emotions. For me, poetry helped me cope with some of the difficulties of that season.
  5. Understand your triggers and hers. We all have emotional triggers that cause us to have a disproportionate response. Counseling helped me identify mine, and it was groundbreaking. It meant that I could understand why I was so upset and permit myself to take the time to get untriggered before doing more damage in that state.

For the Overwhelmed

I had moments in my journey with my wife’s postpartum depression where the challenge I was facing seemed so insurmountable that a post like this might have overwhelmed me.

For anyone feeling that way, I say this to you. Big things come from small things. Giant trees come from tiny seeds. Small changes over time can yield tremendous results. You can’t change or improve everything at once; you will burn out or shut down. Sometimes the most significant and most effective step you can take is a baby step. 

Have you ever tried watching trees grow? You could never sit still long enough never to register the incremental growth. But they are growing — you can’t always see it because growth is slow.

People are like that. Earth-shattering experiences of change are exceedingly rare. They can happen, but we don’t get to pick when they happen. We can only be faithful in the little steps, the small daily choices, the little daily attempts. 

One Thing

Look for one thing in this article that resonates with you—one thing you can put into action and test. Take one little step, and then another. And hear me when I say, I lay no burden on you to get better or be a better person. 

 I have failed and will fail plenty more. I’ve come to an understanding (although I must often be reminded) that I am weak. And I’m OK with that. I take a lot of joy in that. There’s rest that comes from accepting the truth of your human limitations if you believe (as I do) that you are loved as you are and that help is available. 

Keep Sailing

I didn’t endure that season of darkness perfectly. I failed a lot. But I also succeeded a lot and was able to minister love to my wife that transcended her ability to reciprocate. The depression didn’t last forever, and that childlike smile came out again, like the sun breaking through the blackened, menacing clouds to illuminate the sky with hope. Our relationship is stronger now than it was before. We still have a lot of room to grow, but we’ve come a long way. I wouldn’t trade her, or the postpartum depression, or our past experiences, for anything. 

I lost my wedding ring years ago, playing football in the Thanksgiving frost. Sarah bought me a new ring made of titanium. She engraved the words “still sailing” on the inside. These are words from a poem she wrote to me about how we have sailed together through such painful storms in our marriage, and yet we have endured by the power of God. I treasure this ring and the complex mixture of joy and pain that makes for a steadfast, proven marriage. A steadfast marriage is itself a gift, but it will only come if you are willing to endure the suffering it takes to create such a marriage

Keep sailing. Together, with your bride, in the time of her weakness and pain, in the time when she has no strength to give to the oars. I hope and trust that you will see that smile again, the one you fell in love with. Keep sailing. Together.

Author

Johnny Levy is a poet, father, husband, pastor. You might find him turning over rocks with his wild-haired kids, having deep conversations with strangers at the supermarket, or dreaming up ways to collaborate with other creatives. His other sites include levyfamcreative.com, johnnyspoems.com, and slampoems.com.

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