Please note that the following discusses PPD and PPA and was written in part at the height of my PPD.

I will never forget the words that pierced my heart in December 2020. I was barely two months postpartum, in chronic pain, struggling to even care for myself, when from the mouth of my husband came the words, who did not know I was struggling and in crisis, “You need to step it up.”

Words meant as encouragement and a call to action became a drumbeat in my mind, “must step it up, must do more, must try harder. Must step it up, must do more, must try harder. Must step it up, must do more, must try harder.” On and on went the anxious song in my heart.

I became obsessive about cleaning, unable to relax or take a break, unwilling to care for myself. I slipped further and further into depression, losing touch with myself, unable to recognize the person I was in the mirror. While not suicidal, I felt that my husband and my girls would be better with anyone but me.

The full story of my postpartum anxiety and depression is one that is still being written, but as I worked through it and sought help, I came to the heart of my PPD and PPA: all the things that had grounded me, all the strings that I identified as myself—were gone.

I was no longer teaching. I didn’t (and still don’t) fit into any of my clothes. I found myself thrown into stay-at-home parenting during a pandemic. I found myself questioning why, with all my flaws and failures, my husband would wish to remain with me.

I had the distinct sensation of floating midair with nothing to ground me, nothing that I might hold. The winds were strong and picking up, ready to carry me with them, floating me away to a land I did not know. And upon coming to that land, I stared into a mirror. Seeing nothing, I was forced to ask myself, “Who am I? How can I even begin to know myself again?”

And so began the journey.

It is a harsh and cold journey, one for which I was not prepared and one which I did not expect. I have entered into an unknown wilderness, the skies shaded deep blue as purple streaks dance through the sky, the path of possibilities open before me.

The way forward is a journey into my own heart and the heart of Christ, a rediscovering of myself, a radical transformation. In choosing the journey, I choose to die to my old self and allow myself to be made new in Christ. I must expose all my wounds to the abyss of Christ’s Mercy, allow myself to drown, like in baptism, in order to be healed.

I feel I am standing at the edge of a precipice, the wind wailing and moaning around me, staring down into the dark abyss below as waves crash against razor rocks. Behind me, there is a well-beaten path, the only one I have known. There is no alternative path, and so I am left with two options: return to the old path, or step out over the precipice. 

The return to the old path means no change, but it will be familiar. It will be dull with no bright or new spots, familiar to the touch as a worn out blanket, its beauty faded with the passage of time. This path thrives on the repetition of the known. The same grayed colors, the same trees, the same plants, the same animals. The seasons here do not change; they are always the same. There is no growth here. There is no change. 

Yet, the precipice exposes all of my trembling fears and suppressed emotions. Going over it means leaping with a radical trust, a trust that the fall will not kill me, a trust that the rocks will not break me, a trust that the waves will not drown me. With so many risks, the old path appears as a warm and familiar embrace, though it will be filled with the same pains that have long haunted my heart. Choosing to fall into the abyss means choosing the unknown, foraging forward on a path that is strange and unwelcoming. But what life lies ahead of the abyss? What life may I find beyond the rocks and crashing waves? What calm may be found beyond the storm? 

Truthfully, I do not know and cannot know what lies beyond the precipice, beyond facing all the pains and fears that hold me back. But I do know that while there may be pain, there will be growth, that where there is the wild unknown, there will be newfound delights, that where there are crashing waves, there is the Lord’s mercy as He speaks boldly, “Put out into the deep.” 

And so, in an act of radical trust, I step forward. 

If this has been your journey, do not be afraid.

Christ sees us in our brokenness, and says to us, “Behold, I make all things new.” For though you may be in darkness now, there will soon be light. The journey to Calvary is arduous and painful. Death and dying to self in PPD and PPA is painful.

But you will see the resurrection, and you will be all the stronger for it. 

Do not be afraid to step over the precipice. I have been to the bottom of the abyss, and I have opened my wounds to the sea of Christ’s Mercy. And I can tell you that Christ is waiting to embrace you with open arms, to lead you to become the saint He has created you to be, to help You carry this Cross, and to make your heart become more like His.

The Power of “And”

I sat at my six week postpartum checkup and expression frustration to my midwife, “I’m upset by where my weight is right now. I want to be healthy. It’s so important to me to be healthy and strong. What can I do to help make that happen?”

The midwife looked at me kindly, and said, “Sweetheart, give yourself some grace. You just had a baby! It’s ok. Just stop thinking about it right now. Promise me you won’t worry about this until at least twelve weeks postpartum?” I promised her, and left. I left without any advice on small steps I could take, small changes that could help me be healthier.

I expressed the same frustration to a friend, and the response was similar, “Give yourself some grace! You just had a baby! Besides, our bodies are never the same after we have babies. “

In a culture that puts pressure on moms to “bounce back” after birth, we often go the opposite direction in our advice. We say things like: “Your body is beautiful right now; look it gave you these two beautiful babies,” “give yourself grace,” “your body will never be the same after babies.” All of these are true. But to the mom that doesn’t recognize herself in her own body, to the mom that desires strength but is struggling to fit in workouts, to the mom that just simply wants to be healthy, these platitudes miss the point.

I’ve been struggling with PPD and PPA while dealing with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Excess weight is not an option for me: it means greater weight on my joints, which means more pain, which means more days where I struggle to walk. Having the days where I have more pain leads to more depression…and so it spirals. When I was expressing frustration at not being able to workout due to pain and exhaustion, I was expressing a deeper need: a need for the basics like sleep, better meds for my RA, and time to take care of myself. But, instead of hearing that frustration, we tell new moms not to pressure themselves. It’s a needed message, absolutely, but it needs to come with an “and.”

“Your body is beautiful right now, and you can work towards health and strength when you are ready.”

“Your body will never be the same after babies, and you can still work towards being stronger than ever.”

“Give yourself some grace right now, and know when to challenge yourself.”

What if we used these messages to postpartum moms? And what if we followed up with, “it sounds like you have an unmet need for ______. How can I or someone else help you to meet that need so that you can be healthy and strong?”

Unmet needs are at the root of my anxiety and depression. When a mom is telling us that she desires to be strong and wants to work out and eat healthy and we respond with, “give yourself some grace, you just had a baby,” what we are actually saying at times is, “wait until your baby is older and then you can meet your needs.”

Wait to exercise until you can get more sleep. You don’t want to exhaust yourself. Wait to eat healthy until you’re not overwhelmed by anxiety and depression–you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself.

Without even meaning to do so, we end up sending the message to new moms that their desire for health and fitness is something that can wait. We try to tell her to take care of herself, but fail to recognize that working out and eating healthy can be a vital part of self care. We don’t seek to reach out and ask, “is there anything I can do to help you meet some of your basic needs?”

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested medication for my PPD and PPA. My response was simple: a pill isn’t going to give me more sleep, better food, and exercise. A pill isn’t going to give me friendships or a better prayer life. I have to do those things. I have to put in the work. And I need to reach out and get the support I need when I’m struggling to do the work. For some, medication may give the needed mental break to do these things without overwhelm! I did end up trying medication, and found that the side effects (for ME) were not worth the potential benefits.

I needed my healthcare professionals to not just give me a pill for my anxiety. I needed them to look at me holistically. I needed the encouragement that I could become stronger than ever and the guidance on how to do it. I needed to hear that wanting to be healthy and strong isn’t vanity.

When you know what it is to live in daily pain, to wake up unable to walk, to struggle with constant fatigue, you want to do anything you can to counteract that. And that isn’t vanity; that’s a desire to be strong so I can serve my family. So I can play with my daughters. So I can be ready for another pregnancy and minimize risk of injury and fatigue. So I can make the days where walking is difficult few and far between. So I can conquer my RA instead of letting it conquer me.

If you’re newly postpartum, know this: you are beautiful and your body is a gift. Your body speaks to the truth that we are meant to give new life. Your body will be forever changed, AND you can still become stronger than ever when you are ready. Give yourself some grace, AND know when you’re ready for the challenge. You are beautiful and worthy, AND you deserve the support you need to pursue a healthy and strong life when you feel you are ready. It is ok to take your time in your own wellness journey, AND it is ok to take small steps to wellness now and ask for the support you need to do that. You don’t need to get your old body back AND you can still desire to pursue strength, however that may look for you. Your needs are not invalid. Desiring health and strength is not vain.

For, “Do you not know that your body is a temple[a] of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19 

We glorify God with our bodies in so many ways. Through the act of giving birth. Through nursing and feeding our babies. Through offering our physical sufferings. Through choosing to live out St. Therese’s Little Way when it comes to health and wellness: focusing on choosing one thing at a time that will lead us to greater physical healing and strength.

Building the Village

We have heard so many times the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is truth to this phrase, as parenting, while joyful work, is also demanding and exhausting both physically and emotionally. We need support from our families, our parishes, our communities, and our friends to successfully fulfill this portion of our vocation, and indeed, any vocation, without depleting ourselves. Yet, how many of us could truly say that we have this village, this network of support? How many of us enter parenthood, marriage, or life as a single person feeling alone and isolated, especially in the world of Covid?

Many of us live away from our families of origin. Some of us find ourselves moving away from communities of which we have long been apart due to jobs or other financial reasons. Others of us have tired to thrive where we have planted, and when we have seen our efforts at community fail, have perhaps cynically, given up.

For most, the days of the intergenerational family are gone. With the move to dual-income families, many times out of necessity, the effect of the lack of this built-in village is keenly felt. With no family nearby for help with care, daycare costs become a burden and one can feel especially drained by the effect of both spouses working, multiple kids in daycare, commuting to work and daycare, getting home, seeing the kids for a few hours, and then doing it all over again.

I have felt this lack of village very painfully at times. There have been times I have reached out to others and never heard back. Before Mariana’s birth, I reached out to someone that runs a parish mom’s group nearby and asked her how I could set up a meal train for after Mariana’s birth. That same mom group, under different leadership, had taken care of everything in regards to setting up a meal train after Madeleine’s birth. The person I contacted never replied. We set up our own meal train, and while the post said, “many have been asking us where they can sign up for a meal train to support us after Mariana’s birth,” the truth is this: no one had asked us at all.

There are however, two sides to this issue of the village. The one side is when we reach out to others and they fail to respond in love and support. The other side? When we fail to reach out, when we fail to be vulnerable, when we shut ourselves off from those most willing to help us.

With my first child, Madeleine, I was naively under the impression that my baby would come with a built-in village. Those from our Church and community would come to our support now that we had a child. This was true, to an extent, and we certainly received much more support after Madeleine’s birth than we did Mariana’s. But as time went on, I stumbled onto a painful truth: if one wants a village, one has to build it.

My anxiety causes me to fear rejection. In my anxiety, I will often choose not to reach out to others at all, choosing isolation over the possibility of rejection. I fear saying the wrong thing as I am building new friendships and then losing that friendship forever. If I forget to respond to a text message within a day or so, my anxiety creeps in saying, “If you respond now, they’ll judge you for not having responded sooner.” So the message sits and sits without a response until I decide, “better not to respond at all at this point; it’s been a week, what will they think of me?”

I am an awkward person. I despise small talk. I’m shy. I hate parties. In social situations, I frequently rely on my husband to do the introductions. I’m very sensitive to the possibility that someone won’t like me, and so sometimes, when my anxiety has been at its worst, I’ve simply decided that it’s better not to try.

During one of the lowest points of my PPA/PPD, around Christmas, I was complaining to Nicholas about the lack of support I felt. He looked at me and said, “And how many people have you reached out to about this? How many people are you trying to talk to on a regular basis besides me? How many times have you tried to reach out to an actual person instead of just making a post in one of your Facebook groups?” The answer at the time: none.

Nicholas gave me a homework assignment: text one person, one friend, every day. It terrified me at first. But, then the more I did it, the less I was afraid. I became more confident and less afraid of rejection. And I began to feel more supported as well.

Yesterday, I met up with one of my friends from college. As we were talking, she asked me why I hadn’t reached out to her. I explained that my anxiety causes me to feel paralyzed and makes it difficult for me to reach out. She was understanding, and later in a message to me said, “I have always wanted to be your friend, Elizabeth.”

How often do we allow our fear of vulnerability to prevent us from doing the hard work of building our village? Of reaching out for support? Of being open to the possibility of rejection? How often do we fail to reach out to those that love us because we are overwhelmed? Because we fear burdening them? How often do we decide that because others have failed to support us, that those who have known us and loved us will not support us as well? In our fear and anxiety, we end up burning our own villages.

The devil is often called the accuser. And as I examined my worries—they won’t like you, you’ll be a burden to them, people don’t want to support you, they don’t want to be your friend, you’re not [_____] enough for them, you’re doomed to be alone, you’ll just say the wrong things and hurt these people—I realized that these were all accusations. All lies. Because the devil would like nothing more than for us to have to live isolated from one another, separated from the Body of Christ that is His Church.

And so if we want the village, we have to build it. Villages are not built in a day. They take time, communication, and effort, from both sides. If we want others to support us, we must support them. We must be willing to be Christ’s hands and feet to others. We must be willing to give of our hearts, of our time, and of our kitchens. We must be willing to be vulnerable, to be open to the possibility of rejection and being wounded. We have to reach out to those we want in our village regularly. Most importantly, we must say “no” to the accuser that tells us that others will not care for us.

We are all worthy of love. We all—no matter our state in life: married without kids, married with kids, or single—deserve to have a village. We deserve to be a part of a community that will draw us closer to Christ. We must conquer the fear. We must stop letting our anxiety and fear of vulnerability burn down our villages, because that is precisely what the devil wants. We have to put in the work, to commit to building the village and showing up for others when they need the village.

It will not be easy. Often, after meeting up with a new friend or an old one I haven’t spoken to in a while, I find myself replaying and analyzing every bit of conversation: “Should I have said this instead? Did they judge me when I said this? Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that, I should have been quiet instead.” And again, this is the work of the devil, the accuser, that would rather us live in isolation than build communities that draw us closer to the heart of Christ.

So what does building the village have to look like then, practically? Reach out to one friend a day. Ask simply, “how are you?’ When you’ve successfully reached out to one friend a day for a month, make it two. Then, maybe three—this depends on how much of an introvert you are. Try to plan out time with different friends. Start with a goal of meeting up with someone once a month. Then perhaps every two weeks. Then perhaps once a week. Be there when others need you. Is someone you know having a baby? Bring a meal to them and a gift for the mom, not the baby (everyone brings gifts for the babies—make the mom feel special instead). Is someone you know struggling with infertility? Sit and listen. Is someone you know struggling with anxiety and depression? Bring them a meal and offer to just be with them.

These are the types of things we need from our village. We need others to be willing to sit with us in our suffering, to be present to us in our time of need. Building our village means doing the same for others, and initiating that even when it may be the most difficult for us, especially when we are struggling with anxiety or depression, because that is precisely when the devil would like us to feel most isolated.

Friendship requires patient listening, love, and vulnerability. The nature of friendship is such that being hurt is a very real possibility. We cannot let that stop us from having friends altogether, from reaching out in faith, from striving to love others, from building up our villages so that we can better love Christ and our families.

How are you going to work towards building your village?

Filling in the Brokenness

I was clearing out one of the rooms in our house and came across one of my old journals. Giving myself permission to be distracted for a moment, I flipped through and found an entry in which I was talking to Christ about my struggle with anxiety. So many of my struggles remain the same, in spite of all the obstacles that have challenged me to change! Journaling is often how Christ chooses to speak to me, and so as I continued reading, I found this reply: “your central temptation and fear is that you must earn love and grace, that you have to do everything by yourself. My beloved, this is all pride and vanity.”

How often do we try to do it all by ourselves? How often do we refuse help, fearing that we are a burden? And yet, here was Christ telling me that trying to do it all is “pride and vanity.” I began to examine my heart. I recalled moments when I needed help and refused it or failed to ask for it. In some of these moments, my RA was flaring and I was struggling to walk, and still I felt the need to make my own lunch, to get the girls down for nap, to unload the dishes myself, and I had to wonder: why? It was clear that I needed help and rest in these moments, so why was I insisting on doing it myself?

Because I am afraid. I fear being a burden. I fear vulnerability: admitting that I can’t do things sometimes as simple as buttoning the snaps on a baby’s onesie. But most deeply: I fear that I am not enough.

At the heart of my anxiety has always been the question, “Am I enough? Am I good enough? Beautiful enough? Catholic enough? Enough for my husband? Enough for my children?” But Christ sees all this and he says, “No, not alone. But by my Grace, by the passion of the Cross, you are enough.”

If we allow Him, Christ can fill all our deficits. He can make us more patient. More vulnerable. More loving. But the key to allowing Christ to fill in where we fall short is this: first, we have to allow Him. Secondly, we must make peace with the fact that we are broken. It takes a great deal of vulnerability to admit our brokenness even to ourselves, but Christ works in the brokenness. If we can accept that we are broken, we can then more eagerly seek grace, asking Christ, through His Mother, to heal us with His Mercy.

It’s easier said than done. I’m a perfectionist. In arguments with my husband, I will stubbornly insist that I am right even when my flaws are staring me in the face. I don’t want to see my brokenness! I don’t want to admit my failure. I don’t want to be imperfect.

I remember telling my husband that I didn’t want to admit failure, and his response was basically, “so what? You failed. We’re all human. We all fail.”

In my desire to maintain a veneer of perfection, I frequently out my husband and Christ, wounding them both. How often do we fall into this trap? The trap of having to convince ourselves and others that we can earn grace, that we can earn love, and that the only way to do so is through a false veil of perfection? How many arguments could be stopped if I simply admitted my failure and then invited Christ into my heart so that I could be better in the future?

In my anxiety, I want to maintain control. But truthfully, I am not in control and I cannot be. I cannot control the actions of my spouse. I cannot control God’s will. And try as I might, I cannot control my stubborn-willed two and a half year old. And so, instead of trying to do it all perfectly, to earn grace, to earn love, I should focus on asking Christ for the grace to deal with the every day trials and messes, to fill in my imperfections with His Love and Mercy.

It is true that our hearts are cracked and wounded. It is true that we often wound others because of our own wounds. But even more powerful than our own woundedness is Christ’s Mercy and Love. This Lent, I will focus on going to Our Blessed Mother and asking that her Son’s Mercy fill in my brokenness. That Christ’s Mercy may transform my broken heart. I will focus on love and strive to let go of trying to earn love and grace. I will accept and seek help, knowing that it is ok that I cannot do it all. I will accept love when it is offered from my husband and those around me. For in accepting my brokenness, I invite Christ into my heart, and by inviting Christ into my heart, I invite Him into my relationships, and by inviting Christ into my relationships, those around me can be loved, strengthened, and healed as well. 

The Daughters of Job(e)

I will never forget the moment when Nicholas first shared ideas for future baby names with me: it was November of 2014 and I was in his pickup truck as he was driving me to the airport…for a discernment retreat with the Sisters of Life.

At one point, he looked at me and said, “do you know what they say about the daughters of Jobe?” I did not, and so he promptly directed me to open the book of Job, 42:15, “In all the land no women were found as beautiful as Job’s daughters.”

I remember laughing and thinking to myself, “whoever marries this guy will be one lucky girl. I hope she knows it.”

That weekend, I spoke to Sr. Virginia Joy, the vocations director at the time, and she told me, “keep your heart open to marriage. Perhaps God has someone in mind for you that you will meet while you’re in Rome.” I laughed. I was certain of Christ’s plan for me, and marriage wasn’t part of it.

Just two months earlier, I went to Mass with a group of friends and met Nick when he was invited out to lunch with us. He was just starting his graduate program at UD, while I was in my second year there. If you ask Nick what his initial impression of me was at that time, he will simply say, “intense.” If you ask him if his impression was accurate, he will emphatically state, “Yes!”

At the time, Nick had a girlfriend of two plus years and I was determined to be a sister. There was no thought of romance between us.

I knew Nick had been having a difficult time adjusting to UD (I know now that UD was not his first choice for grad school, and the assistantship he was given has now been divided into two positions), so when many of our friends went on retreat one weekend, I invited him to ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s. He was quiet. It was unacceptable. I remedied this by abruptly breaking the silence and unceremoniously saying, “So, tell me your life story.” Amazingly, he didn’t think I was entirely crazy…and he told me about his life, in detail, as we walked together after finishing ice cream.

One thing we both shared was a love for Traditional Latin Mass. And so, Nicholas drove me to mass each Friday and each Friday we would have breakfast together. Looking back, it is easy to see how Mass brought us together. We became closer through our love of tradition as well as our love of coffee and bagels. When my roommates drove me nuts, I knew I could go to Nick’s apartment and write a paper in peace without disruption. I didn’t have to say anything and we didn’t have to even be in the same room, but he became a quiet source of comfort for me without my even realizing it.

But of course, we were only friends. So much so, that Nicholas actually told me his entire plan for how he would propose to his future wife (he didn’t change it, by the way, and his proposal to me is what started his rosary business). I remember meeting his then girlfriend at the time, and Nick later asked me what I thought of her. My response was simple, “I don’t know who you are around her.”

So after that discernment retreat in November, I began preparing for my study abroad in Rome. Nicholas helped me move out of my apartment. We continued texting each other throughout that Christmas break, and at one point, we realized, “wait..we could actually work really well together as a couple!” We made a pact that if neither of us was married or in religious life by 30, that we would marry each other.

And so in January 2015, I went to Rome. I began a 54 day rosary novena asking God to make the path forward clear to me. I will never forget when I was in Chapel at Santa Maria in Trastevere, and I heard Christ asking, “Will you give it all to me?” I knew this was asking me to lay it all down, to let go of my dreams, to let Christ lead. And I thought that it meant that marriage was not my vocation.

I spent the next three days miserable, until I was in Santa Maria Majore. Note the length of time: three days.

I was in prayer, still mourning the dreams I had of marriage and children, but determined to follow Christ. I then felt a strong prompting to meditate on the sacrifice of Isaac. As I reflected on this, I began to realize: God asked Abraham for his only son so as to give Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate his trust in God. God, in return, rewarded Abraham. I recall being promoted to reflect on Christ placing my hand in Nicholas’ hand, as he led us to the altar together, as Christ led us to the Cross. I heard simply, “You have shown me your faithfulness, now see the one I have prepared for you.”

For three days, I had felt utter misery, but I had trusted. Then, on the third day, there was the resurrection: God’s full plan revealed to us.

It is for that reason among many others that one of the central parts of our marriage and family mission statement says, “We will keep station at the Cross in anticipation of the resurrection.” It is why our daughters, Madeleine and Mariana, are named for Mary Magdalene and Our Lady of Sorrows respectively: these are the two women who remained at the Cross with Christ.

We have certainly had our share of crosses: family members passing, infertility, my anxiety, my RA. But there have been so many joys as well, so many resurrections amidst the Cross.

I met Nicholas in September 2014, we began courting in March 2015, were engaged in July 2015, and married January 2016. Our romance is one I never expected and could never have written, and God’s hand in our relationship is so clear to me. I am deeply grateful for him: he is my rock, my quiet place of comfort, my constant, my cross. Christ has chosen Nicholas to help sanctify me, and I am astounded by the gift of our marriage.

And what they say is true, by the way: the daughters of Jobe are the fairest in the land.