By Rachel Mabey Whipple
Just past the seven-month mark of my first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with pregnancy-induced hypertension and put on bed rest—lying only on my side. Clint, my husband, was doing lab research to finish his undergraduate degree, earning a paycheck as a short-order cook, and traveling to interview at different graduate schools. I was alone, unable to prepare food for myself or do any household chores. I had no help. I didn’t ask for any, and none was offered. In retrospect, I should have called the Relief Society president. Even if nobody could bring meals or tidy up, having someone visit, just sit with me for a while, would have made the experience less awful.
That lesson—the first of my motherhood—is obvious enough: we all need help at some point. I must be willing to accept what is offered and even ask for assistance if I need it. I believe that as we receive the service of those around us, we become more willing to help others as we see their need. Mosiah 18:8 tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.” Before that bed rest, I thought I could take care of myself, do it all on my own. But no mother can do everything herself.
The next lesson was much more painful. When my second child was about six weeks old, I developed post-partum depression. It was a horrible, frightening time, full of numbness, anger, fear, and guilt. I was beset with suicidal and destructive thoughts. I was afraid that I would snap and hurl my toddler across the room or beat him. My self-control was tenuous and fragile. I hated who I was and how I was feeling—full of anger, shame, guilt, and sorrow. On good days, I just felt numb, though that dull nothingness offered no relief since it was liable to flare into fury or self-hate with the slightest provocation. I had no motivation to do anything or see anyone. I went through the necessary routines of cooking, cleaning, caring for the children, with as much self-control as I could muster to maintain a safe, robotic state.
I finally hit a point where I could endure no more. I couldn’t afford to check into a mental hospital and didn’t think I could take a nursing infant with me anyway. I couldn’t get away by checking into a hotel, so I packed up the camping gear. Fearing I’d hurt my two-year-old if I were around him any longer, I tried to hand him off to my husband when he got home that day from grad school classes.
Clint talked me out of my wild escape plan. Instead, we made phone calls, searching for support services. The midwives who delivered my daughter told us about a few options, but there was nothing we could afford. Through the Relief Society president and the bishop, I got a referral for counseling through LDS Social Services. I hated that counseling and made an iron-willed resolution to get better just so I could stop going.
But you can’t think yourself out of depression, even if you can suppress external signs and continue to move through the motions of life. The well-meaning advice from Church, to read the scriptures and pray more, only made it worse. Because I did those things, but did not get better, I felt more guilty, more lost and depressed. And then there was the Atonement. Since Christ had suffered all of our pain and sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, he should understand how I felt, and knowing that should make me feel better, right? But I couldn’t feel it. How could Christ, who in most traditions is an unmarried man—not even a father—understand this pain that belongs uniquely to mothers: the pain of looking at your sweet sleeping child, and feeling no affection, only emptiness or guilt at what a horrible mother you are.
My breakthrough came courtesy of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and teacher born in 1342. When she was thirty, she was ill to the point of death, and her family had been called around her to say good-bye. And then she had a revelation, a vision of Christ, and she was healed. From her I learned two things.
First, we must accept our suffering. Christ accepted all suffering for us—and gained all compassion. When we accept the trials, the pains that are our lot, we too can gain compassion. We understand, in a finite way, the sacrifice Christ made for us. And our hearts are opened to our brothers and sisters whose burdens we appreciate so much more now that we carry a similar load. I had been trying to will my way out of depression. When I accepted it, I was able to bear it much more easily. The guilt of not feeling normal was alleviated, and without that guilt, my downward spiral halted.
The second thing Julian gave me was a new perspective of Christ. Julian discussed the attributes of the divine mother that we can see in Christ. Christ is a creator. Through Christ, we are born again. He is full of mercy, compassion, grace. He selflessly gives us comfort and healing. He says, “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings?” (3 Nephi 10:5). Is it wrong to think of Christ as feminine if that is the only way you can find to relate to her? LDS teaching on this matter is clear: Christ is certainly male, but through his example, he shows us the attributes of the ideal divine mother. To think of Christ this way made the Atonement accessible to me again during that difficult time. I do not know if that would have been necessary had we a more articulated view of our Heavenly Mother, or if we held Mary in higher veneration. But I do like that the Divine Feminine can be found if she is sought, even in the Beautiful Savior sent to love and guide us.
So my second lesson of motherhood is that sometimes we must embrace the suffering we are given, and as we do so, we can turn that pain into compassion and love that can heal our spirits, if not our bodies.
It was a lesson I needed a few months later, when our one-year-old daughter slipped into our garden’s koi pond while we were weeding. I noticed I hadn’t heard her for a while and asked Clint to check on her. When he pulled her out of the pond, she was limp and unconscious, not breathing, her skin and clothes the same dull grey, covered with bits of plants and pond scum. It is awful to remember. We laid her out on the grass and opened her airways. She started breathing on her own before we had to begin CPR. At the emergency room, hours later, as they were bringing her temperature and blood oxygen levels up to normal, I suddenly realized that although she would certainly live, she might be permanently brain damaged. The doctors reassured us that because she had resumed breathing on her own, she couldn’t have been out for too long, and that she would eventually be fine.
My vigil in the hospital that night was long. Clint had gone home to care for our three-year-old. At the time, I was a Relief Society teacher, and my next lesson was to be on the Atonement. I tried to think how this experience could relate—my little daughter being given back to me from death, like the daughter of Jairus. But all I could feel was anger that she had almost died. And guilt for feeling angry, because, after all, she hadn’t died. But so many children do die. In Jeremiah, we have “Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they were not.” And then there was Herod’s slaughter of innocents. And every other child who was wanted and loved and lost, and the anguish of those parents, those mothers, was suddenly real to me in a way that was unimaginable before. To be a mother is to love so deeply another person, that to lose them is to lose everything.
And I thought, what if she had died? Would I still believe? Would my faith comfort me? And I realized the answer was no. My faith would not be enough to sustain me through that kind of loss. If my faith couldn’t help me then, what good was it? Angrily, I confronted God with this. Like Jacob wrestling (Genesis 32:24–30) I struggled with the Lord until I was given this revelation: “No, you don’t have enough faith. You don’t have to.” And I felt peace.
As a mother, I learned that we may not have the faith necessary to sustain us through great trials, but if we don’t turn away from God, if we always look to him, even if struggling, he will sustain us. He will make up for what we lack. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
And then, a year ago, a friend’s baby died a week before his due date. A few months later, another very pregnant friend called me in the night to stay with her two little children. She and her husband went to the hospital because she hadn’t felt the baby move all day; everything she had tried to get him to move failed. Our friend’s stillborn son fresh in our minds, we were all terrified.
I spent that night praying, desperately, pleading “Please, please let the baby live, let him not have died . . . but thy will be done.” But I didn’t really mean “thy will be done.” I didn’t want my friend’s baby to die, even if it was God’s will. But I knew I had to pray it. But what good is a prayer if you don’t believe it? So I wrote a prayer I could believe.
To say “thy will be done;”
I don’t want to say that, to pray that.
Your will is going to be done anyway.
It’s just a way to begin to reconcile my will to yours.
To accept the possibility that I will not get what I want, so desperately.
To recognize that “thy will” will happen.
To accept that, to let go of what I want.
It’s practicing a semblance of Buddhist non-attachment.
To let go of one’s desires.
Accepting, without judgment.
“This is”: neither good, nor bad.
Releasing the emotions, the desires
that constrain us.
I don’t want “thy will” to be done.
But what will be, will be.
It is hard to kick against the pricks.
If I accept thy will, I can start to heal.
I don’t want to accept because that would admit the full scope of the hurt—something I want to deny, to ward off, with a “Please, God, no, please, please, don’t let it be.”
But if it is, it is.
Accepting that is peace.
And if not—but does it matter? Already I’m divested of care—
There will be rejoicing in the unexpected, the unhoped for, or rather, the hope-lost-for, the hope-relinquished-for, the no-longer-hoped-for,
Because there is no hope, only acceptance, of what will inevitably come.
Thy will be done.
So I learned that “thy will be done” is the hardest prayer to pray, but the only one that truly yields peace. At that moment, I understood Soren Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, an ideal Christian so completely centered in God that he no longer clings to any selfish desires. When pain comes, he does not suffer, because he accepts God’s will. And when good comes, he accepts it with joy. No outcome will define him because he is defined by his relationship with God.
As mothers, we cannot control everything. No matter how much we want or work for it, we can’t make everything right.
I was sick for over a week after I saw Fearless, a 1993 movie starring Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. The film begins in a field, with Bridges leading fellow survivors away from their crash-landed plane. Later Bridges seeks out Perez and helps her overcome the intense guilt and grief she felt because her baby died during the crash, ripped out of her arms. Not understanding the intensity of the physical forces she had been fighting, she believed she had let go, that she was responsible for her child’s death. The movie is one of resolution and redemption, but it left me anxious and distressed. In a few weeks’ time, we would be flying with our infant son for the first time. We planned that I would hold him on my lap because we couldn’t afford to buy the extra ticket that would allow us to buckle him into his car seat during the flight. My misgivings worried me like a dog gnawing his bone, leaving me distraught and sleepless.
One night when elusive sleep found me, I dreamed.
Our baby asleep in the back of a car
fresh from the body shop: scrapes on the bumper and door
smoothed out and dabbed with red paint.
We approached the intersection, already filled by a string of semis barreling through,
hurtling down the hill, past
the impotent stop sign.
I put my hand over my husband’s on the steering wheel.
“Clint, slow down . . . .” The words
hung in the air as he took his right
of way, maintaining the legal forty miles per hour.
There, right before us, in the space we would soon
occupy, was a trailer full of old tires.
I braced for the impact
but the trailer had gone.
And before I could sigh and laugh or scream,
before the fluttery rush—the surge of adrenaline at a near miss,
Somewhere to my left I heard Clint say
“So much for getting the car repaired,”
a wry remark that should have been mine.
I didn’t say a thing,
Couldn’t say a thing.
A paralyzing pressure on my chest,
in my chest, stole my breath and
disconnected my body from my will.
Beautiful, strange warmth
Flooded through me
More complete, more calming,
Even than the epidural in labor.
Without fearing the knowledge, I knew
I was dying. I thought,
“I love Clint. I love my son.”
And all was right.
I woke from the dream, calm in my heart despite my trembling body, finally at peace. I had experienced death and found in that moment that there is no fear. All that matters is that I love.
So the testimony I have, as a mother, is this: we need help, and must help each other. At times, there will be unavoidable suffering, but through the Atonement, our pain can be transformed into compassion. Through times of grief and doubt, our faith will be strengthened enough to sustain us so long as we continue to look to God. When we finally accept God’s will, his path for our lives, we will have peace. And finally—the most important thing we can do—the only thing that really matters is to love. As Julian wrote centuries ago, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”