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Does Jesus Understand Postpartum Depression?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 14, 2009

We hear it all the time in political discourse: “Only a [fill in the blank] can truly represent [same fill-in]” in Congress, on the Supreme Court, on the board of directors, on the bench, in the doctor’s office, on the school board, to the pollster, and on and on and on. Hiring and admissions quotas are endlessly tweaked in the quest to get the perfect mix of male and female, black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, and every other division recognized by mankind. Hooray for the “two-fer,” the candidate who falls into two desired categories!

Maybe such carefully measured attention to representation is a good thing in human relations, maybe not. I don’t want to argue that (in fact, I’ll remove any comments that argue for or against affirmative action or anything like unto it). We’re human. We’re fallible. We’re tribal. We often lack the imagination to be empathetic with people who are different.

But is God limited by such human shortcomings?

Of course not. His mercy is universal. His love extends to all his creatures – if he notes the fall of the sparrow, he notes the tear that falls from every eye. The scriptures are full of assurances that this is so; our lives are witness to the variety of mankind whose prayers he answers and whom he invites to come unto Christ.

So it bothers me – it really, really bothers me – how often women, even Latter-day Saint women who above all others should know better, are convinced that because God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ are both male, they cannot possibly understand the pains of the wombs they created or the cares of the mothers of children for whom they surely have a more perfect love than even those mothers do.

It’s a paraphrased write-up, so I can’t quote Margaret Toscano’s talk at yesterday’s Sunstone exactly, but Kaimi reports her as saying that women are limited by Christ’s maleness. His is a male body, with male parts. “Can a male god ever save women?” he quotes her as asking.

How sad. How misguided that she even need ask. And how sad that commenters know Christ so little that they can say things like –

I personally found it hard to relate to Christ and his atonement while I was suffering from severe postpartum depression. After all, it was a time of pain and agony unique to motherhood. And since we generally don’t think of Christ as even being a father, how could he relate?

(I do not question the righteousness or sincerity of anyone who feels this way, including Margaret Toscano. I do mean just what I say, though, that it is sad that they feel this way, when the truth is so much otherwise.)

God’s love is complete. Christ’s atonement is universal. Jesus’s knowledge and compassion aren’t limited to the experiences he had in mortality – can anyone honestly believe that he is ignorant of the griefs of a child because he was never a little girl? that he can’t understand the bodily weakness of your grandfather because he gave his life before he experienced old age? How much easier should it be for us to understand that he understands the pains of our bodies – bodies he created and knows far better than we do – every bit as much as he understands the sorrows and agonies of sin that he never committed?

Because of my personal mental makeup, I see Christ’s universal understanding best in lives from the past: He knows when a missionary is hungry although he was never alone and far from home. He knows when soldiers are dying although he never wore a uniform. He knows when an abandoned and abused child is grieving although angels guarded his own infancy and warned his parents to flee to safety in Egypt. He knows when a missionary lies in an unmarked grave although friends loaned him a good tomb that he needed for only three days. He knows when a little girl has lost her way and wandered into hell although his own descent to hell was deliberate and chosen.

20 O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it.
21 And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.

– 2 Nephi 9:20-21



32 Comments »

  1. Ardis,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings on this subject.

    I love Alma 26: 35-

    Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began; yea, and my joy is carried away, even unto boasting in my God; for he has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — August 14, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis.

    I just do not understand how people can think that their suffering is in anyway so special that no one else can even begin to understand it.

    How can Toscano or others begin to know what Christ can or can’t understand about their own personal sufferings? Have they been in his shoes? Is postpartum depression any different than other forms of depression? Was Christ never depressed, alone, pained? Was he just joking when he said, “Father, if thou wilt, take this cup from me”, or “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    If Blake Ostler’s view of the Com-Passion Atonement is correct, then Christ DOES understand postpartum depression. He understands what it means to be discriminated against. He understands what it is to be alone and lonely. He understands what it is to have no one supporting him. He understands.

    When Jesus embraces us in his arms, we receive his healing love, and he absorbs our pain and suffering; he understands intimately what we go through.

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 14, 2009 @ 7:19 am

  3. Your title caught my eye since I very much think that the Savior helped me through my own post partum depression.

    I agree with every word of this post, with one caveat. (There’s always one, isn’t there?) Strands of thought that are extreme in the importance of gender roles can create a situation where it sounds like a male savior can’t save women. After all, if the roles and psychological make-up and essential characteristics of men and women are so different, how could a male savior possibly understand women? And how could a woman possibly model a male?

    Of course, I think the solution there is to reject the extreme gender talk, not reject the male Savior.

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — August 14, 2009 @ 7:20 am

  4. (Oh, and anyone who compared himself to a mother hen and a nursing mother obviously is capable of relating to women.)

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — August 14, 2009 @ 7:21 am

  5. Thanks for this. I was pleased to see how you “took on” opposing ideas without attacking anyone. And ending with your own personal view (“Because of my personal mental makeup, I see Christ’s universal understanding best in lives from the past”) — and citing those examples — is the best sort of conclusion. Thank you.

    Comment by Hunter — August 14, 2009 @ 7:40 am

  6. I’m posting this again after removing some comments because quite a bit of private email suggests that the post is worthwhile.

    Please, though, understand the post for what it is, and if you respond, respond in that vein. I don’t want to have to fight to justify my right to a testimony that doesn’t meet academic standards, and I don’t want to defend regular commenters from drive-by snarking by people who otherwise can’t be bothered to support Keepa with their comments.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  7. This is why I love you Ardis. Thank you.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 14, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  8. Ardis, I am of the opinion that Christ experiences our lives with us in order to succor us and show his love for us (call it “Robust Omniscience”). Christ may not have been able to endure that type of knowledge for long in the flesh (bleeding from every pore and all), but now he has additional resources to endure the pain and share our joy.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — August 14, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  9. I ask people again to respond in the vein of this post, as most have done, or not to bother commenting at all. Latter-day Saints have the right to bear testimony to one another without false accusations of non-charity being leveled at us.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  10. Christ certainly never had to deal with the actual pain of a laptop hard drive crashing, but I have no doubt that He understands that pain.

    (I am in no way attempting to trivialize childbirth. Just pointing out that by the same logic employed by some people, Christ couldn’t possibly understand pain delivered by or through technology that didn’t exist in his time.)

    Comment by queuno — August 14, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  11. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this subject. Although I have not commented here before, I have read several of your posts and have found them both enjoyable and enlightening. This topic, however, is one that has great personal significance to me.

    As someone who has suffered from severe PPD after the birth of each of my four children, I have been made very aware of the fact that Jesus does understand what I have suffered. One of my greatest struggles with PPD is feeling disconnected–from my baby, my husband, the Spirit, etc. When I am depressed, I struggle to feel anything at church, while reading the scriptures, or praying. And yet I have had prayers answered in such literal, obvious and sometimes immediate ways that I am unable to come to any other conclusion than that He is listening, and knows what I am going through and what I need.

    As I look at my own past, it is so easy to see the Lord’s hand guiding my life. Even when I may feel utterly alone, I am still aware that my Savior has not and will not leave me comfortless.

    Comment by bekah — August 14, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  12. I stand all amazed.

    I find it easy to lose myself in logical mazes when contemplating grace and the atonement. But, useful and pleasurable though such sports be in their place, I think it’s the “standing” rather than the “amazing” that’s important.

    I stand and am of good comfort because He called me. I stand because He told me to arise and take up my bed. I stand because I covenanted to do so (Mark 10:49, Matt 9:6, Mosiah 18:8).

    It is these experiences and committments that ground (most of the time, give or take, and trying to get better) all other of my understandings.

    A beautiful post, Ardis. Thanks for bearing witness.

    Comment by Edje — August 14, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  13. Ardis, what a wonderful post!
    Thank you.

    Comment by psychochemiker — August 14, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  14. Thank you all, especially Julie and bekah, for your confirming testimony.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  15. Ardis:

    Wonderful thoughts and perspective.

    My historical studies have not given me too many theological lessons, but they have helped me appreciate that even the best Latter-day Saints (such as all Church Presidents and their wives) have had significant amounts of suffering. We all suffer, but Christ can lighten our burdens.

    The trick for us is to learn how to cast off those burdens. Perhaps it takes a lifetime and more to master that ability.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    Comment by S.Faux — August 14, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  16. Ardis, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Christ is the creator of our whole earth and universe. As Jesus, on this earth, he was able to calm the elements and work miracles, including raising a man three days after being dead. Surely, such a person has the ability to understand ALL of our problems. To say that he cannot understand our female ailments because he is not female diminishes his power. In my opinion, if his power and majesty is diminished, then he ceases to be the Lord and his atonement has no meaning for me.

    Comment by Maurine — August 14, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  17. Every time I hear someone say the God cannot understand my pain. Including when I do it. I think back to this simple and eloquent scripture. For me it gives me peace of knowing that a divine mortal person can understand all the pains we suffer.

    For me that is the greatest testimony of the atonement. I will never understand it but I know how much it makes me whole.

    Alma 7:11

    And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

    Comment by JonW — August 14, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  18. Ardis, I didn’t hear the talk, but judging from Kaimi’s write-up, I think I would have found it far more intriguing and seen it in a much more positive light than it seems you did. It seems a natural question to me to ask why in a church in which the only gods we pray to are male, all the top leaders are male, we’re taught in the temple that we have to go through our husbands (even those of us who don’t have them) to interact with God, and all the other male-dominated church thoughts, ideas, and actions, how it’s possible women and girls can not feel alienated or left out? I think it’s quite a valid question.

    Comment by Tatiana — August 14, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  19. How “can women and girls … not feel alienated or left out?”

    By not distorting the temple covenant into a form that would be unrecognizable to someone not familiar with the standard feminist twisting of that covenant — all are invited to come unto Christ and to approach God directly, as you do every day in your personal prayers; why repeat that false formulation of the temple covenant?

    By trusting that God and Jesus Christ are not liars. By exercising faith and obtaining a witness that Jesus is the Savior, that he is divine, that he means what he says, that his atonement is universal, that his understanding is comprehensive, that his mercy is complete, and, as stated in the several quoted scriptures, that he does understand the pains and sufferings of all his people, including girls and women.

    By being Latter-day Saints, not ordinary women of the world who have only the philosophies of women to shape their questions.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 15, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  20. I agree with everything Ardis says here, in the post and in her comments. But I didn’t always have a complete and fully formed understanding of where I stand as a woman in my relationship with deity. It has been a journey. Questions were raised for me in the temple, but that is also where they were answered. Over a period of several years, I took my concerns and questions about being female and the structure of the church and the temple ceremony to the temple with me. Not in an angsty way, but patiently. I had lots of little line-upon-line revelatory experiences (and a few burning, overwhelming ones), that over time, completely resolved all my concerns.
    I guess my point is, if you have these kinds of issues and you are looking for your answers in all the wrong places, you may never get to where the answers are. The temple is a (the?) great resource for personal revelation about who we are and where we stand and if God really knows and understands us. I’m not saying don’t talk about it anywhere else, just that “the philosophies of women” may not provide answers about God as well as direct communication with Him.

    Comment by C Jones — August 15, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  21. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — August 15, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  22. Thanks for this. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand the Atonement, but I am grateful for it and I have faith that it is powerful and merciful.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — August 16, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

  23. I know people must get tired of me harping on this, but it’s just one of my buttons that gets pushed and I have to respond.

    In the temple, women approach God personally and directly, even being introduced to the Lord by another woman. No mortal man intervenes in that personal conversation. That direct interaction between mortal woman and God is in fact the pinnacle of the ritual, the event that was promised and foreseen from the beginning of the ceremony.

    Comment by Left Field — August 16, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  24. I like this passage from Chieko N. Okazaki’s Lighten Up! (Deseret Book, 1993)

    We know that on some level Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything–absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means Jesus knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer–how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the studentbody election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked, and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.

    There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands about pregnancy and giving birth. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion.

    His last recorded words to his disciples were, “And, low, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) What does that mean? It means he understands your mother-pain when your five-year old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down’s syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children who ever come are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that.

    Comment by Left Field — August 16, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  25. Thanks for that quotation, Left Field.

    I think sometimes we get stuck on the cleverness of a question and think the answer has to be harder than it really is. Jesus has said he takes upon us our pains and afflictions and sicknesses — we ought to believe him.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  26. I recently emerged from the deep abyss of postpartum depression. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it really felt like being at the bottom of an abyss. Anyway, when I felt like I was crawling through life on my hands and knees, trying to find the energy to just shower and put myself together, the one person I knew, knew loved me and felt my pain was the Lord. While, like Bekah, it was often hard to feel spiritual, how grateful I was to know he was with me. I’m certainly no gospel scholar, but I believe when he suffered in Gethsemene he felt my pain as well.

    I loved Bekah and Left Field’s comments. I had not read that passage from Sister Okazaki, what a fabulous quote.

    Thanks for sharing your message, Ardis. I am just wondering,how do we get this message out? How do we reach women who might feel like this? Can we?

    Comment by floridagirl — August 16, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  27. You can’t shame me from asking the question. Is it all my fault because I don’t enough have faith? Or is it a valid question? I think it’s a perfectly valid question. As a woman in the church I do feel underrepresented and shunted aside. Why? I do feel that bringing up daughters in the church would be problematic for me. Why must it be this way?

    You can hide your eyes and say the problem doesn’t exist but that won’t make it go away. You can claim I’m faithless or apostate to ask the question but that won’t make it go unasked. Why are girls’ programs given so much less in the way of resources than the boys’? Why does all the institutional power in our church reside with males? Why?

    Comment by Tatiana — August 17, 2009 @ 6:03 am

  28. Tatiana,
    Perhaps you are asking the wrong questions. Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac – a completely pagan form or worship? Why did God require polygamy at the hands of early Saints? Why did God allow the early Saints to be driven from place to place? And why do we go through trials today (real and/or perceived)?
    It is because God is trying to make Gods and Goddesses out of us. He places restrictions on all of us, in different ways. Some are born handicapped, blind, short, weak, lacking intellectual ability, etc. This all fits together as we each learn to handle the tests and trials. Are we willing to humble ourselves and submit to the Lord, when he asks us to sacrifice our first born? Or will we with pride insist on having things our own way?

    How are we expected to become celestial, unless God tries us? Is it unfair that women can’t hold the priesthood? No more unfair than men cannot bear children. Is it unfair that at 50 years of age, I have no biological children of my own? It is all a matter of two things: perception and pride. Do we seek to perceive things from God’s point of view, or from another? And are we going to spit into the wind, or seek to have a contrite spirit and broken heart?

    Life was thus designed to see what we make of it. Yes, it is a matter of faith. But it is also a matter of humility versus pride. It is a sad commentary to call God impotent when it comes to PPD or women’s needs. It is also a sad thought when we consider any trial that is placed before us as something that overbearing men (mortal or divine) have placed upon us.

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 17, 2009 @ 7:17 am

  29. Tatiana, none of those questions has the remotest connection to the subject of this post, which is whether or not the Savior understands women’s bodies.

    Nor have I or anyone else claimed you were “faithless or apostate,” especially for asking questions. In fact, there are comments specifically endorsing the asking of questions — any questions.

    When the scriptures give such a plain answer to a question, though, as they do to the one about whether a male Christ understands women’s bodies, then I do think we’re bound to accept that answer, or at least try to accept it, rather than continuing to ask the question as if God hadn’t already bothered to answer. At the very least, I have the right to bear my testimony to my own acceptance of that answer.

    I could offer answers to your questions in your #27, but unlike the question posed by this post, theose answers would be only short-sighted human ones, and I suspect that you may be more interested in asking the questions than in hearing possible answers.

    Please — don’t accuse me of accusing you of something I haven’t said, am not thinking, don’t believe, and would not tolerate being said here by anyone else. Of course asking questions doesn’t make you faithless or apostate — but answering questions doesn’t make me cruel or judgmental or unwomanly or anti-feminist, either.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 17, 2009 @ 7:23 am

  30. I will always love Margaret Toscano and wish we could be in agreement once in a while.

    But, to my mind the big gap is not between male and female, but between mortal and divine. The “condescension of God” in coming here and living with us is the real thing to consider. It gives one pause to think what we are and the excuses we make for ourselves.

    Comment by S. Taylor — August 18, 2009 @ 10:59 am

  31. I’ve been reading a lot of the posts on this site and enjoying them very much, but resisting the urge to comment until now. The subject of this one–not postpartum depression per se, but Christ’s relationship to women–is one I feel particularly strongly about. (And I know I’m more than two years behind everyone else on the thread, but oh well.)

    Ardis, I agree with you 100%. I believe the Savior thoroughly understands the female experience, not just as theory, but as substance. He’s “been there” in a way no woman ever has. He understands bleeding. He understands pain. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, isolated, abused, dehumanized. He knows what it’s like to put your own life on the line in order to give life to someone else. And He learned all this “according to the flesh,” the same way we learn. Our (male) Savior volunteered to undergo all this. That, to me, is evidence that gender presents no barrier to His understanding and power.

    Anyway, thank you for all the stuff you post. I am heartened and instructed every time I come here.

    Comment by Dvorah — December 22, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  32. Thank you for all this, Dvorah. I’d sure like to hear a voice like yours commenting on other posts, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 22, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

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