This piece comes from the “The stigma of postpartum depression” series, honoring the life of Nima Bhakta. I interviewed several South Asian women about their experience of postpartum depression to share their stories and help as a community support mothers after labor and delivery.
Fairly is a mother of two women in their 20s. She didn’t live with postpartum depression when it was a conversation we were willing to engage in. There weren’t Facebook groups for moms or Instagram stories for her to discover stories and share her own.
When Fairly became a mom for the second time, she was almost 8,000 miles away from her mother, sisters, and friends. She, her husband, and young daughter lived in Lancaster, PA—two hours away from her husband’s family. Her daughter was the only child of color at the local elementary school.
When Fairly and her husband, Thomas (Babu), decided to try for their next baby, it was a complex time in their lives. While she had recently immigrated to the United States (only a few years earlier), she would spend a couple of years in Boston—away from her husband and young daughter—to complete dental school. When she graduated, she returned home to Lancaster.
Five months into her pregnancy, doctors diagnosed the baby with a serious brain condition. If they chose to keep the baby, she wouldn’t have long to live. The diagnosis sent Fairly a rush of depressive emotions. She was only still a young wife and a young mother of one, crumbling under the weight of this news without her parents and childhood friends close by to cushion this blow. She found herself surrounded by a community that didn’t know how to manage or put into words what she was going through.
Despite growing up in and living a devoted faith-centered life, the diagnosis devastated Fairly with grief. She was hopeless, helpless, and mad at God. As she and her husband visited specialists all over the Northeast, tugging at any loose strand for a miracle, she knew the likelihood of a positive outcome was grim.
Little Hannah was born on December 12th, 1998. A few days later, she was gone. Her parents only had the chance to hold her for a few fleeting moments.
Fairly says those few days that she got to hold her daughter was mixed with the joy and unbearable sadness. The loss of her daughter sent Fairly into a deep and dark depression. She grasped for the purpose to keep going.
As the world around her kept spinning, Fairly was dry, empty, and crying inside. She went through the motions almost robotically—waking up only because it was daytime and because she had to take care of her young family.
I know Fairly very well. She’s my kind and caring aunt, an incredible mom to two young women, and an exceptional wife. She and my uncle, Babu, are beacons of hope in their local Indian community. They are incredible faith-led people, and they are always full of love and laughs. During the holidays, their little white picket-fenced home has the biggest Christmas tree I have ever seen, and their house is always overflowing with family and friends. They are the epitome of hospitality, graciousness, and cheer.
When Fairly shared her story with me, I was taken aback that someone as full of light as she is could have gone through such a terrible tragedy.
When Fairly was going through this season, local churchgoers encouraged her to close this chapter of her story, praise God for the experience, and move on. They offered their prayers and advice to stay strong and urged her to look to strong Biblical characters (like David and Job) who “trusted God” despite going through personal tragedy.
Fairly felt she wasn’t living up to her role of wife and mother. She heard these words to move on and knew people were judging her for not having it together. She felt like a failure—and more importantly, a disappointment to her loving husband and child.
She felt she was a weak and unfit mother.
When Fairly’s husband, Babu, tried to confront her about her issues, he did as many of us would: he tried to solve the problem. Throughout the pregnancy, Babu had contended in his heart that Hannah’s story was God’s will. Fairly remembers driving in the car with her husband after their initial diagnosis, tears streaming down his face as he’d sing the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
For Fairly, holding onto her grief did not sit well with her soul. As she stayed in her depressive state for over four months after Hannah’s passing, her husband sought support from the local Mennonite church near their house. The pastor suggested counseling.
Through counseling and a parents’ grief group, Fairly was able to find a space to air out her pain and sorrow with those walking through similar experiences. She sat in a room with White women who, like many in her little town, had lived through tragic experiences like hers. She heard how the women and their partners navigate through their anguish.
Through their stories, Fairly was able to find space for her own.
When I asked Fairly what it was like to walk through this journey in a time before the topic of mental health started seeing more daylight in public discourse, she said that she doesn’t blame the community around her.
“Our Indian church was not prepared to handle this type of tragedy. There is too much cultural stigma that surrounds it. When [the believers] see someone depressed, we pray more, fast more, because honestly, they don’t know what else to do.”
Pastors and believers are not all necessarily called to manage tragedy. The Church should normalize the essential services for care for the people who need them. Prayer is not always the answer people need. Most of the time, people need counsel, support, and resources to get through difficult seasons.
It is uncommon for people to focus on the mother and her health. She becomes relegated to the background behind the glorious arrival of the precious newborn. It’s a given that the mother is happy to spend all of her time and energy and emotion with this bundle of joy.
Her story reminds me of how integral it is to pay attention to new mothers. She recommends expecting parents to have a real conversation about the possibility of postpartum depression— creating a “tribe” of safe people who can be on the lookout for the mother and her needs. This tribe should be checking in on the mother, calling her, asking how she’s doing, and making sure her overall health is a priority.
When I look at my aunt today, she reminds me that a moment of brokenness can lead to such perspective, insight, and freedom. Leaning into this vulnerability made her a better wife and mother. By giving herself space to feel, she opened up a life for herself that is full of life, love, and so much more in store.