By John Hampton
The birth of a baby usually is one of the happiest life experiences a family can have.
However, I witnessed firsthand what happens when the circumstances around the birth of a child take bizarre twists and scary turns down an unfamiliar road you don’t know if you’re ever coming back from.
My wife, Melinda, and I are the parents of two daughters, Anna and Rachel. Both are beautiful, grown-up, married young women. We are so blessed to be their parents and the in-laws of two young men who we proudly call “our sons.”
Our oldest daughter, Anna, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was senior minister of nearby Southwest Christian Church. Her birth was not a “textbook delivery.” Anna Maria Hampton entered the world weighing a whopping 9 pounds, 9 ounces, only after 20 hours of labor and, finally, a cesarean section.
But Anna’s birth was a “walk in the park” compared to what my wife went through about five years later.
Strange Behaviors, Church Challenges
By the time we were ready to have our second child, we had moved to Lexington, Kentucky. I was the preacher at what was then Northern Heights Christian Church (it has since relocated and been renamed NorthEast Christian Church). Early in this pregnancy, Melinda was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Not the worst thing that could happen, but when you enjoy food the way my wife does, well . . . it was not a happy ride home from the doctor’s office. When Melinda asked if she could eat anything with sugar in it over the next few months, the nurse replied with a straight face, “Ketchup.” My wife wept—loudly and all the way home.
In the weeks leading up to the delivery date, Melinda started demonstrating some strange behaviors. She couldn’t sleep. She was nervous and restless. Her sleeplessness caused her to slip into a robotic, expressionless, flat demeanor that did not at all resemble my sanguine, fun-loving, charming wife. I started getting scared.
At the same time, I was facing “professional” challenges: I was a 29-year-old preacher trying to lead a tradition-bound, stagnant church back to vitality and relevance; I was preparing for an important stewardship series; and I was dealing with some potential serious legal issues resulting from an ill-conceived day-care proposal that eventually was scrapped. In short, I basically felt like I was in way over my head. And so to come home and be met by a woman who was clearly not herself—and who seemed to be getting worse by the day—scared me.
Melinda, however, was even more scared. And I was too self-absorbed in my church world to notice just how scared she was.
She was determined to give birth to our second child in a more natural manner. No more cesareans for her. But as she became more depleted physically, and as she became more detached emotionally, she was in no condition to have a natural birth.
And then she “snapped.” I’ve heard that expression before, but until you’ve seen it, you can’t imagine what it means. She lost touch with reality. She paced the floor. She couldn’t carry on a coherent conversation. She started repeating the same phrases over and over. She was mentally shutting down.
Her doctor assessed her condition and scheduled an immediate cesarean. Biochemically and hormonally, her system had just gotten way out of whack, and the best thing to do, according to the doctor, was to deliver her from this pregnancy as quickly as possible.
The next few hours are a blur. Melinda was prepped for surgery. I “gowned up” to be at her side. Shortly after the operation began, our second daughter, Rachel Elizabeth, triumphantly emerged. She was healthy, beautiful, and thankfully, smaller than her older sister. Melinda and I both cried tears of joy and relief, and I thought our brief descent into the confusing world of general misery was over.
But I was wrong—so wrong.
After enjoying one peaceful day of postdelivery bliss, Melinda began to slip back into the same troubling behaviors she exhibited before the birth—only now there were also hallucinations. She began hearing voices, and she became increasingly agitated and aggressive. This went on for three days, and a psychiatrist was called in. Heavy doses of medications were prescribed and administered, but I couldn’t see much change.
Then we were told, “She can’t stay here. This is a birthing center. Your daughter is ready to go home, but your wife needs special care.” The experts suggested my wife be admitted to the mental health unit of a nearby hospital. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How did we get here? What happened to my wife? What in the world is going on?
Then came the hardest day of my life. I sent my newborn daughter home with my parents in one car, and I drove my wife in another to a hospital where I checked her into the mental health and psychiatric unit. After the admissions paperwork was processed, I was told to leave and come back only during permitted visiting hours. Suddenly it struck me that I no longer had access to my wife without the consent of someone else.
I went home exhausted, confused, and as defeated as I have ever felt. I sat on the couch and said out loud, “Lord, is this it? Am I done in ministry? I have a wife who will need special care, probably from now on, and the life of a ministry family is not in her best interest. I have two daughters who need a mother, and she can’t take care of them. I don’t know what to do, God.”
Melinda would later be diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. It’s not uncommon for new mothers to experience some form of what is often referred to as “the baby blues”; some women experience a bout of postpartum depression. Few women experience a psychotic episode of the magnitude that Melinda did. Thankfully, mercifully, in her case, it was a temporary state.
Through competent professional treatment, the right medications, an unbelievable support system from both sets of our parents, the patience and love of some special friends, and massive amounts of prayer from many, Melinda slowly became herself again. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy, but considering the seriousness of her condition, we consider it a miraculous recovery, and we still thank God for it. Within a matter of months, you would have never known what happened.
Lessons from the Pain
That was 21 years ago. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime, but in others, the pain is still fresh every time I relive that surreal period. My wife and I have been married for 29 years now. She is healthier and more beautiful than ever. She has never had another experience or episode like the one that accompanied the birth of Rachel. And there are many times when she probably could have cracked in dealing with some major life issues, but time and again she has shown herself to be one tough woman—and I fall more deeply in love with her every day.
Joe Harvey, of Florida Christian College, and I were asked to speak about ministry meltdowns at this past year’s North American Christian Convention in Orlando, Florida, where I now lead a wonderful community of Christ followers. Joe and I came up with what we called “Lessons Learned from Inside a Meltdown.” Here are a few takeaways we put together from some of our most pronounced life-defining crisis moments:
No one is exempt. Preachers, professors, plumbers . . . all kinds of people must deal with sudden and scary situations life can sometimes throw at us. Jesus didn’t exclude anyone when he warned, “In this world, you will have trouble.”
These are not quick events. Joe struggled with depression for the better part of two years. The death of his father, the complete hearing loss of his 19-year-old daughter, and the loss of a job all occurred within a short period of time, but the fallout from these life-changing events hung on for quite awhile.
All of us are more fragile than the way we present ourselves. It’s amazing and scary how things can quickly fall apart for public people who seemingly “have it all together.” I learned a long time ago there is a broken heart in every pew . . . and often there is a broken heart in the pulpit that is carefully being masked.
Be careful about constructing a theology based on your pain. We love to talk about the great declarations of Job—“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”; “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord”—but do we really mean it? Unexplainable pain has a way of testing what we really believe and clearing our minds of a faulty theology.
Listen to your spouse and let trusted people in. This should go without saying, but I think it needs to be clearly stated: listen to your spouse! Let close friends in and let them carry your burden. The power of loving relationships and a supportive network is never more needed than in those meltdown moments.
Don’t underestimate the power of self-revelation. Talking about our hidden hurts has an amazing attractional quality. I had an angry agnostic woman ask me after a recent sermon: “What the _____ do you know about real life anyway?” When I began to share with her some of our family’s struggles, she softened immediately, and not long after that conversation, gave her life to Christ. There is great power in appropriately disclosing our humanity.
Don’t be afraid to get some professional help. I grew up in an environment where there was a stigma around those in mental health professions and the people who went to them. I believed that people who were weak and couldn’t cope with life needed “shrinks”—but not “normal” people like me and my family. Now I would tell a person with such an attitude, “Get over yourself. Everybody else already has.”
Don’t ignore your emotions. We have gauges that provide us with vital information about how the internal components of our vehicles are performing. We are wise to monitor them. We have internal sensors God has placed in our bodies that likewise provide us with important information. These are called emotions, and we are wise to heed them.
Recycle your pain. Several months after Melinda’s recovery, I got a phone call from a young preacher in another part of the country who said his wife who had just given birth was “acting weird.” I talked with him and prayed over the phone for him and her. Not long after that, another minister called with a similar problem. Then another.
Through the years, my wife and I have been able to minister to many young couples who have experienced less than ideal births. I have visited people in mental health units and had meaningful conversations; that’s because I have sat with a loved one and wondered the same things they are now wondering: Is this the way it’s always going to be? Will I ever get better? Will I ever feel hope again?
My wife and I are proud to be walking testimonies to 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
John Hampton is lead pastor with Journey Christian Church in Apopka, Florida.