Dads with depression
While postnatal depression in new mums is well documented, awareness around dads suffering from the ‘baby blues’ is only a recent development. Andrew Swallow, 38, tells his story.
When my wife Jen told me we were expecting our first child, it was a complete shock. We had previously been told we were infertile, and weren’t even trying. I was happy, but worried too – we’d been out drinking the previous weekend, had just come back from a ski break and Jen hadn’t been taking vitamins or folic acid. Would these things affect the baby?
Our obstetrician told us our concerns were normal and it was reassuring to know that because of previous problems we would be closely monitored through pregnancy. But those nagging worries hung around. Jen suffered hyperemesis gravidarum over the first few months and had to be hospitalised. I remember she was really low and I felt like I had to be strong for her, tell her everything was fine and keep cracking jokes.
Even after the morning sickness cleared up my anxious feelings didn’t go away, but I felt so overprotective of Jen that I covered them up. I just wanted her to feel relaxed and excited about becoming a mum.
When our son Joshua was born, Jen had a very difficult delivery. She needed an emergency blood transfusion. I panicked. I couldn’t hold our baby, I didn’t understand what was going on. Even when they said she was fine I couldn’t leave her side. She and Joshua were kept in hospital for a week and I remember having to brace myself before I visited, plastering on my smile.
Once Jen and Josh were home, I felt much better. We got caught up in the day-to-day routine and luckily I was working from home so I could give Jen plenty of time to rest. I loved spending time with Josh, giving him a bottle and rocking him to sleep. I’d sing him ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ by The Mamas and the Papas and although tired from all the night wakings, I felt really grateful.
Then, when Josh was about five weeks old, things took a sharp turn downhill. Jen hadn’t recovered very well from the blood loss and was suffering from postnatal depression. She was still taking medication, still in pain from her stitches and still under hospital care. We had no family close by and I felt the pressure to be available 24/7.
One night, Jen was so tired I couldn’t wake her up to feed Joshua. I was so desperate I drove to an all night pharmacy and bought some formula. The next morning she was angry with me for making that decision without her – but I honestly didn’t know what else to do. Looking back, I realise we both felt like we were letting Joshua down.
By the time Josh was eight weeks old I felt like I was going to snap. The lack of sleep and increased responsibility were crushing me. I wasn’t singing to Joshua any more and I’d take any opportunity to get out of the house.
At a doctor’s visit when Joshua was nine weeks old, Jen left the room to go to the toilet. The doctor said to me, ‘And how is Dad?’ and I just burst into tears. I realised that was the first time anybody had asked me how I felt for months and although I’d been suppressing it, the truth was that I felt terrible.
I was diagnosed with postnatal depression and it was a relief to know I wasn’t just losing my mind. We changed our whole lives to get us back on track. We ate better, cut out alcohol and both began pilates. Most importantly, we learned to let go of Joshua; allowing friends to take him for a few hours so we could go for a walk or have dinner in peace and Jen’s mum, who lived three hours away, would take him for a weekend once a month to give us space to be a couple.
I’d encourage any dad feeling under pressure with a new baby in the house to be honest with his partner about his feelings and to see a GP. Postnatal depression in fathers is very real, but with the right support I got better quickly.
The expert says
Dr Natalie Flynn from Emotional Health Services in Auckland is a specialist in perinatal mental health.
“It used to be the case that postnatal depression was linked directly with hormones. One good thing about the increased recognition of the condition in men is that we’ve had to accept there are other factors at play for both sexes. Studies show that 10 – 15 per cent of men suffer with postnatal depression, compared with 13 – 20 per cent of women.
The best predictor of whether a man will get postnatal depression is if his wife has it. I always ask a new mum how her husband is doing and if the answer is that he’s not coping, then I invite him in as well.
Men often find it hard to admit they aren’t coping, especially if their wife has postnatal depression. They want to be strong for her, be a buffer. Actually, they have a responsibility to look after themselves, as two people with depression can result in poor outcomes for the baby.
Even men who know they have some sort of depression find it hard to seek help and that’s largely because the public health system has been set up with women in mind. Even the specialist team is called ‘maternal mental health services’ – but there is support for men if they ask for it.
Postnatal depression in men can often present a little differently from women. If Dad is spending more time away from home, drinking more alcohol, seems distant from his new baby or has more of a temper than normal, they can all be indicative of a problem. It could also manifest as greater concern for his own physical health.
Triggers for men include feeling left out, especially around feeding routines, and feeling criticised even though they want to help. I often talk about the myths of parenthood: we expect a natural birth, to fall in love with our baby, for breastfeeding to be easy – and when parenthood doesn’t meet our expectations we feel like a failure. For women, there are routes to engage with their peers through Plunket or Playcentre, but for men there is often little opportunity to talk about the way they are feeling.
It is essential to keep an open dialogue with your partner. Ask them how they are, encourage them to acknowledge it if they aren’t coping. Self-care is important: eating healthily, reduced alcohol intake, plenty of exercise. It’s also good for men to have a day away from their new baby and partner once a week or so, in the same way as women need a break, and work doesn’t count.
Ultimately, if new dads are still finding it hard to cope they should see their GP and seek professional help.”
Need help? Have you heard of the Father and Child Trust?
Set up specifically to help men of all ages with the transition to fatherhood, Father and Child Trust offers peer support, talking therapies and resources, nationwide. For more information visit fatherandchild.org.nz
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