The birth of a child causes everything to change and while many find this transition a joyful experience it is rarely smooth sailing.
Some parents will struggle harder than others with 1 in 7 new mums being diagnosed with postnatal depression during this time . But what about new dads? Are they exempt from this condition that is slowly gaining more awareness? Definitely not, but the symptoms may not be what you were expecting.
During pregnancy and early parenthood men tend to fall through the cracks. Women celebrate baby showers, join mothers groups and have seemingly endless contact with early childhood nurses and doctors. There is generally a constant stream of support as women make the transition to being a mum and yet their partners are generally feeling just as unsure and scared about their changing role with little to no recognition.
As one dad I spoke to reflected on his experience of becoming a father ‘…no one cares about you. The concern is on the mother and child and you just have to suck it up’. We also live in a culture where we have a tendency to expect men to be strong and invincible. This means they lack support networks and have it instilled in them by society they can’t express negative feelings in case they are perceived as weak.
Perhaps you would be shocked that PANDA (Perinatal Depression & Anxiety Australia) states 1 in 20 new dads are diagnosed with postnatal depression  (makes you wonder how many are left untreated).
Often when we think about postnatal depression we think of people displaying symptoms such as being withdrawn, sad, and lacking self-esteem. Symptoms such as these are relatively easy to trigger concern from those surrounding the individual and spur them to investigate if there is a problem. But what about the man who is supposed to be strong and invincible and won’t let his emotions show?
While some men may display ‘typical’ symptoms many won’t. Their behaviour may change in other ways – perhaps he may start working longer hours, get angry over seemingly small things, reduce the amount of time he is spends with his family, and/or increases his alcohol or illegal drug use. Is it possible these could also be symptoms? The answer is yes!
So what can you do about it? These behaviour changes in isolation may not indicate postnatal depression but if you are concerned it may be worthwhile talking to your partner or a professional about it. The good news is postnatal depression responds well to treatment – things can get better! (Please see below for ideas on how to connect with support services).
As postnatal depression affects everyone in a family recovery doesn’t happen in isolation either. If you have been living with a depressed partner for a while it may be difficult to find the compassion and patience to help. The statistics also suggest there is a good chance if your partner has postnatal depression so do you. If this is the case don’t be afraid to ask for help for yourself too – both of you deserve to enjoy being parents!
Here are three simple strategies you may be able to incorporate into you and your partner’s lifestyle to help things improve.
These alone are not likely to fix the problem but the hope is they will provide some symptom relief and make that big black hole that is postnatal depression look a little less deep.
Number 1: Sleep
Any parent is aware they were never fully able to appreciate the value of sleep until it was taken from them. As impossible as it seems there is research out there highlighting the importance of uninterrupted sleep on mood. Is there a way that you can try and help your partner achieve this? It may not be a possibility every night as some babies are difficult and require the attention of both parents, not to mention you also need uninterrupted sleep.
But I hear of parents who both get up every time their baby is crying and I have to wonder why both parents should be deprived of this precious commodity. If your baby is sleeping in a bassinet in your room can you wheel it to another room while settling the baby to minimise noise and distraction? Is there somewhere else your partner can sleep where they can’t hear the crying child? The focus should be on the long blocks of sleep rather than overall quantity of broken sleep. If your fortunate enough to be able to afford it there may be someone in your area available for hire to help look after your baby overnight such as postpartum doula or night nanny.
Number 2: Exercise
Exercise can often be the last thing on your mind when your sleep deprived and feeling low – but it has so many benefits it’s worth the effort. Perhaps it’s accommodating time in your family routine for your partner to engage with his sporting interests. The benefits of exercise are numerous: the body is healthy and fitter meaning it feels ‘better’; it may provide a form of social contact; it can provide a form of distraction from negative thoughts; it can provide a sense of accomplishment; it promotes better sleep; and it releases endorphins! Exercise doesn’t need to be a big deal, even taking baby for a walk around the block together can provide some of these benefits and it gives you a chance to spend some time together away from the chaos of housework.
Number 3: Bonding experiences with the baby
What I have heard from men experiencing postnatal depression is they feel disconnected from their families. They spend their days out of the home and it’s the mother that knows how to settle their child, the mother that seems to have a special bond, the mother that is telling them how to care for their child.
Regardless of whether there is any truth in these perceptions if a father starts having thoughts like these chances are his confidence as a father will start to unravel and he will distance himself from the family. This may result in mum spending even more time with baby and dad feeling even more out of the loop – Can you see the problem here?
Provided safety is not a concern, is it possible to involve your partner more in the care of your child? Perhaps it is asking him to care for the child while you cook dinner/ have a shower/ hang out the washing – choose a time when your child is settled and likely to make him feel like a competent father. The more quality time they spend together the more smiles, giggles and responses he will get which in turn will hopefully make him more likely to play again in future.
Is it possible for you to refrain from telling him what to do and just letting him work out what works within the dynamic between him and baby? By being told what to do one of the messages being relayed is that he isn’t capable enough as a parent to figure it out for himself – which is exactly the message we don’t want reinforced. If things do start to go pear shaped you can always reappear and join in the interaction so that overall it is still a positive experience for everyone.
Disclaimer: Each person is unique and so is their situation. This article can only provide general information and it is important for you to talk with your own care provider to see if this information and support strategies are relevant to you and your partner. If you or your partner are concerned about your emotional wellbeing and you haven’t already please seek support – information, treatment and support are all readily available for both carers and individuals. If you have any immediate concerns for the safety or you, your partner or your children please call 000. Lastly, please understand this article has been written to develop awareness about postnatal depression in men – unfortunately I am not in a position to respond to comments regarding recommendations for your personal situation.