Sometimes having a baby is so all-consuming, we can overlook the important people in our life. When we think of parenting, dads often get forgotten as we get drawn into the vortex of pregnancy, birth stories and the dramas and dilemmas around “breast or bottle.”
Irritability, low mood or frequently staying late at work can see fathers being labelled as unsupportive, ‘bad’ dads. The truth is, your partner may be feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to know where he stands in your new family dynamic.
Is your man unknowingly suffering depression?
Father of two, Israel Smith says his depression began when he and his wife Belinda were planning for the birth of their second child. The pressure of creating financial security for his growing clan stretched him to his limits, both physically and emotionally. Added to this pressure, Israel says, “I didn’t want to stress out my wife, Belinda, so I stopped talking to her about work and kept my concerns to myself. I would nod off at the dinner table, snap angrily at my daughter and be silent and distant from Belinda.”
Isaac’s is an all too familiar story says Lisa Knott from Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA). “There are a lot of expectations on dads. They can often feel that they don’t have a right to find it difficult because they haven’t physically been through the pregnancy and birth. Becoming a dad can physically challenge their manhood, though, and men can often struggle to ask for help.”
Psychologist Ian Wallace agrees, saying, “All dads have some difficulty adjusting, but persistent, intense changes in mood, motivation and emotions should be recognised as a great cause for concern. The most important sign is a significant change in mood over a time period. Men are often more agitated, irritable, anxious and even driven to taking out-of-character risks. Men should recognise that they are feeling different to how they thought they might, such as feeling disconnected from the family, wanting to withdraw and not feeling motivated as a dad, when they imagined this would be more about being a big, content, involved family.”
So, the key to being proactive is knowing that PND presents differently in different people. Know what’s normal for your man and take note if their behaviour changes.
What factors make some dads more at risk?
· A partner with PND
· Family or personal history of depression/anxiety
· Baby health problems
· Financial pressure
· Personality traits (such as, generally lacking in confidence)
· First time parenthood
Even if these risk factors aren’t an issue, there are more subtle ways that PND can creep in. Your man has seen you morph into superwoman throughout the whole pregnancy/birth process and questions if he can keep up his own confident, decisive superhero status for you. And he may have gone from being your number one, to dropping ever so slightly down the pecking order! We may not see it at the time, but this can trigger troubling behaviours that can spiral into a depressive state.
Israel shares that, in their situation, Belinda didn’t understand what the problem was. “We were fighting a lot and she couldn’t comprehend the severity of my depression. She had just given birth to our second child and her response to my illness was along the lines of “what’s your problem? I’ve got through heaps worse than this without losing it. Why can’t you?”
He appreciates that it was when Belinda had a moment of clarity and altered her attitude that her approach changed. “She realised we had to treat the depression with the same focus and dedication as if it were cancer”.
Seeking help for PND
Ian Wallace emphasises that a big part of the road to recovery is accepting men can have PND. “We must understand that dads need to seek emotional and personal support, rather than bottling up their feelings or withdrawing, as men tend to do. Men often report feeling irritable, caged and worthless so it’s important they exercise and practice mindfulness to settle their over active, distraught minds.”
The first step is to know where to go for help. The PANDA helpline supports all parents and carers. Men can call if they aren’t coping or if they don’t know how to help their partners. There are male counsellors to talk to and they can direct you to where to get more help if you need it. The staff are a mix of professional counsellors as well as people who have lived through depression and can offer advice from first-hand experience.
Israel feels his recovery began when he spoke out. He admitted to his step-father that something was wrong. “I said to him, “I’m just not coping… I hate my business, we’re losing money every day, I’m tired and angry all the time and I’ve just missed my daughter’s last year before school because I was working too hard. I don’t know what to do.” He then gave me the simplest, and, possibly the best, piece of advice: Either figure out what’s wrong and fix it or if you can’t do that, get some help to figure out what’s wrong then fix it.”
Finding your moment of clarity
A questionnaire on the Beyond Blue website was a revelation for Israel. “It was like someone had put all my thoughts and feelings on the page in front of me,” he says. “It became very clear to me that I was very likely suffering from depression. I made an appointment with my GP, was referred to a psychologist and a treatment plan was put in place. Belinda and I began working together towards my recovery and we made rapid progress to get me back on track.”
“My advice to anyone who isn’t feeling themselves is to talk to someone and get help. The sooner, the better. It’s not a matter of just having a bad day or being a sook. You and your family need to accept it’s a real issue. Just because it doesn’t show up on a scan like a broken arm or other illness, doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It’s debilitating and the physical effects are just as bad. Through treatment, I’ve learned what my triggers and symptoms are and I’ve learned techniques that help me stay balanced and positive.”
The bottom line
Paternal postnatal depression is real. The sooner we get onto it, the easier it is to begin recovery. Often, the men in our lives need a little encouragement to seek help. So a non-judgemental, practical conversation could be the start of a happier path for your family.