1 in 3 Dads (38%) are worried about their own health
3 in 4 Dads (73%) are worried about the health of their partner
Research by the ‘National Childbirth Trust’
Becoming a Father is one of the most vulnerable times in a man’s life. In my work as a Psychologist with new parents and their babies, I see again and again that Dad’s feel their role is to be strong to support their partner through the pregnancy, birth, and early years. Unfortunately, this often means that professionals fail to even ask how Dad is coping.
Recently there has been a much needed increase in mental health support for mothers, as the NHS has begun to appreciate what an emotionally challenging time it is in a woman’s life. But a Father who is stressed, worried about finances, who perhaps can’t bear to hear the baby crying in the night, or feels pushed out by this new tiny person, needs help just as much.
In general, men are less likely to seek help for their health. The old ideas about masculinity can make them feel they aren’t being a good partner or Father if they feel any emotions strongly. Men are more likely to recognise and describe the physical symptoms of depression (such as feeling tired or losing weight) than women. Men may acknowledge feeling irritable or angry, rather than saying they feel low. Everyone feels ‘down’ occasionally but if you’ve been sad, moody, angry, or unable to sleep or concentrate for more than a couple of weeks, it could be depression. Men are also more likely to use negative coping skills such as drinking, drugs, gambling, or even fighting.
What your baby and partner need is a Dad who can ask for help when he needs it, a Dad who is able to enjoy getting to know their baby. If difficult childhood memories are being stirred up by becoming a Father, this can get in the way of you bonding with your baby and being able to offer them a different kind of relationship.
Witnessing the birth of your child is often described as magical and joyful, but for some men, it can be a harrowing experience of seeing your partner struggling and feeling powerless to help. There may have been fears about your child’s health which were terrifying and overwhelming. If these memories continue to disturb you for some time afterward you may need to talk to a therapist to resolve the unprocessed feelings.
Dads Matter UK highlights the following symptoms which may indicate you need support:
- not going out anymore
- not getting things done at work/school
- withdrawing from close family and friends
- relying on alcohol and sedatives
- not doing usual enjoyable activities
- unable to concentrate
- "I'm a failure"
- "It's my fault"
- "Nothing good ever happens to me"
- "I'm worthless"
- "Life's not worth living"
- "People would be better off without me"
- tired all the time
- sick and run down
- headaches and muscle pain
- churning gut
- sleep problems
- loss or change of appetite
- significant weight loss or gain
- no interest in sex
- poor concentration
- overwhelming or unable to cope
- irritable or frustrated
- lacking in confidence
- indecisive or unable to make decisions
- miserable or sad
- unable to bond with the baby
There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a method of torture. You need sleep as much as your partner does and the effects of insufficient sleep on your wellbeing are significant. Nap when you can, accept offers of help, be compassionate to yourself and make sure you exercise – even a 10 minute walk outside can make a real difference. It’s important to take time to yourself to unwind so that when you are home you are in a better place to respond to the needs of a demanding baby.
It can be painful to feel on the outside when the baby needs Mum so much. Try talking to any other Dads you know about how they found it. Mums get a lot of social support from groups of other Mums but often Dads are left carrying their feelings quietly on their own.
Postnatal depression in dads can take its toll on their relationships. Postnatal depression in Dads can affect their relationship with the baby’s mother. It can also affect the relationship they have with their child. They may play and engage less with their children and talk more negatively about, and to them. They may sing and read less to their children and may discipline them more harshly. Plenty of Dads with depression do an amazing job, but sometimes knowing these facts can motivate Dads to get some more help.
Dads’ depression is associated with emotional, social, and behavioural problems as well as developmental delays in their children. The association is stronger when a Father experiences Antenatal as well as Postnatal depression, and when his symptoms are particularly severe. There is also a stronger association when Mum also has mental health problems.
Other research has shown that Fathers who experience increasing distress report being less consistent in setting and enforcing clear expectations and limits for their child’s behaviour, and if left untreated they can show less warmth and greater hostility towards their children by the time the child is aged 8-9. This is a result of a negative pattern developing, and this can be nipped in the bud early on before it gets to this point.
Fathers with poorer mental health told us they were less likely to feel effective as parents and were less confident in their own parenting. They were more critical of, less patient, and less consistent in parenting behaviours with their children. They also spent less time with them, were less likely to be involved with their child’s school or early education service, and less likely to feel confident about helping them with their school work. Worryingly the Dads surveyed were less likely than Mums to identify someone they trusted they could turn to for advice.
So if you are struggling, what can you do?
Spend time observing your child, just holding them, talking to them about what they see and how they are feeling. You don’t have to come up with elaborate games, they will benefit most from your undivided attention and interest in them, this will help them feel important, safe, and loved. Confident holding reassures the baby, you can soothe them with your voice or gently stroking, singing, and being playful.
If you think you might need some extra professional help to build your relationship with your child or think through the kind of Dad you want to be, you can speak to a Psychologist who specialises in attachment, parenting, and the ‘early years’.
For further reading on this topic: https://ihv.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/PT-Understanding-your-emotional-health-and-wellbeing-following-the-birth-of-your-baby-fathers-FINAL-VERSION-19.6.20.pdf
Dr. Jenny Griffiths
Clinical Psychologist, Bristol