After having a child or children, parents can experience a form of depression that is “reactive” to the new situation and circumstances in their lives, this is a form of postnatal depression and yes, it can include the father. It can be difficult to identify that a man is suffering with paternal postnatal depression because the occurrence of this condition in men is not widely-understood or accepted by health practitioners and people in general. After birth, the focus is usually on the physical and mental wellbeing of the mother and the infant. Men are typically not prone to reaching-out to others when they are in need of emotional support or help. Additionally, men that suffer with postnatal depression often display very different signs and behaviours than women that suffer with the same condition. Men are usually better at putting on a brave façade and looking like they are not suffering with postnatal depression. Many men would not notice they are suffering with this condition, they would vehemently deny that this was happening. The level of suffering, when the father lets himself feel it, however, is not to be taken lightly and is really quite serious.
Women that suffer with postnatal depression can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms and behaviours. A common theme is a feeling of inadequacy, compounded by strong feelings of shame for not enthusiastically leaping into the perfect mother role. For example, a mother may feel devastated that she cannot breastfeed her infant and then assume that it is all her fault and that she will not be able to raise her child in as nourishing of a way as is required (by society?, her mother?, her partner?, herself?). A woman may also feel isolated from friends, family, work colleagues and society in general. This may cause the woman to feel sad and to grieve the loss of healthy contact. She may also resent the constraints that the new infant places on her and in her life. These experiences and feelings can manifest in extreme lethargy, debilitating negative emotion, lack of interest in the infant, in herself and in her relationships, to name a few. There are many other manifestations of maternal postnatal depression.
A man that suffers with postnatal depression usually engages in forms of "escapism" behaviours, which usually have components of addictive habits. Out of the father's awareness, the escapism helps him stay disengaged from his current family relationships and the addictive component provides a sense of pleasure or reduction of pain (albeit temporary and with negative longer term consequences). The behaviours sometimes look functional and necessary. For example, the man may work long(er) hours at his job - either beyond what is actually required and/or may purposely not maintain the healthy boundaries that separate work and personal life. Alternatively, the behaviours may be clearly unhealthy, though seemingly not directly related to being a father. For example, the father may have extra-marital affairs or fall in love with another person. In paternal postnatal depression, a man may also escape by spending more time on hobbies - old or new - particularly those that deliver a quick sense of pleasure, like gambling (any form: from stock trading through to slot machines), gaming, alcohol consumption, recreational drugs etc. Seemingly healthy hobbies and activities, like running, cycling, surfing, swimming to name a few, can also constitute escapism behaviours when taken to an extreme.
A net effect of the behaviours of a postnatally depressed man is that the mother or another carer notices that the father is not around. He is engaged somewhere else, emotionally and sometimes physically. The man can be sat in the same room as the mother and the child, but not be engaged with them because he is on his smartphone, computer or other electronic device, as an example. Alternatively, the man could be out of the house: at work, tending to a hobby, gambling or with mates or another lover.
In Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers by Olivia Spencer, (2014), some fathers suffering with postnatal depression were interviewed and excerpts from two of the father's interviews give insight into their respective experiences and simultaneously, I think, represent a typical or common experience for men in fatherhood:
(1) "Before we had our son I was really into loads of stuff, I had lots of hobbies; I was always on the go - motorcycling, photography, surfing, musician and marathon runner. My wife and I used to travel every year and we've visited many countries. … I thought I would really enjoy fatherhood, but I think that I thought that I could just do it for a few hours a day then go back to my motorbikes or running. But obviously I can't do that, I just go to work every day and then come home to my wife and the baby. We aren't intimate any more, and I am incredibly sexually frustrated. I am also experiencing a lot of issues with anger. I have had problems dealing with anger in the past, but I have always channelled my energies into my hobbies - like going for a run when I feel rage - and now I can't do that, so I have started to let it out at home." (p 120)
(2) "It was weird, I knew I loved my wife and son, but I couldn't understand why I had been so fucked up in those first few weeks and the weeks before the birth. Honestly, I wish I'd talked about it the minute it started so I didn't have to be such a shit person in my son's first few weeks. I really lost understanding of everything. I don't think I could have gone on much longer if my wife hadn't stepped in." (p 118)
In my own professional experiences with paternal postnatal depression, these descriptions of life around childbirth and thereafter are both valid and common. It's a somewhat disconcerting fact that when a child is born, dramatic changes in lifestyle, how we feel and how we think happen. Holding on to these experiences in secrecy or shame is how they can feel oppressive, become overwhelming and lead to postnatal depression.
There is treatment for men that suffer with postnatal depression, just as there is for women that suffer with the same condition. A barrier to treatment for males is recognising that this is indeed what a father is experiencing. Sometimes people suspect that something is going on with a dad and might even encourage him to see a professional counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist. It may still be difficult for the man to bring himself to agree that his behaviours may indicate a problem and that he may benefit from seeking treatment. Some men experience great shame with the idea of attending therapy for mental health maintenance and wellbeing, which might include admitting vulnerability and hardship (which are completely normal human conditions). Oftentimes men try to find help from within themselves or from mates in groups that are together for another purpose, without actually talking about their negative experiences. However, postnatal depression is a condition that requires treatment by a trained professional.
Treatment for paternal postnatal depression can be effective and help a father to re-engage with his wife/partner and infant(s) or child(ren). Fear, vulnerability, lack of freedom and the gravity of responsibility are some of the things that a man can learn to recognise as normal parenthood/fatherhood issues and eventually come to accept as manageable realities that can enrich life. Without treatment, paternal postnatal depression can impact the child(ren) so that a healthy functioning relationship with the father does not develop and quite possibly the child(ren) does not feel loved by him. Also, it can lead to separation and divorce with the mother or partner, drug use, loss of functioning and suicide ideation or suicide. Men and women do not need to live with postnatal depression and therapy in counselling can help. The first step is knowing that paternal postnatal depression is real.
Spencer, O. (2014). Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers. Croydon: Free Publishing Limited.
Upcoming Therapeutic Writing Workshop
The therapeutic writing workshops run for four consecutive weekly sessions and are each two hours in duration. It is recommended that participants are at least 20 years of age.
Therapeutic Writing - Milestones
In the Milestones therapeutic writing workshop, we focus on one or two important things in your life that you want to look at closer. Examples are (though not limited to): a milestone, grief for the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, surviving sexual harassment or assault, marriage, moving on from an unhappy situation, reflection of life, existential ponderings, and many others. In this workshop, we work through writing, primarily through writing exercises. The last session we will create a (surprise) special keepsake, a representation of the exploration in this workshop.
September 1 - 22, 2018
Saturdays, 10am to 12pm
Sep 1, Sep 8, Sep 15 and Sep 22
13/38 Colin Street
Maximum 6 participants
Fee $300 incl GST per person
Therapeutic writing can be a gateway for emotional healing. It is one effective way to work through important issues in life, whether they are happening currently or whether they are issues from the past. Therapeutic writing can even involve thoughts and imaginings about the future. The main goal in therapeutic writing is to take something that circulates in the mind and put it out into a safe, alternate place, starting with pen and paper. The act of releasing thoughts, worries or experiences from your mind helps make room in it for new and additional experiences. It also allows you the opportunity to look at your thoughts with a different perspective, from an alternative angle, and if you choose, with feedback from a therapist and other supportive therapeutic writing participants.
In therapeutic writing workshops, the facilitator, Cori Lambert, guides the participants with suggestions for short therapeutic written pieces. She then invites voluntary sharing of pieces with the group, guides feedback and provides support for each workshop participant. Workshops are small, intimate and confidential. Safety and support is maintained and guided by Cori.
If you are interested, click this link to learn more and register
When talking about people, interpersonal communication and internal self-talk, "should" is what I would consider to be a dirty word. It also can roll-off-the-tongue without anyone taking notice of what it really means. "You should get a haircut." "You should be working longer hours." "You should text me back when I text you." "You shouldn't do that." There are so many “shoulds” that it can be exhausting trying to keep track of and heed them all. AND why should you? I would argue that you never have to. That is my clearly stated opinion and so is the rest of this article.
"Should" is a hidden opinion that is directed at someone to get them to comply or fall in-line. The person that says the should-statement is essentially shirking responsibility for declaring their own wants and needs with clarity and is not directly asking for them. Rather, the should-statement-maker is placing pressure on the other person to do something – usually what the should-statement-maker thinks is right. The recipient of the should-statement may not recognise the hidden opinion as such and also may not realise that he or she actually has a choice in either taking it on board or discarding it.
For example, a child may hear their parents repeatedly say "You should get good grades in school". To the child it ends up feeling like an ultimatum, demand or out-of-place comment. If this is the message that the child receives, then he or she may do schoolwork to get the grades but not in response to an internal hunger for knowledge or self-support in his or her personal scholastic endeavours. Rather, the child may learn that he or she will receive attention and praise from their parents if they do the schoolwork (or perhaps respite from criticism). An alternative way of speaking to a child about grades without a disguised opinion or directive is to offer the reason to pursue good grades in school as an opinion and rationale based on your experiences in life. It can be a point for the child to consider when making his or her schoolwork-related decisions.
There are two main reasons why awareness of should-statements is important. First, when "shoulds" come from all directions at a person, they are often not consistent with his or her unique interests and desires, rather they are representing the other people. This can cause extreme confusion for the recipient about how he or she acts or behaves in the world. It can also feel like pressure for the recipient to make choices in life that are not consistent with his or her deepest desires or values. Second, too many "shoulds" coming from outside sources can develop into internally-generated, semi-automated "shoulds". For example “I should be exercising more”, “I should help my brother out more”, or “I shouldn’t be selfish”. If a person cannot live up to the strongly-stated and directed expectations that are conveyed in should-statements, whether externally or internally-driven, then grief, sadness and disappointment are some of the emotions that a person can experience. Depression can set-in and unhealthy functioning can develop.
I find it is helpful to draw attention to the word "should" when it pops up and to recognise it for what it is: a hidden - and perhaps unwanted, opinion. If you realise that you are dealing with an opinion then it is much easier to treat it as such. You may feel more liberated to think about it and ask how it fits for you, Is it something you want or is it consistent with your own personal goals or values? If it does not fit for you then discard it. If it seems to fit, take it on board, perhaps for a test-drive and see how it resonates with you.
A healthy experiment is to take a should-statement and try to say it in another way. Try using two or three sentences instead of one and assign the correct person: “I…”, “you…” or “John....” For example, a person might hear “You should write your reports differently” (should-statement) versus “I have an opinion about the reports that you author. I would like to see you write them in a way that is more consistent with my style and what I think is most effective” (translation). Often, whole new meanings emerge when we translate the should-statement. What is needed and who needs it also becomes clearer. Someone telling another person that they “should do something” is oftentimes more about what that person’s individual wants are - not those of the recipient of the should-statement.
If you are at work and are offering your opinion on the direction of a project or how to meet a goal or a deadline, then “should” may fit as a short-cut way of communicating what is your opinion or your best judgment. However, if you have the time to explain that your perspective or position is such that you advocate pursuit of a particular option, then it can end up sounding more palatable to your colleagues and supervisors than “We should do this or that”. A translation of the should-statement to "I think building the facility this way is the most cost effective option and I am a firm advocate of this plan" is simply clearer and keeps the door open for further discussion.
If you are hoping to feel more satisfied in life and wish to facilitate making your inner desires reality rather than dreams, then it is my opinion that should-statements can get in the way. From my perspective, calling-out a should-statement helps us to navigate through life with more satisfaction and the potential for rich meaning - whether that should-statement comes from someone else or from within your own mind.
When someone apologises or says that they are sorry they usually are expressing regret for something that they have said or done that has adversely impacted another person (or other people). It may be that the apologising person did something that he or she did not intend or was not aware of doing. Conversely, it may be that the person saying sorry had undertaken and action with full awareness yet later feels regret.
When someone says sorry to us, we may also assume that this means that the person will not engage in the same behaviour again. However, "I'm sorry" said by itself does not mean that things will change. While apologies seem to imply that an action or verbal exchange will not be repeated, often it is really difficult for individuals to change their behaviours.
Often we hear or say "If you were really sorry about that, then you would not do it again" or "you would stop doing it". The logic may be true, but the reality may not be that simple. For example, if someone habitually drinks excessively and loses control, he or she may also hurt people including family and friends. Afterwards, in sobriety, the person could feel immense sorrow, regret and guilt for his or her actions. The person may even vow to change. However, if that person drinks alcohol to excess again, then the same set of behaviours will most likely occur. This does not necessarily mean that the person was not sincere in their previous apology. Rather, it means that there is perhaps a deeper-seated problem with what motivates or triggers the behaviour and that the person does not know how to stop or change it.
In another example, a person might be verbally abusive to someone when he or she feels anger and rage. When that person calms down and realises how his or her words have impacted the recipient of the abuse, he or she may apologise. However, when the person feels anger or rage again, he or she may resort to the personally well-known coping strategy of verbally denigrating and belittling another person. The action is repeated because the person does not know how to cope with his or her feelings of rage in an alternative, more healthy way.
For someone who is regretful of their actions or words, it can be helpful to be clear in addressing these feelings. Offering an apology or saying "I am sorry" if that is true is a healthy first step. If someone wants and intends to change their behaviour, the next step is to say something like "I want to change my behaviour as well and will try to do this". Understanding that the two parts are related but separate can help each party to understand how to resolve the past and find a way forward. It may also become clearer that help or support for intended changes in behaviour is needed. Taking away the assumption that the behaviour will change with the "I'm sorry" can create space for the reality of "I'm not sure I can change, I may need help" or "I would like to change, but I do not know how".
Most people who have been hurt by someone do appreciate an apology. They usually also appreciate acknowledgment and empathy for how they have been impacted. It can be helpful to be clear about what you are accepting from a person that has apologised to you. It can be useful to say something like "I accept your apology for your actions last night". This can be followed up by saying, for example, "And I would really like to see you change that behaviour because I feel hurt by it and would like it to stop."
When we find ourselves or someone we know saying "I'm sorry" for a behaviour that is engaged in repeatedly when change is desired then it might be time to seek help from a professional. In working with a professional, we are able to explore what happens and how we think and feel in our experiences with other people. Usually, when we have greater awareness about why we behave or act in a particular way, we are closer to changing that behaviour. In exploring and experimenting with alternative behaviours and by healing from the past, we are more likely to have longer-lasting relationships that feel healthy and more satisfying.
You may know someone who has suffered with childhood sexual abuse or assault. What do you say to them? How do you listen and unpack this with them if you are interested in being supportive?
There are many ways to help someone that you care about who has trusted you enough to tell you that they have been abused or assaulted sexually as children, adolescents or young adults. The most impactful thing you can do is to encourage the person to seek professional help with a psychotherapist, counsellor or psychologist. You can even offer to help them find a therapist and consider helping them arrive at and leave from the first appointment. Another thing that you can do is to listen when the person wants to talk. It can be helpful to understand that the person will be experiencing stress, sadness and grief periodically as they recall what has happened to them - whether they are speaking out-loud about it or are experiencing it internally, silently. Often the person that has experienced this trauma is not in control of when, where and how the bad memories appear in his or her current life.
In my opinion, as a therapist, one thing you should not say to the person is "Why didn't you tell someone?" Though it seems like a naturally curious or reasonable question to ask, the reason to not ask this question is that it is exactly what the person who has suffered with the sexual assault or abuse does not want people to say and why they often do not talk to other people about it. In fact they often wonder as adults "Why didn't I say anything?" and then think that there is something wrong with them for never speaking-up as a child. The feelings of shame and guilt that are associated with this questioning of past actions is nearly insurmountable. The emotions are so strong and so confusing that it can actually feel quite damaging for someone to hear this question when they are trying to share their story about their trauma.
The main reason why children, adolescents and young adults do not speak-up and say anything to the adults that are around them when they are being sexually abused or assaulted (or have been) is that they simply can't do it. This is not because they are weak or something is wrong with them. They simply do not have the words for nor the capacity to articulate the sheer horror they have experienced or are experiencing. They also usually have extreme fear of what might happen for speaking-up. Usually they have been strongly coerced and threatened by the perpetrator that they fear for their own safety or other loved ones' safety. Often they have been manipulated into a secret pact with the perpetrator that they can't fully comprehend or navigate their way through to security. Some victims will worry about the domino-effect-type consequences of what might happen in telling. Some victims will worry about what their parents will think and how this news might destroy them, especially if the perpetrator is a family member (like a sibling), an extended family member (an aunt, uncle, grandparent or in-law), a family friend, religious leader, neighbour or school staff member. Sometimes the perpetrator is the parent and when this is the case, it is virtually impossible for the victim to speak-up because of the sacred nature of the parent-child bond and the significance this carries for the child/adolescent/young adult.
The human brain grows and changes as people do. The mental, reasoning and cognitive abilities of a child or young person are not the same as they are for an adult. As an example, the prefrontal cortex, an important part of our brain that is responsible for executive functioning (important decision making), does not fully develop in males until around the age of 28. Yet, we as adults look back at what happened in the past, whether we are the ones that suffered the sexual assault/abuse or we are the ones that are trying to support someone that has been assaulted/abused and wonder "why they didn't do back then what they can do now?" The answer, once again, is because they could not. They now have more tools, power, mental faculties and support as adults than they did when the trauma was occurring. This is why young people are so vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault.
Of course, as a supportive person, you do not intend to impede the therapeutic process for the person that you know who is a victim. So, don't ask that question, "Why didn't you tell someone?". It only adds to the feelings of shame and guilt that the victim feels and gets in the way of the important grief processing and healing that they desperately need. It also detracts from the help you are generously trying to provide.
Blogging about mental health topics that are relevant to counselling and psychotherapy. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.