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.
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.
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