The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Sad Dads

How postpartum depression can hit men.

A rhyme from one of Dr. Seuss’ kids’ books discusses “SAD DAD BAD HAD Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had!” As it turns out, the Dr. was on to something. For a small but growing literature focuses on postpartum depression—in men. And indeed quite a few fathers of young children are sad (and anxious and depressed and distressed).

A recent touchstone in this subject is the first nationally representative study conducted among Australian men, a paper in press in “Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology” by Rebecca Giallo and colleagues. They tallied scores on a commonly-used psychological distress scale—the Kessler 6—among about 3500 fathers of young children. What they found was that 9 percent of fathers of young children reported symptomatic or clinically-relevant distress. That rate is 1.4 times as likely as Australian men generally, indicating that postpartum men take a psychological hit. Younger fathers—men younger than 30 years old—have higher rates of distress, as do the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. These latter patterns may be picking up a few things. Younger and socioeconomically disadvantaged men may have fewer resources to draw on, amplifying the challenges of parenting a young child.

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How representative are these new Australian findings? A 2010 meta-analysis, published by James Paulson and Sharnail Bazemore in the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” covered 43 studies on over 28,000 participants. Rates of postpartum depression varied, but showed on average that 10.4% of fathers of young children reported depression. The rates were slightly higher 3-6 months postpartum. In this meta-analysis, paternal postpartum depression was correlated (r = 0.31) with maternal postpartum depression. To date, perhaps the strongest predictor of postpartum depression is that of a father’s partner. After all, they share a host of factors—which might include economic challenges—and men often take emotional cues from a partner. Her depression may influence his. (As we’ll note in other blogs, all kinds of paternal factors hinge on a relationship with the child’s mother, making depression just one of many such cases.)

Importantly, it is unclear whether men experience elevated postpartum depression in broader cross-cultural perspectives. Almost all studies of postpartum depression—including the 2010 meta-analysis—are restricted to Western samples. While cross-cultural data on women’s postpartum depression have recently emerged, the same kinds of data are lacking for fathers. Thus, at this time, we are unable to determine whether fathers experience postpartum depression in small-scale societies or variable cross-cultural settings. Data are lacking among hunter-gatherer societies, in which fathers tend to be quite involved, and for which data would be the most evolutionarily-relevant (given that our ancestors lived in ways more closely resembling hunter-gatherer lifeways than, say, the lifeways of large cities). We might speculate that there are sad dads, too, in small-scale societies, and that postpartum depression is more common among young fathers, fathers with inadequate resources, fathers whose partners are also depressed. But as for now we don’t know—the possibility there will eventually be light shed on these gaps in our understanding of fatherhood makes us happy.

Sources:

Giallo, R, D’Esposito, F, Christensen, D, Mensah, F, Cooklin, A, Wade, C, Lucas, N, Canterford, L and Nicholson, JM. In press. Father mental health during the early parenting period: results of an Australian population based longitudinal study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Gray, PB and Anderson, KG. 2010. Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paulson, JF and Bazemore, SD. 2010. Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression. Journal of the American Medical Association 303: 1961-1969.

 

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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