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Post-Baby Mental Health, For Dads

Why we should be asking new dads how they’re doing, too

When my son was born two and a half years ago, I wrote a handful of blog posts, cross-legged on my couch and in a sleep-deprived state, about postpartum mental health. As a new mother with a family history of mental illness, I was aware of my own vulnerability to postpartum depression, anxiety, or psychosis. And, as I’d just been pregnant, I was also aware of how little postpartum emotional health is addressed with women during pregnancy.

From every part of a mother-to-be’s life, there’s an extended focus on the physical changes she’s experiencing, as friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers comment on her belly and ask about cravings or aversions.

There’s considerably less acknowledgement of how going through the experience of childbirth, beginning to adjust to your child, and accepting the realities and responsibilities of parenthood may impact your emotional well-being.

If you’re about to become a father, there’s even less likelihood anyone will talk with you about how these experiences will change your life.

This year, as I welcomed my second child, my personal focus shifted to my husband’s well-being. Now the father of a high-energy toddler and a newborn, working full-time, in a new city, with a wife who definitely is not yet performing at full capacity, my husband’s life after the birth of our daughter has changed dramatically. He’s the one who shared this article with me, about fathers expressing concern about their own mental health in the first two years after the birth of a child.

When I surveyed Facebook friends about their experience with post-baby mental health (admittedly, a limited snowball sample), I invited people to share privately or publicly. I received several personal notes from friends describing their experiences. I am honored by their openness concerning difficult times and moved by their willingness to share how becoming fathers affected them emotionally.

Even a typical transition into fatherhood presents challenges. As one dad said, “As a father, you didn’t carry the kid for nine months. You didn’t experience labor. And you have a spouse that is recovering from a very intense medical episode. Even when it goes well, childbirth is no small thing. So there are two fragile people you are supporting. It’s very stressful. And inserting yourself into the mother/baby dynamic in a graceful, acceptable way, is not easy.”

For some dads, the emotions that parenting brings up are surprising. A crying infant is terrifying when you don’t know what’s behind the screams and tears, and anger isn’t an uncommon response. But, what father wants to admit being angry at his baby?

“My anger at my infant was a source of deep shame -- I felt that it was surely unique, and something that no ‘normal’ father would feel,” said another dad. In a group for new fathers, “the guys in the group helped me realize that I wasn’t alone, and that there were creative, helpful, healthy ways to handle the problems my daughter and I were each experiencing (separately, but together).”

Even when surrounded by partner and child, family and friends, fatherhood can feel lonely. One dad shared that everyone’s focus on mom and baby leaves “no one asking me how I’m doing. I’m responsible for taking care of myself, my wife, and my kids. That care is very one-sided right now. Kids give you love and laughter, but it’s not the same kind of mutual caring that happens with my wife. And, because she needs to be available for the baby right now, she’s less available to give me that kind of care.”

A support group can be one source of help in managing emotionally -- and practically -- as a dad. And, more than one dad mentioned the role of a therapist in his life. For fears or anxieties that are debilitating, therapy is key to healing personally, as well as to being a stronger, healthier, and more available parent.

Finally, becoming a father may change a man’s own emotional awareness. One father shared that going through his own mental health struggles “made me a lot more empathetic, particularly to kids in a tantrum, and other people dealing with mental health challenges. Becoming a Dad has made me much more empathetic in general, which has not been without its own challenges, but I'm grateful for it.”

Almost all of the dads I was in touch with about this article asked that I not use their names in the piece. I am absolutely sensitive to the stigma associated with mental health challenges and also so aware of how helpful it can be to know that another person just like you -- smart, accomplished, articulate, hands-on with your kids, thoughtful with your partner -- is going through something that you’re going through, too.

So, I was very happy to be connected with Jamie Bornstein, a father of three working and living in Massachusetts, who has shared his personal experience with anxiety and obsessive thoughts on Cognoscenti, a Boston-based NPR site. (You can read his piece here.) Though his experience is not, as he said to me, “daddy post-partum related,” I wanted to share it as a model for men being open about their personal mental health.

After the Cognoscenti piece was published, people came out of the woodwork to share their stories with Bornstein. But, as he wrote on his blog, Mental Health Safe Space:

“While deeply touching, the outpouring of stories has also been very unsettling. The number of individuals, successful and substantive people, privately harboring their struggles is astounding. What would it have been like for me, I wonder, had I known even a fraction of these stories ten years ago? Who might have I approached for help and advice? How much earlier would I have found the help I needed? And the question which rings the loudest in my ears: Who else, right now, is experiencing the pain and isolation that I felt ten years ago?”

I hope that sharing just a few words from dads carefully navigating the challenges of fatherhood adds to a dialogue about men’s mental health, opens up conversations between partners and between men, and encourages those of you who are close with new dads to look for ways to support them in their new, overwhelming, and often under-acknowledged roles.

If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear from you.

Past posts on postpartum emotions:

Postpartum Depression: When Motherhood Isn’t Happy

Postpartum Emotions: Is Being a Little Bit of a Mess Normal?

The Happiest Mommy on the Block?

No Joy and No Fun

Copyright 2015 Elana Premack Sandler. All Rights Reserved.