Resentment of the new baby, feeling completely overwhelmed and repressing their feelings - they're just some of the insights from a new study of what researchers have termed "forgotten fathers", or dads who experience postnatal depression.
As part of the research, published in the Journal of Family Issues, a US team turned to blogs, websites, forums, and chat rooms to examine first-hand accounts from new dads. "While there are many ways in which paternal PND negatively affects the family system, relatively little is known about the lived experience of fathers with PND," the authors wrote.
As such, the researchers wanted to understand two key aspects:
- How do fathers describe their own experience of postnatal depression?
- What do they say is helpful or not helpful as they deal with it?
Six key themes emerged about fathers' experiences:
- Dads need education:
"By the time I realised I had depression, our family had nearly broken apart."
Many fathers had no idea they could experience PND and were surprised to discover that others' experienced it too. They also expressed frustration at the lack of resources available for men, noting that while they sought information to help themselves, they could only find information about how to help their wives.
- Adhering to Gender Expectations:
Many dads reported needing to live up to traditional male stereotypes and be a "tough guy".
"I wanted to cry and give up being a father. But I was afraid to acknowledge those thoughts and feelings in myself—it wasn't becoming of a man and father to feel those things. I pushed them down so deep that I couldn't feel anymore."
- Fathers were repressing Feelings
Dads in blogs, chatrooms and forums talked about the need to hide their thoughts and feelings from their partners and friends.
"I don't feel I can tell my wife about these feelings. It will make me look weak or it will sound ridiculous because she is with the kids more than me."
- Dads felt overwhelmed
Some dads admitted to feeling utterly overwhelmed, as well as "confusion, exhaustion, helplessness, alone, and trapped."
"I have the feeling that I'm constantly on the edge of bursting into tears ... I'm easily irritable, I can't stand my 7-month baby's cry over more than a few minutes without becoming angry."
- Resentment of Baby
Many participants expressed strong feelings of resentment towards their baby's constant needs.
"When I'm personally caring for our son I'm overwhelmed with hate ...I thought my dislike for him would go away and I'd start to bond but it's gotten worse. I hate his crying, his needs, his endless discontent."
- Experience of neglect
"Men don't do the hard work of carrying a pregnancy for nine months. We don't have to bear the pains of labor. We never had an umbilical connection to our children. We just have to hang on tight."
For some dads, welcoming a new baby was associated with feelings of neglect. Many dads felt lost or forgotten and neglected by their wives, the health care system and by society.
"We found that paternal PPD was in many cases very powerful and negative and is worthy of closer exploration by researchers and clinicians," the researchers concluded. "Because men are already less likely than women to seek professional help for depression, it is vital that the stigma of PPD decreases."
The authors note that the study has important implications for clinicians and obstetricians who should be asking about fathers' mental health during routine appointments. "Fathers in this study wanted to feel like their emotions and struggles were valid," they write.
Dr Nicole Highet, Founder and Executive director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) says the findings mirror their own research into the experience of new fathers. "As a result," she says, "we have ensured the information needs of fathers is included throughout the COPE website where we address the range of expectations, stressors and challenges throughout pregnancy, birth and the first year of life with a new baby.
Dr Highet adds that depression in fathers is common, affecting up to ten percent of dads during the perinatal period.
"For new fathers it can be very debilitating, as it can impact on their ability to support their partner, function at work and/or home, respond to and enjoy their new baby - all aspects mentioned in the study.
"So before things reach boiling point, it's a good idea to seek help. There are safe and effective treatments for depression, and the faster you seek treatment, the faster you can recover and get back to your old self."
Symptoms can include:
- Feeling sad or down, or sometimes feeling numb and nothing at all
- Loss of interest or pleasure in life, your baby, or activities that you used to enjoy
- Feeling angry, frustrated and/or irritable
- Lacking energy and motivation, feeling tired all the time
- Feeling disconnected from others
- Loss of libido
- Difficulties thinking clearly or concentrating which may be also affected by lack of sleep
- Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol
- Changes in appetite and weight (may increase or decrease).
For more information, visit COPE here
Contact PANDA's National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Helpline on 1300 726 306 9am – 7.30pm Mon – Fri (AEST/AEDT) or visit How is Dad Going?
Lifeline 13 11 14