Unless we have experienced a mental illness ourselves or seen it first-hand through friends or family members, we can easily think it’s not something that could happen to us; especially for us men, who are taught from a young age not to cry. We can grow up unaware of how to interact with these emotions, suppressing them well into adult life.
This was certainly the story for me. I’ve only cried once in my adult life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the odd tear in my eye when watching a good movie (The Hate You Give was the most recent tear-jerker for me), but a full-on cry? Only once since I was a child. Is that normal? I’m pretty sure it is for many men.
It happened shortly after the birth of our daughter. She was quite ill when she was born and we had to stay in hospital for about ten days as she went in and out of intensive care to receive treatment. Her condition was up and down, and after a week we thought we had got through the worst. She seemed to be getting better when we were told that there might be further complications and we needed to take her for an emergency MRI scan. That night my wife and I both broke down. After a week of being strong and dealing with it kind of on auto-pilot, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. That night the two of us and a midwife we had got close to cried and prayed for what felt like hours.
We thank God that our daughter got better and we were allowed to go home a couple of days later. I spent the remainder of my paternity leave and some annual leave at home before heading back to work.
It’s really important that dads are supported during the early months of childbirth
I noticed there was a distinct lack of support for parents, and especially dads, after a traumatic birth. The doctors and the NHS were absolutely brilliant in the hospital, but once we were back home that support quickly vanished. We had a visit from the midwife a few days after we got home, but the only thing she really wanted to know about me was whether any domestic abuse was taking place. This is obviously a very important area for medical staff to explore, but it was quite clear to me that, whether the birth had been a traumatic one or not, the mental health of the father was not prioritised, or even really considered, by the medical professionals.
I went back to work and, as most men do, got on with it. It wasn’t until months later when my daughter had a severe allergic reaction that I really had to deal with the trauma of her birth. The emotions all came back and the worry about my daughter’s health, and us as a family, overwhelmed me. I found it difficult to sleep and hard to focus at work. The pictures of what had happened were imprinted on my mind. Looking back, I can see that I suffered a mild version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though at the time I didn’t know it. It was a really difficult time. Thankfully, I was able to talk openly and honestly with my wife, come to terms with what had happened and find some peace.
This PTSD was my first experience of poor mental health, and it’s something I never thought I would experience. But after doing lots of research I discovered that many other fathers experience mental health issues, and particularly postnatal depression (PND), during the early years of parenthood. The National Childbirth Trust (NCT), suggests that first-time dads are particularly vulnerable to experiencing PND, and estimates that one in ten new dads will experience PND during pregnancy or within the baby’s first year. Based on their research, NCT believes the peak time for PND in men is three to six months after the birth. And for fathers with depressed partners, 24 to 50 per cent are likely to experience depression themselves.
There are many reasons why new dads experience poor mental health. Having a new baby changes your life completely and can put a huge amount of pressure on the family. The shock of having a new life to look after is intense. I knew that newborns needed to be fed every three to four hours, but I didn’t quite realise that also meant during the night! Don’t get me wrong, being a dad is the most amazing thing in the world, but if you are fully involved in those early stages it’s the most difficult job ever. Lack of sleep, the changing dynamics with your partner and worries about finances are all major factors that can affect your mental health.
Any dad can experience depression, but those who don’t have a strong foundation at home are most vulnerable. Research shows that dads who are under 25, have a low income or are not in a relationship with the child’s mother are more likely to experience PND.
Depression can manifest in different ways. Some dads become withdrawn, some become worried and fearful about looking after their child, and others experience more physical symptoms such as weight loss or gain, insomnia or headaches. However the depression manifests, it usually has a negative impact on family life, often increasing the likelihood of family conflict and even family breakdown.
The first year is an extremely important time for fathers to bond with their children. The tone of your parenting is often created right at the beginning, and the bond formed at the start will have a major impact on this relationship going forward. So being present and enjoying good mental health during those early stages really helps to build foundations for a long-lasting relationship with your children.
My daughter and I have a really close relationship, and I know that a major part of this stems from the time we spent together during her first year. Strangely enough, extended time in hospital after the birth forced me to really get to know her. For ten days my wife and I were living in one room with our newborn baby. It was a real introduction to parenting! This time allowed me the space to figure things out for myself without family taking over, and gave me the space to build my confidence in being my little girl’s dad.
The mental health of the father was not prioritised, or even really considered, by the medical professionals
It’s really important that dads are supported during the early months of childbirth, even if there are no signs of poor mental health. As friends, family and churches, we should be looking out for the new dads around us and do all we can to help them to get through what is an extremely joyful but also a very tiring and stressful time. Here are a few things that really helped me stay positive and enjoy my first year of parenthood.
Get help from family and friends
Sometimes we feel like we need to do it all ourselves, especially as men. We don’t like to ask for help. But this is a time when we should be accepting all the help we can get. Of course there need to be boundaries, and parents should decide how they want to parent their children, but well-meaning grandparents and friends can be a great help. In those early days my wife’s mum would come over and help us with the night feeds, and my parents would bring us food. This relieved a lot of the pressure. It meant my wife and I could get some much-needed sleep and eat nice home-cooked food (rather than endless takeaways!).
I was fortunate enough to work in an environment that supported flexible working. This meant on the mornings when I was absolutely shattered I was able to get to work slightly later. I also worked from home every Friday, and for a period of time I worked compressed hours so I had one day a week off. These arrangements meant I could avoid exhaustion and take some time to myself when I really needed it. If possible, I would recommend asking for some sort of flexibility in your work. It really does help to relieve stress.
Talk to your partner
My wife and I did lots of talking about our experiences and it really helped. After my daughter’s allergic reaction I needed to talk things out and express how I was feeling. There is no shame in admitting that you are stressed, depressed or anxious. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved, and there is definitely some truth in old quotes like this!
Eat well and exercise
This is a hard one to do, but it is very important. These are things we should be trying to do anyway, but they become even more necessary during a stressful period. Your time will be limited and you’ll be knackered, but going for a quick run – even just for ten minutes – will help you put things into perspective.
No one really knows what they’re doing, even though they may look like they have their stuff together
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
No one really knows what they’re doing, even though they may look like they have their stuff together! All parents are just making it up as they go along and trying to make informed decisions based on their experiences, research and gut instincts. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Embrace the mistakes and enjoy the journey.
Connect with other new dads
Parenthood has a strange way of bringing people together. There will be people you talk to just because you have one thing in common: a new baby! But there will also be some you have other things in common with, not just the fact that you are both new dads. Spending time with these people is usually good fun and you can laugh about your shared experiences, console each other and share advice. Look out for dad groups in your local area and get involved.
If you, or someone you know needs professional help, visit your doctor, ring 111 or visit the NHS Choices website, which has a useful self-assessment tool: nhs.uk/conditions/
Elliott Rae is founder of MusicFootballFatherhood, a parenting and lifestyle platform for men.