Lauren Hale says that men can, and often do, suffer from a form of Post-Partum Depression. But there is hope.
Fatherhood. It’s cigars, pats on the back, football, beer, tossing the football with your son or watching your daughter’s ballet recitals, right? Just as motherhood is often painted with a brush of societal normalcy, so too is fatherhood. Sometimes fatherhood, like motherhood, carries with it a darkness. Both mothers and fathers suffer silently in this cloak of depression. Often, parenthood doesn’t gently settle into their lives. It bursts through their front door as if it were a bull set loose in Tiffany’s.
But is it possible for a new dad to struggle with depression? Absolutely. According to a study published by JAMA back in May 2010, led by Dr. James F. Paulson, more than 1 in 10 new fathers are believed to struggle with Paternal Postnatal Depression within 3-6 months of becoming a father. It’s important to note also, that fathers with depressed partners struggling with depression are 50% more likely to develop depression themselves.
“It’s kind of a scary thing to not be able to bond with your baby because you know this is your family…this is your life,” shared dad Jeff, who does not hesitate to share his trip through depression after the birth of both his children, now 8 and 10.
Joel Schwartzberg, author of The 40 Year old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad, also speaks up regarding his brush with depression after the birth of his son. “The clearest symptom of my depression was the way I grasped desperately for moments of self-indulgence, most often with food. I would savor opportunities to leave the house on an errand and get big fat cheeseburgers. I think I outpaced my son 10-1 in terms of weight gain that month alone. Eating fast food was a secret; it even felt like cheating, but it also felt like one of the few parts of my individual identity that wasn’t obliterated by parenthood. When men start keeping secrets from their partners, something is amiss in the relationship; someone’s needs are not getting met.”
Signs and symptoms of male depression do differ somewhat from that of depression in females. According to Dr. Courtenay, the Men’s Doctor, for a depressed male, specifically after childbirth, his symptoms may include the following:
- Increased anger and conflict with others
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Frustration or irritability
- Violent behaviour
- Losing weight without trying
- Isolation from family and friends
- Being easily stressed
- Impulsivenes and taking risks, like reckless driving and extramarital sex
- Feeling discouraged
- Increases in complaints about physical problems
- Ongoing phsyical symptoms, like headaches, digestion problems, or pain
- Problems with concentration and motivation
- Working constantly
- Misuse of prescription medication
- Increased concerns about productivity and functioning at school or work (failure)
- Experiencing conflict between how you think you should be as a man and how you actually are
“Be the dad you think you are, not the dad people in your life or in your television expect you to be,” advises Joel Schwartzberg, when asked what advice he would give to a dad if he only had a split second. “Realizing I had suffered from depression (and wasn’t just a naturally bad dad) gave me the confidence to rebuild my personal dadhood from scratch. Before then, I felt paternally challenged, handicapped as a dad, a total fathering failure. Now, I define my dadhood based on my own standards and expectations, I don’t fear failure. Parents are not perfect; failure is a crucial part of the process of becoming a better parent.
”Change is an expected part of parenting. But when that change includes depression, assuming it’s the “new normal” as Jeff Tow and his wife did, may lead dangerous places. “having a baby changes your life. It’s a good thing, really. But we’re not equipped to handle it. With so much focus on the mom, the dad often gets left behind. The man may go to work all day, come home stressed, have a baby shoved in their arms so mom can rest, then be up with that baby all night. Then, off to work. This is another dangerous cycle as men get tired and even more stressed. This in turn puts stress on the marriage and can make things very uncomfortable in a family.”
Two depressed partners, as was the case with Jeff and his wife, changes the game. My former spouse and I were both severely depressed after the birth of our second daughter. In fact, we were both on the same medication not long after her birth. Born early and sent to the NICU for a month, our daughter’s fragile medical state added to our depression issues. We made a concerted effort to check in with each other, make sure we were taking our medication, and did our best despite the whirlwind to get time for ourselves. It didn’t always work out but we did what we could with the resources available to us. More often than not, we ended up with our game faces on, faking it until we made it.
Jeff, however, didn’t have any support. “I got through ‘it’ on my own,” he says, “eventually I came out from the cloud and was able to bond and be there properly for my family. I wish I had asked for help. New dads need to check in with their close friends, family, and spouse regularly for a ‘mental health checkup.’ To see if anything seems off and if so, to work on it right away. It’s proven that getting help quickly can, most often, ward many off many of the issues men face after their baby is born.”
Talking about male depression after childbirth raises the awareness of the issue and alerts communities, families, and loved ones to the possibility. When in the midst of the darkness, it’s difficult to educate those around you to be aware of symptoms of depression as you may be in denial or not have the motivation to even educate yourself. Educate during pregnancy or even before trying to conceive. Talk about mental health and locate the resources available to you within your community with your partner, family, and close friends once you’ve made the decision to become parents. Adoptive parents, this includes you too as you’re not immune to depression after bringing a new child into your lives, especially if it’s an infant.
“If a spouse or loved one notices unusual behaviour, they need to say something in a way that doesn’t demean the man or make him feel less ‘manly.’ it’s about communicating for the common good.” Jeff Tow offers.
Whatever you do, don’t tell a man to “…just man up,” as people told Joel Schwartzberg. “I think it takes a lot of courage to admit vulnerability, and dealing with emotions openly is ultimately healthier than burying them. I’ve had people call me some pretty nasty things, but just as many men and women have approached me with similar stories, and found my writing to be –gutsy.” Joel is right –it takes courage– to speak up about depression as a man.
It’s okay for a man to cry. It’s okay for a man to seek help. It’s okay to not be okay. In order to take good care of your family, you must first take good care of yourself. Finding a balance between self-care and family care is a necessary step in digging yourself out of the darkness.
Being a father means being present. It means reading to your kids, it means playing with your kids, it means proving companionship and love to your partner, and contributing overall to caring for the household. You cannot do any of those things well if you are suffering silently with depression.
Both Joel and Jeff have wonderful relationships with their children these days. They grew into the fatherhood with which they struggled so much at first. In fact, Joel states, “I’m a more genuine dad for having been completely honest with myself.”
“When my son or daughter hugs me, gives me a kiss and says ‘I love you’…I know it was all worth it. All the struggle and all the pain fades away. I’m left with that moment in time personally connecting us in a way that is indescribably.” states Jeff.
Men, don’t be afraid to discuss depression or feeling down. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend and ask if he’s okay. If he posts something on the topic of depression, jump into the discussion. Read, educate yourself, reach out.
Jeff and his wife both posted a video interview at their website as part of an ongoing series. “Her video received comments and likes on Facebook and there was a nice discussion going. Mine received less views and no comments…Mine (friends) are mostly men, who likely don’t want to say anything or admit that they themselves have suffered too.” shares Jeff.
Both Jeff and Sara are training for an ultra-marathon swim across Lake Michigan in August. As they train, they’re working to raise awareness of Perinatal Mood Disorders. No married couple has ever completed a swim across Lake Michigan and only one person has ever completed the crossing at midpoint. Why are they doing this? According to their website, Through the Blue, “To show that as you step into the water (when your baby is born), you’ll battle ups and downs and feel, at times, like all hope is lost… but, soon you’ll see the land ahead and as you close in, you’ll know you can get through it. You’ll know that the hard times are behind you and you can step out of your blues and into a brighter future.”
Dr. Courtenay refers to male depression as a silent killer because men, for so long, have been taught to keep their feelings inside. It’s time to break the cycle of stigma in which male depression is cloaked. Jeff and Joel both speak up about their experiences, and more dads are following in their footsteps. Every discussion, no matter how simple, is a step in the right direction.
Photo courtesy of iandeth