When Dad Struggles After the Baby Arrives
Men can also experience mood disorders after the birth of a child. Here's what you need to know to feel better.
After the birth of my third daughter, people repeatedly asked me how things were going. "Good," I'd say. "We're getting by." This was the official statement, what I posted on social media, and the line I told my editors, parents, and friends. But in reality, I was a complete and total mess.
It started with anxiety. About everything: Managing work, changing dirty diapers, even mundane stuff like cleaning the cat's litter box. My heart raced. Relentlessly. Anxiety turned to self-doubt. How am I going to balance all of this? Are my wife and I ever going to have a real conversation again? And as I struggled with these thoughts, I still had to parent my two older daughters (and now the new one), while working as a freelance writer. The deadlines and client demands didn't slow down, and I grew increasingly irritable, even despondent at times.
I remember one night in particular when I lost it completely. It was 3 a.m. I was struggling to finish an article, and the baby wouldn't sleep. I rocked her back and forth gently. I did my best Harvey Karp impression and shushed until spittle flew from my mouth. Finally, angrily, I grabbed her bouncy seat, dragged it into my tiny office, and bounced it with my foot while I typed. The story turned out terrible. I blamed the kid.
The next morning, I felt guilty. I was ashamed of my frustration and my lack of patience. I just didn't feel like me – at all.
As it happened, I was working on a piece about postpartum depression in men. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Could I be experiencing the very thing I was researching? Because, as it turns out, men can experience postpartum depression of sorts.
What are PPMADs?
Experts call it paternal postnatal depression (PPND), or paternal perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PPMADs) because we aren't the ones actually giving birth. It's a form of depression or another mood disorder such as anxiety – not unlike what some moms experience after a new baby arrives.
Although scientists and psychologists don't know for sure what causes them, paternal perinatal mood and anxiety disorders can strike any new dad at just about any time the first year after a baby's birth – the same timetable for similar disorders among new moms. The very best predictor of a man's risk of a PPMAD is whether he has a history of depression or anxiety and whether his wife is experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder.
The statistics are surprising: A recent study estimated that 10 percent of all new dads throughout the world and 14 percent here in the United States experience PPND. Additional research indicates that the highest rates of PPND (and PPD, for that matter) occur for parents during the first three to six months of a baby's life.
Still other studies say that if new moms are experiencing PPD, their male counterparts are nearly twice as likely to experience PPND (most commonly after the new moms seek and respond to treatment).
Symptoms of PPMADs
There aren't official symptoms of paternal perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, but, in general, experts say the conditions can take many forms. You could be experiencing a PPMAD if you are feeling anxious, empty, irritable and angry, or out of control following the birth of a child. Other symptoms include self-loathing, persistent worries about providing financially for your family, disinterest in parenting, or withdrawing from family and friends. Sometimes depression in men shows up as physical symptoms – including backache, frequent headaches, sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, or digestive disorders – that don't respond to typical treatment.
Karen Kleiman, founder and executive director of the Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, says PPND often can include anxiety, self-loathing and other forms of psychological distress. While "feeling a complete loss of control" is how men have described their PPND to Christina Hibbert, a clinical psychologist and author based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
"Having a baby is a most stressful time for everybody," says Hibbert. "In addition to sleep deprivation, men also undoubtedly experience interesting hormonal issues when a baby is born, and these issues can lead to other [psycho-emotional] complications."
Pressures can be specific to men's postpartum experience
Along with that, says Seleni psychotherapist Charles Schaeffer, PhD, can come added pressure to provide for a growing family, financially and emotionally. Like I did, Schaeffer says men may feel compelled to push harder at work, even as they feel horrible. "One of the only clear messages many men receive about manhood and fatherhood is to provide financial security and safety to his family, resulting in a lot of worry, anxiety, and demoralization around career and work-life balance."
Making it more difficult is the fact that men tend to undercommunicate, sweeping uncomfortable feelings aside instead of expressing them. That can cause these disorders to develop into bigger, broader, and more challenging behavioral problems, including anger or recklessness, isolation, or self-soothing with alcohol or extramarital affairs.
That's why one of the worst things a new father can do is ignore feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression following the birth of a child, says Kleiman." Men are not being socialized to think that any of these things could have to do with the changes the birth of a baby have brought about," she says. "Never underestimate the impact of this major transition on how you're feeling."
Treatment for PPMADs
If you think you may be experiencing a PPMAD, help is available. Communicating with your partner is a good place to start. Yes, this means talking. Opening up. Admitting that you are struggling. Nobody says it will be easy – experts say one of the reasons these conditions aren't discussed more openly is because most men generally don't like talking about these sorts of things. It takes a lot of courage and effort, but it can really pay off. Often simply talking about these feelings can improve the situation greatly. Getting some of the heaviest emotions off your chest will likely bring some immediate relief.
The next step is connecting with a qualified health care provider, like a doctor or psychologist who can assess your symptoms and come up with a treatment plan that's right for you. Sometimes medication might be necessary. Other times, you may benefit from individual psychotherapy or joining a support group (also called resource groups) where other dads experiencing some of the same emotions talk about their feelings in a safe environment.
Schaeffer recommends looking for mental health professionals who specialize in working with men, masculinity, and health. (You can also research online resources, such as PostpartumDads.org.)
Hibbert adds that for men, taking time for yourself also works wonders at alleviating and ultimately helping to resolve PPMADs. This can be a hike in the woods or a night out with friends – any activity that takes you away from parenting for a while, brings you peace, and reminds you of who you were and what you enjoyed before the baby arrived. These activities will be different for every dad. But Hibbert says they're critically important.
Today when people ask me how my wife and I are adjusting to life as the parents of three, my responses are much more meaningful, much more honest. I usually remark on the unpredictability of it all. When work starts to pile up, I embrace a Zen philosophy a friend shared with me: I tackle as much as I can, breathe through any lingering stress, and work to surrender my anxieties about the rest.
Looking back, I recognize I'm one of the lucky ones, and I'm thankful it took less than three months of therapy, better sleep, and good exercise to feel better. But my experience taught me that emotions can be powerful forces in the wake of a new baby, and that all new parents need to take the time to listen to our bodies and brains. The bottom line is that having a child affects us guys in some of the very same ways it affects our partners. There's no shame, and a great likelihood of big gains, in reaching out and seeking support from professionals to come through this troublesome time intact.