Postpartum Depression — Dads Get It, Too
Both partners often overlook the surprising signs
David Smith, a new father in his mid-thirties, has what appears to be a near-perfect life: a stable job, a nice house, a supportive wife and now his first child — a beautiful, healthy baby girl.
The long-awaited birth, however, triggered an agonizing postpartum depression. But in this case it was David, and not his wife, who was suffering.
David (not his real name) traced the beginning of his depression to the baby’s difficult birth. Posting on an online forum on the website postpartummen.com, he recalled that the birth didn’t go as planned and that he had never been more anxious in his life. After the ordeal, he wrote, “I felt a mix of euphoria, intense relief, but also profound sadness.”
Back home with his wife and their baby, David felt pretty good for a couple of days. “And then I started to get sad. Really, really sad. And anxious,” he wrote. “I felt, and still feel, intense fear that I am unable or unfit to be a parent.”
His daughter has had several nights in which it took two to three hours of soothing to get her back to sleep. “I feel intense dread thinking about the nights and the sleep disruption,” David reported. “I have a lot of difficulty tolerating her crying because it seems as though she is intensely unhappy or in pain (though I know she is in all likelihood not) and it brings me to tears myself.
“The sadness I feel is now mixed with this growing sense that I/we have made a terrible mistake, that things will never return to ‘normal’… and, worst of all, that I am a terrible husband and parent for feeling this intense sadness at a time that is supposed to be filled with joy.”
The hidden truth
What David discovered through the online forum is that he’s not alone. Although most people picture mothers when they hear the phrase “postpartum depression,” the reality is that fathers can be hit just as hard.
In fact, research suggests that up to 25 percent of fathers in the United States suffer serious depression in the months following the birth of their babies, according to an article published in Psychiatry.
Why does postpartum depression so often go unrecognized when the sufferers are men? Part of the problem, says experts, is that medical professionals — as well as the fathers themselves — are reluctant to see their depression for what it is.
“There’s a very powerful cultural myth in this society that men don’t get depressed,” says Dr. Will Courtenay, a psychotherapist in Oakland, California, and author of the book “Dying to Be Men.” “That myth is so powerful that even trained mental health clinicians are less likely to correctly diagnose depression in men than in women.”
Boys don’t cry
What this myth conveys, Courtenay says, is that men shouldn’t get depressed — and if they are, that they shouldn’t express it. “Most men were taught as boys to never cry, and many were even punished when they did. So they’re more likely than women to try to hide their depression or talk themselves out of it, which only worsens it.”
That’s why depression in men often looks less like sadness and more like anger, frustration or irritability. You may also have male postpartum depression if you find yourself:
- Drinking more than usual
- Abusing recreational or prescription drugs
- Taking unusual risks, such as driving recklessly or having an affair
- Complaining regularly of physical problems
- Experiencing persistent headaches, indigestion or pain
Since postpartum depression in women typically takes a different form, it’s often harder to spot in men. These signs of depression in new fathers may be accompanied by more typical symptoms, though, such as fatigue, lack or energy, difficulty concentrating and even suicidal thoughts.
And, like women, fathers with PPD may obsess over the notion that they are a terrible parent and be unable to shake off the fear that something bad may inadvertently happen to the baby.
What’s behind sad dads?
The causes of postpartum depression are generally the same for men as for women — lack of sleep being one of the biggest culprits.
According to the Psychiatry article, you also have a higher risk of paternal postpartum depression if you’re a young father, if you’re disconsolate over the baby’s gender or if your baby is colicky or very ill. Your risk also goes up with history of anxiety problems or obsessive-compulsive disorder. And a history of depression, worries over money and a rocky relationship between you and your partner also help predict postpartum depression.
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In addition, new fathers tend to have greater difficulty than mothers bonding with the baby during the first few months. You may be jealous of the baby and feel increasingly dissatisfied with your relationship during that time. Research shows many men feel excluded from the love-fest between mother and baby. You may feel distressed and ashamed over the sudden loss of intimacy between you and your partner or her seeming lack of interest in sex.
In fact, even hormonal changes come into play for men as well as for women — including changes in testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, vasopressin, and prolactin.
But what best predicts whether you will become depressed after the birth of a baby is whether your partner is depressed. Research shows that one quarter to one half of all men whose partners have postpartum depression are depressed themselves.
If you’re a man, you’re likely at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to preventing or treating postpartum depression because men tend to have fewer friendships and smaller social networks.
“For the average guy, his wife is his primary — and sometimes only — source of support,” explains Courtenay. “So it’s not surprising that one in three new dads feels shut out from the relationship between his partner and baby.”
So what should you do? Experts suggest talking with your partner and a counselor or therapist as soon as possible. Don’t try to tough it out: Depression is a serious and even life-threatening illness. Therapy will likely be still more successful if your partner can attend sessions with you.
In addition, getting as much sleep as possible by going to bed earlier or napping during the day, seeking paid family leave and getting some daily exercise is likely to help (regular exercise can help control depression, research suggests).
Most important is the love and support of your partner, says Courtenay. “The number one way a woman can support her husband or partner is by being patient” as her husband heals, she says.
As another online men’s forum member wrote in response to David’s story, “It's hard to see right now, but the little crying poop machine will at some point in your future smile, hold your hand and want to jump on your lap to read stories with you. And this time will be a like a bad dream that someone else lived through.”