The perinatal and early parenting period is a time of enormous transition for fathers. The birth of a baby may bring great joy and excitement, however it can also herald periods of sleeplessness, changes to routines and to the couple relationship. It may also bring additional financial pressures as well as considerable stress and anxiety.
Whilst awareness of issues surrounding the mental health and wellbeing of mothers has improved, comparatively little attention is paid to the mental health and wellbeing of fathers.
According to Beyond Blue, awareness of postnatal depression amongst men is extremely low, with over 45% of fathers not aware that they can experience postnatal depression. What is even more concerning is that 43% of first-time fathers see anxiety and depression after having a baby as a sign of weakness.
Many fathers want to play an active role in the care of their children and face similar challenges of adaptation as mothers. Today, extended families may live at a considerable distance and many grandparents still work. In the absence of support from extended family, fathers can be expected to shoulder considerable responsibility for the care of their partner and their children.
This can change the dynamics of the couple relationship and create many challenges. The couple’s intimate relationship has to adapt to include a new co-parenting relationship, as well as accommodate a third person (the baby) who’s needs tend to be all-consuming.
Fatherhood brings with it a range of changes that affect a man psychologically and physically.
Some key changes and challenges for fathers include:
- Lack of sleep leading to physical fatigue and lack of mental clarity
- Pressure to manage a change in income or decreased financial security
- Changes to the relationship with partner
- Lack of physical intimacy and affection from partners
- Lack of support compared to mothers (e.g. mother’s groups) and general isolation
- Issues with his own family of origin may come into sharp focus, as the new father considers questions about the type of father he would like to be to his child/ren
- Frightening or traumatic experiences during birth
Risk Factors for Paternal Depression in men
- Your partner is experiencing postnatal depression
- A previous history of depression
- Relationship problems
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of inadequacy as a father
- First time fatherhood
- An unsettled baby
Symptoms of Paternal Depression
- Fatigue, lowered energy
- Reduced motivation
- Irritability, anxiety and anger
- Changes in appetite and sleep including difficulty sleeping
- Loss of pleasure in activities that are usually enjoyable
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
Men may turn to substances to help manage difficult feelings, but in the longer term this can create additional mental health and relationship problems.
The Importance of Fathers for Children
Andrew Mayers, an Academic in Psychology from Bournemouth University, suggests that we need to place much more focus on the mental health of fathers for the long-term benefit of the family.
“The importance for supporting fathers at this time is as vital as it is for mother. Evidence suggests that a father’s depression can have a damaging effect on their child’s development. Despite this, it has been shown that fathers are also less likely than mothers to seek help, and that health professionals are less likely to consider that fathers need support, compared with mothers.”
Statistics show that that 1 in 10 fathers experience postnatal depression, 1 in 6 experience general anxiety before childbirth and 1 in 5 can experience mental health issues in the postnatal period.
Fathers are extremely important in the lives of their children. Just as maternal mental health difficulties can impact upon infant and children’s mental health, so too can untreated paternal mental health disorders.
What to do if you feel overwhelmed as a father?
- Open up – Find someone you can trust to have an honest conversation with. This might not be your partner, but maybe a family member or close friend.
- Look after yourself – Exercise and eating well can be difficult to combine with the demands of work and parenting, but can make an important difference to how you feel.
- Stop comparing – Comparing yourself with others is unhelpful. Trust that you are doing the best you can.
- Ask for help – Parenting is the hardest thing you will ever do, and it does not come with an instruction manual. Just as you seek expert assistance if you had a heart condition or diabetes, mental health concerns are no different. Therapy or counselling might be recommended to help you. Seeing a psychologist is never a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you are taking the steps necessary to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy.
Mental health conditions can be treated. A clinical psychologist is trained to treat mental health conditions and a perinatal psychologist understands how to support men (and women) with adjusting to parenthood and strengthening their relationship with their partner and infant. Fatherhood does not have to be an overwhelmingly negative experience characterised by shameful feelings of depression, irritability or anxiety. Instead, parenting is an extremely important opportunity to learn about yourself, and your new family.
If you or your partner feel that you would benefit from assistance to navigate parenthood and its associated challenges – book an appointment to see us today.