The arrival of a new baby is meant to be a time of great joy and excitement, but for some men the transition into parenthood can be a difficult time.
Statistics suggest that up to 10 per cent of new fathers suffer from Paternal Postnatal Depression (PPND).
As a condition, PPND is difficult to define and it is not restricted to the postnatal period. In fact, a study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that pregnancy is the most stressful time for men who are making the transition into parenthood. It is at this time when relationships are beginning to change and their partner, as the expectant mother, is receiving increased attention.
Karina Bria – a PhD student at The University of Adelaide and a midwife with more than 20 years of clinical experience – has observed how difficult it can be for new fathers. “There is a general expectation that the father’s role is to continue to bring in the money, provide emotional support to his partner, help with household duties and caring for the baby and to take over at the end of the day when he gets home from work. That’s a tall order to fill.”
One of the most significant risk factors for PPND is postnatal depression in the mother. Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports that in 50 per cent of couples where the mother is depressed, the father is depressed too.
New fathers with PPND may present with a number of symptoms including difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration and even substance abuse. “According to current research some men are at risk of becoming involved in destructive behaviour, or [they] stay away from the situation – indulge themselves in work or sport to get away from it,” says Bria.
Depression in either parent can take its toll on the family. According to the Fathers Direct website (www.fathersdirect.com) more relationships breakdown in the early years of fatherhood than at any other time, perhaps as a result of the stress associated with parenting.
But it is not just the parents who suffer. Research suggests that children whose parents are depressed are at an increased risk of social, psychological and cognitive problems. Furthermore, a father’s depression alone has been found to double the risk of emotional and behavioural problems in children at three and a half years of age.
Karina Bria advises seeking information from websites or parenting books. “Go to your local bookshop and have a look in the parenting section at what’s available, choosing what [you] think is most relevant.”
In the postnatal period Bria stresses the importance of taking time out to maintain an individual identity outside of the role of father and partner. We are guilty of saying ‘I feel selfish because I’m putting myself first.’ And it’s a big trap. There is nothing wrong with caring about yourself too!? she says.
One Australian Dad, Craig (not his real name) first noticed that something wasn’t right when his wife was five months’ pregnant. He didn’t want to burden his wife in any way by talking to her about what he was experiencing and with no one else to talk to he kept these feelings to himself.
Consequently memories of his father’s own parenting and issues that he had had as a child resurfaced; he was scared of becoming like his own dad. Craig began to have recurrent panic attacks. It was then that he decided to seek help by calling Mensline Australia.
Dr Richard Fletcher, a psychologist with Mensline Australia, spoke with Craig about his concepts of fatherhood, his communication strategies and mechanisms for redressing his work-life balance. They talked about anticipating life with a baby and planning inclusive family ‘rituals’ and activities.
When Dr Fletcher called Craig after the birth of his child Craig was managing well. “The follow-up call was very rewarding,” says Dr Fletcher. “His communication with his wife was good, he was really enjoying fatherhood, panic-attacks weren’t happening and he was clear about work-life balance.”
“there are massive psychological changes in men’s lives when they start to have a family,” Dr Fletcher explains. “It’s alright to paint a nursery, but you need to prepare yourself emotionally for the changes that happen around birth.”
Mensline Australia works with men to build up their strengths, the things they are good at doing with their children and setting goals to work towards stronger families. Unfortunately in New Zealand the Mensline service has been suspended due to lack of funding, but there are plenty of other services available where you can get help. See below under “Find out more”.
Advice for new fathers:
This article has been provided by Penni Drysdale, a freelance writer and mother of two boys.