Post natal depression is a highly documented issue across mothers and regular access to support networks are widely available. However, paternal depression and anxiety are much less publicised, but are increasingly affecting new fathers as they take a more active parenting role.
Mental health charity Mind, states that “only mothers can formally be diagnosed with a perinatal mental health problem. However, studies suggest that partners can also experience perinatal mental health problems.” Alongside this, a study by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) established that more than 1 in 3 new fathers (38%) have concerns about their own mental health.
This subject is a very personal one to me and completely shaped my view on parenting. Before my son was born I had a totally positive outlook on being a father, I thought that getting pregnant would be simple and raising a child would just come naturally. Little did I know that life, at times, just isn’t simple.
Firstly, getting pregnant wasn’t as natural as we first expected. We tried to get pregnant and it just wasn’t working. We spent a long year of trying unsuccessfully and after speaking with doctors, we were referred for fertility tests. This was a little earlier than usual, due to my wife having a congenital heart condition. We were handed over to the Assisted Conception Unit (ACU) to begin various tests to determine if there were any causes or issues to our low success.
After a multitude of tests and hospital visits, the results revealed Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) for my wife and Oligospermia for me, meaning ICSI was the best option for us to conceive. Although this wasnt the start we hoped for, we at least had answers and could move forward with a planned solution. The long process got longer with us requiring to have our case put into ethics meetings, to establish if it was ethical for us to have children based on the heart risk stats, which added extra stress to an already overwhelming time in our lives. Luckily our case passed and we could proceed with egg and sperm collections. We 16 eggs collected, 8 fertilised and by the point of implantation, we had just one embryo remaining – that one was our son.
From the moment we found out the ICSI process was successful, this child became the most important thing we had ever done and for me, that brought its own amount of personal stress. I was going to be a father and that was massive. I tried to prepare myself with a substantial amount of reading, because I had no previous child experience and wanted to ensure I wasn’t too overwhelmed when he arrived. Despite this though, I was anxious pretty much all the way through the pregnancy. Every twinge, every bit of spotting, every little thing that I could worry about, I did and to the max. I was genuinely terrified that after all this work and time and pain, that something might go wrong that might end this dream and break our hearts.
Fast forward to the 12th October 2012, the day our son was unleashed onto the world. He had the elegant birth of being dragged out by his head with some forceps that looked like salad servers and from that moment I was a dad. I immediately realised that I was responsible for this tiny life and my life was no longer my own, he was now my first priority.
Following a few heart complications and an extended stay in hospital, we were sent home and could begin our life as a happy new family. At least that’s what I hoped. The reality soon dawned on me, that babies are hard work and with all the reading in the world, no baby fits a set mound and behaves how an article says they should. So once again I was thrust into the great unknown. I had a baby that cried and I had no real idea why, his cried echoed in my head and I could no longer think straight. The sleep, or lack of it, was way beyond what I imagined or had been told by other parents prior to his birth. I was used to having fairly little sleep from nights out and by working shifts, but this was on another level, the broken sleep and bit and bats really got to me. I felt broken and out of my depth.
The first few weeks were the hardest and beyond anything I had ever felt before. It was a mixture of relentless anxiety, heart numbing sadness, and crushing guilt. My anxiety levels had sky rocketed, every little thing I did had to be a certain way, I worried about everything and it consumed my thoughts at times. In terms of mood, of course I was happy to have my son, but this was marred by an incredibly deep and intense sadness which had no trigger, it would just suddenly engulf me and I would be lost. The guilt was a reflection of my own perceptions that I wasn’t the father I had dreamed about being, instead I felt like a failure, one who had let both his wife and son down by lacking in the qualities needed to be a good father and husband. There were points that I would take myself away to a quiet room, where I would just sit and cry.
I found talking about my feelings very difficult and only shared them with my wife. I felt alone, like I was the only father in the world to be struggling and I was ashamed. So, I kept quiet. Whenever we had visitors, whenever we bumped into friends in the street and they would ask how I was, I responded with my stock answer of “yeah, I’m fine thanks”. With practice, this stock answer became more and more convincing, my outward appearance was one of a happy dad who was enjoying the flow of fatherhood and taking it all in his stride. Where as, in fact, behind this confident facade, I was on autopilot and simply going through the motions, trying my best to get through every day without letting it all get on top of me.
The thought that I was the only father to feel this way, was added to by the lack of information about paternal mental health and a lack of obvious support networks. From meetings with the midwife, filling out questionnaires about the overall health of my wife and leaving me to make drinks and nod on queue, to the health professionals at the children’s centres who asked any questions about our son to my wife, all made me feel separated and like a spare part. I was definitely relieved that my wife was getting all the support she needed, I didn’t want her to struggle in any way, she had already had her fair share of issues throughout this journey, so it was a weight off my mind that she was ok. However, at a point when I already felt the most alone I had experienced, being bypassed left me feeling that this was all in my head and that I would have to deal with it by myself.
Things gradually got better. Through a lot of work on both mine and my wife’s part, and understanding our son’s semi-routine, meant the confidence in my abilities grew from here. A mayor part of this was acceptance. By accepting that he was an individual, with his own mind, his own likes and dislikes, and his own personality, meant I had more understanding when responding to his needs. He would never do what a book said he should and that was ok, because he wasn’t just a page in a book, he was my son.
I found new ways to bond, one of which was slinging. I carried him in a sling from 6 months old and the benefits changed my world. Wearing Isaac and having him close, allowed me to chat with him as we went about our business, releasing me from the feed-change-nap cycle, in which I felt trapped. It also gave the added benefit of slingy cuddles, which helped build our bond and was an incredible feeling to share that affection.
However, it wasn’t just carrying my son in a sling that helped, but also about the support and friendship within the sling community. I joined a number of Facebook groups and met some amazing mums and dads, who offered advice, shared experiences and provided help wherever they could. The sense of community and acceptance of my role, filled the void in myself and this support attributed to the growth of me as a father.
Now, our relationship is more than I ever imagined it could be and we are peas in a family pod. Though, that’s not to say I don’t still have issues to battle. That early struggle left scars in my overall mental health and my anxiety requires ongoing management, but knowing now that support exists for paternal mental health, offers a path to assistance if I need it and that is phenomenally reassuring.
My message to dads is this: your feelings matter and struggling is by no means a sign of weakness. If you require support, then do not be afraid to seek it out, whether that be through healthcare professionals, community networks, friends and family, or your partners. By helping yourself feel like you, you are becoming a better father and showing your child that it’s ok to seek help if it’s needed – what better role model is there than that?