I’m so excited to kick off a special series this week focusing on fathers. What is a dad to do when his wife is struggling with postpartum depression? When the person he married or is partnered with seems as though she has suddenly become a different person? When he has no idea what’s wrong or where to find help?
This week, several dads who have been through the experience of their wives’/partners’ postpartum depression will share their thoughts with you. We’re really looking forward to this “Warrior Dads” series of advice for new fathers, and I’m exceedingly proud to kick it off with my husband, Frank Callis, who has been an amazing support to me through the last 10 years of parenting and the last nearly eight years of advocating for women with PPD.
It’s been eight years since postpartum OCD just about tore my little family apart and may have killed my wife. It does not take much thinking to get back into those times. I try not to do it much because it was the most terrifying time of my life.
As a man there are some things I thought you could always count on: 1) The sun will come up in the east; 2) Few things are as certain as death and taxes, and; 3) Women are wired to have babies and take naturally to new motherhood. I really believed that. I believed there was nothing that could keep a woman from taking to motherhood like a duck to water. And I’m pretty sure that my wife thought the same thing. We believed that when you have a baby and you look into that baby’s eyes, the choir music begins and everything just falls into place.
That was not the case with our first child. We were in love from the moment we saw him. We were so giddy from lack of sleep and excitement that we swerved from laughter to tears of joy and then laughter again in the hospital room. But when we got home something was just not right. My wife was racked with fear. She could not sleep and stopped taking care of herself. Rather than sleeping when our son slept she boiled bottles, washed clothes, watched him and did nothing to take care of herself. She could not bathe him out of fear of drowning him. She was sad and listless. She could not walk down stairs with him for fear of dropping him.
I did not know what to do. She did not know what to do. This wore on for months.
I thought she was overwhelmed so I tried to help more. I took more feedings. I did the baths. I tried to help. Pretty soon I was simply overwhelmed as well. I had a wife I could no longer reach emotionally. I could not communicate with her in a meaningful way. She would not listen to me. We talked and talked. I talked to her mom and my mom. Everyone assured me it was only the adjustment to the baby, yet things didn’t improve over time. I used my job to cope. I stayed in the office, buried my head in the sand and worked more.
After one protracted, tearful conversation I said, “I cannot help you. I don’t know what to do. You need some professional help.” I was at a loss and scared out of my mind.
What I did not know then was that my wife was simply afflicted by postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder. She was racked with fear that harm would come to our child through her or me or the world and could not rest for this fear. And it was driving her mad. She had become very ill.
Somewhere along the way my wife decided that she needed help and she reached out for it. It then took more than a year for Katherine to get better. She sought medical care through her company’s employee assistance program. We worked together. I did what I could. I dug in and helped even more. She went to therapy and I supported that. She took medication and I supported that, too.
She got better. It was not easy. It took time and love and care. I think people think medication or therapy will be a magic bullet and it is not. Recovery also takes time, love and patience.
I certainly did not get it all right. I was scared and hid in my job too much. That is something I’ll always regret.
If there are three things I could offer to new fathers, it would be these:
1) There is hope. Postpartum depression and related illnesses are not as abnormal as you think. In fact, they are common.
2) It is okay to ask for help. Your wife needs professional help.
3) Whatever your best is, now is the time to give it.
I’m very proud of my wife. Postpartum Progress, Daily Hope and the work she has done to destigmatize the array of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders is her life’s work and I have a deep and abiding respect for what she has done. I believe that the idea that there is hope is critical, that you’re not alone and that PPD is not uncommon are critical things to know.
When you believe something at your core — that “mothers naturally and immediately take to motherhood” — and you find out that because of a variety of reasons that is not always the case, you can become rudderless and believe that there is no hope. But there is. You must avail yourself of the help. More women are affected by postpartum depression than many other illnesses that you hear about in the media continually. You must overcome the stigma and understand that postpartum depression is driven by chemical and emotional turmoil that is real. It’s critical to have faith that things can and will get better if you will reach out for professional assistance, medical care and peer support.
As a new father you think about protecting your family from a myriad of threats. It’s easy to imagine yourself rising to the challenge of a threat to your family, but when that threat comes from an illness your wife is experiencing it can be daunting. Dads, now is the time to lead. Now is the time to give the best that you’ve got. Support your wife in therapy, protect her from people who will dismiss her feelings and say it’s just the baby blues, or judge her for her treatment choices. Rise to the challenge.
“Whatever your best is, now is the time to give it.” I took those words from the commentary on a Tour de France race, when Lance Armstrong hopped up out of the saddle and charged up over the Alps, against impossible odds after having had cancer, and won … against himself, the mountain and the competition. Eight years later I view postpartum depression as our mountain. Challenging, daunting and scary. We got over it. We did it together, grinding away on that mountain slowly, and I am grateful that we have a wonderful, happy, healthy family today. Your wife can and will recover, with help. Take hope, ask for help and whatever your best is, give it now, for you and your wife.