Men get depressed in the first year postpartum, too. Whether you call it paternal postpartum depression or something else, what we do know is that new fathers’ suffering can impact the health of their children just as the depression of new mothers can. It’s important for men to recognize when they have depression in the first year after the birth of their baby, and that something can be done about it. Here, counselor and dad Craig Mullins shares his own story of postpartum depression, and how he now works to help other men get through it at his Colorado counseling practice.
As a husband, a father and a professional counselor specializing in working with men I was particularly moved by Postpartum Progress’ recent series from “Warrior Dads.” I found myself relating not just professionally, having heard similar stories of successes and failures, but relating personally as I recalled those early days and months often feeling like I was a flailing new dad.
We were so excited to be pregnant. Our friends and families showered us with congratulatory gestures and gifts beyond expectations. It was exciting and I was proud.
We got the typical cracks such as, “You better sleep now,” but they just rolled off my back. In all the hundreds of supportive comments only one cautioned us of the realities of how hard parenting a newborn can be … only one, and she was cutoff mid-sentence as she was scolded for speaking such words.
Even if every person were more up front about the potential pitfalls, I don’t think it would have mattered. I read The Expectant Father, I eagerly participated in birthing classes, and I read the research about how much better kids do when dad is present, nurturing and connected from infancy. I had even written papers and given presentations on the importance of a father’s involvement!
I represented the new generation of dads who’d participate willingly in caring for their infants. With bravado I embraced the impending change of fatherhood for I was sensitive, strong, nurturing, resourceful, and prepared … and within the first few moments of my daughter’s birth it quickly became apparent I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
That first year left me feeling confused, exhausted, helpless, alone and trapped. I often wondered how this world was so populated and why anyone would chose to have more than one child! Yes, there were moments when I felt confident and thankful to be a dad, but for the first year the overarching feeling was that I had been duped into believing I could do this fatherhood thing well.
Becoming a parent is life changing and that change can be overwhelming. It can feel as if you’re in a new country where you don’t get the culture and you definitely don’t understand the language. It’s an uncharted world of diapers, burp cloths, nipple shields, lactation consultants, formula, and in many cases, inconceivable ear piercing cries demanding to be held, fed, burped, rocked, changed, swaddled, or just because. As in our case, sometimes that crying can go on for hours and hours and hours, no matter what you do.
After a particularly rough crying bout and ensuing fight with my wife, we were both so irritable and sleep deprived that I indignantly and angrily typed into Google, “I hate my baby.”
Forgive me my precious girl. Forgive me my wonderful wife.
Thinking such a thing brought me a lot of shame. However, it was out of this brokenness and honesty that a path was cleared for me, and I first learned that as many as 10.4% of new dads experience postpartum depression. That’s 1,000-1,400 new dads every day!
If so many dads were experiencing it then why didn’t I know about it? It’s well known that men tend to avoid talking about things that might make them appear weak, and our culture tends to discourage men from disclosing their feelings, but it is not well known that men tend to display depression in ways that are uniquely male. Many men don’t relate to the classic descriptors of depression such as feeling sad or crying. Cynicism, impulsiveness, indecisiveness, working constantly and losing interest in sex are just a few of the symptoms of male depression that may surprise you. Many health practitioners are unaware of the subtleties of male depression and it often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
Depression can have a detrimental effect on marriages, child development and one’s overall well-being. Postpartum depression in dads tends to co-exist along side of, and follows, a mom’s postpartum depression. Therefore, when a woman is experiencing postpartum depression it is imperative that her partner be assessed.
After becoming more aware of paternal postpartum depression I began having discussions with fathers and many could identify. Then I had discussions with women and they could see the signs of depression in their husbands. It became clear that although they may not have known what to call it, many of them were living with paternal postpartum depression.
Thankfully, it is treatable. Many respond well to individual counseling with a person they trust and feel understood by. Many men respond well to antidepressants. Experiencing postpartum depression is not a sign of weakness and does not represent a character flaw. Rather, recognizing that what you’re experiencing is real and then seeking help for the sake of your well-being, your marriage, and your child demonstrates strength and courage…traits that are admirable in every man and woman.
Craig Mullins is a husband, a father, and a professional counselor in Colorado Springs who specializes in counseling for men and treating paternal postpartum depression.