Postpartum Depression: When Dads & Partners Don't Seem to Get It

You are struggling—really struggling—and all you want (besides symptom relief) is for your partner to get it; for him to truly empathize, for him take you in his arms and just be there with you during postpartum depression. For there to be a gaze of understanding, a hand to reach to, and an unconditional smile that lets you know that this person is right along side with your pain and suffering, no matter what. But sometimes, dads & partners don’t seem to get it, do they?

There are certainly husbands and partners out there like this (they are usually the ones who call my office looking for the support their families need), but often this picture looks very different. Often, what it feels like to a mom struggling is this: He just doesn’t get it! He keeps telling me that I should be happy because we have such a beautiful baby! He gets to go to work, see friends, talk about other things than poop and spit up, and get to the gym, and he says that he is tired! Why is he getting on me for the house being dirty? Why does he keep trying to have sex? Doesn’t he get it that I have nothing else to give? Why does he keep giving me that look that makes me feel like such a failure?

On the other hand, here’s what the dads may be feeling: “I just can’t do enough! What does she want from me?  Why can’t she be happy like we talked about? What is happening? Why isn’t this parenting thing what we expected? Why am I so angry all of the time? She has no energy for me any more! Why does she keep looking at me like I am such a failure?

We know, through all of the research and first hand reports out there, that moms with postpartum depression and related illnesses who feel supported at home get well quicker than those who do not. What this means is that dads and partners play a tremendous role in a mom’s recovery… whether they know it or not.

We also know that becoming a new parent is not a cake-walk for fathers either. Up to 10% of new dads will suffer from an episode of postpartum depression or anxiety and, often, these dads struggle quietly, or they become irritated and angry, isolated and withdrawn, or blaming. We know that dads often feel as scared as moms by the unexpected realities of new parenthood. We know that they want to be useful but do not know how to be. We know that they miss you as much as you miss you. We know that they go through identity changes as well, that they become anxious about the “what ifs,” that they miss their old lives and friends and ability to feel free of responsibility just like you do. We know that they bring their own unresolved issues from their upbringing with them when they become parents, too. In other words, we know that moms and dads are not as separate in their experiences as it often feels to them.

And so, what happens at home? Mom suffers, and dad suffers, and they do so independent of one another. Mom gets resentful of dad, and dad gets resentful of mom. There is a lot of pressure to mind read. Mom feels that dad should know what to do to support her through postpartum depression, and dad feels that mom should appreciate his efforts at work and at home when he tries to fix things. Both mom and dad begin to feel swallowed up in the unknown, in the lost familiarity, and in the frustration of “not being able to do enough.” Because they feel that they can’t support the other in the way that they desire, they stop trying. They become distant. They muddle through until the straw breaks the camel’s back and someone says something that they later wish they hadn’t. Or worse.

I’ll tell you something: I only insist that dads and partners accompany moms to their sessions in my office when mom is struggling to the point of critical need, where she is afraid that she will harm herself or someone else or when she is showing signs of psychosis. In all other instances, I encourage that she bring her partner along for at least one or two sessions in the beginning so that he can gain some perspective and the two of them can discuss a plan for support at home, but I don’t require this. 

Often moms and dads take me up on this offer though (such a symbol of caring and effort!) and, when this happens, the increase in feelings of closeness is usually visceral; I can feel it begin to take hold right there in my office. Sometimes this is not the case, of course. Sometimes there are cultural pieces that make it difficult for Dad to meet Mom where she is, sometimes longer standing issues in a partnership really need some work to begin to untangle, and sometimes there is deep shame and stigma around mental illness that makes it challenging for dads and partners to truly hear what is happening and to acknowledge their part in recovery. However, creating an opportunity for partners to slow down and really look at what is happening is a very important first step in family recovery. It can take the blame off of each individual… and bring the responsibility for support and recovery back to the team.

Dads and partners do want to help you to get well. But here’s the catch, moms: They cannot do this alone.  They need your help in order to be able to help you. They want to know what to “do” and how to be. Invite them to a therapy session, if you have not already. Sit down and try to find the places where you can relate to each other. (Do you both feel angry, scared, overwhelmed, or frustrated?). What do you want to ask of him as a way to support you? (Help with the baby? More understanding about household chores? More awareness about postpartum depression? More patience? More “I love yous?”) What does he need from you in order to be able to give this of himself? (More understanding of his experience? Exercise? Information?) In other words, neither of you can do this alone. You need each other and, with each other, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel calling to you much more quickly.

You need each other to get through postpartum depression.

And your babies and children need both of you.

** For simplicity in this post, I have used the words ‘Dad’ and ‘he’ – please know, however, that I acknowledge the diversity of families and at any point ‘partner’ and ‘she’ can be substituted.

For more stories that may help dads understand postpartum depression and how to help you through it, visit our Help for Fathers link.

– Kate Kripke, LCSW

Kate Kripke