Postpartum Depression: When Dads & Partners Don’t Seem To Get It

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postpartum depression dadYou 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.

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depression or anxiety and, often, these dads struggle quietly, or they become irritated and angry, isolated and withdrawn, or blaming.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

 

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  1. This describes my experience with my husband after the birth of our first son perfectly. The problem that I had is that I failed to see PPD for what it was at the time that our marriage was starting to fall apart. At first I thought, "Oh, this is just a normal part of the adjustment process to becoming parents." We both became absolutely miserable and I finally decided to seek therapy, first alone and then together with my husband.

    I am a licensed marriage and family therapist (which further complicated matters, as I felt that I "shouldn't" have these problems and that I should be able to fix them myself) and can only say that couples counseling made such a dramatic impact on my own PPD recovery. Our therapist was very solution-focused and concentrated on getting both of our perspectives regarding what we wanted out of each other and then highlighting all of our successes in working together while also helping us to pinpoint areas in our lives where we could work together more. Not only did I feel like I was finally being heard, but I was able to take the time to hear my husband as well.

    • It always takes those of us in the mental health field longer than it should to get help…. (yes, we should certainly be able to 'do therapy' on ourselves, shouldn't we??!! ;-)

      So glad that you guys both got this important support. Thanks so much for sharing-

  2. While I very much appreciate your assertions that fathers need to be participating in both parenting and supporting mothers, I'm troubled that you relegated same-sex partners to a footnote and suggest that they have to do the work of writing themselves into your article — especially since this piece is directed at mothers with PPD who (as you note) are already feeling isolated and misunderstood. Asking them to take on the additional burden of rewriting your work almost seems more exclusionary than leaving off the footnote entirely.

    • Thank you for this, Lisa. I truly do appreciate your voice and your concern. And I take it to heart. This is often a complicated issue when writing about women with PPD- while I want to include everyone in these posts (and do work hard to do so), sometimes the space allotted makes it feel as though choosing one word to represent works best. But this is not to say that this choice is the best one. When I wrote this post, my initial piece stated dad/partner and he/she throughout.. and in reading it back it seemed to become to jumbled and wordy and made it hard to hear the message- and so I chose a word that would represent. In doing so, yes, a group of women's experiences were isolated and for that, I am sorry. I will think up ways to make sure this does not happen again. And, please know that despite the wording, I take the experiences of same-sex couples very seriously and respect the reality that there are many different types of families out there.

      With warmth-

      Kate

    • Lisa,

      That's my fault. Kate had the footnote at the very beginning of the piece and I moved it to the bottom, just because it felt like it made more sense there. So please be upset with me and not her. We believe here at Postpartum Progress that everyone counts and everyone is equal and all families are important, so I hate that you felt relegated to the bottom. I'm very sorry about that.

      – Katherine

  3. Thank you for this. I will show it to my wife. I was pleased to see the footnote, I feel it was very inclusive! Lately our arguments have been her saying she doesn't know what to do or how to help me, and I've been stuck in a dark place of "just do SOMETHING, why should I have to add helping YOU help ME into things I need to do?!" Especially since I don't know what I need. We don't have health insurance to see a doctor, let alone the money to afford a therapist.

    I don't even know if I have official PPD, and I'm not sure if that's what it's still called almost 2 years later, but I do know that ever since one month after our baby was born there was a switch that was flipped and I definitely suffer from undiagnosed anxiety/irritability. The pent up distance and resentment is crippling, and added with our financial stresses the marriage stress is too much to deal with. Thank you again.

  4. Pingback: When Dads and Partners Just Don’t Understand |

  5. Here are a few resources that can help partners understand what is going on with a mom experiencing postpartum issues:

    1. The Postpartum Husband by Karen Kleiman — short, easy to read, each chapter is about two pages of bullet points — total reading time is about 30 minutes. Available at Amazon.com for less than $20.

    2. Postpartum Depression flyer packs focused on partners and family members. Price is $8.00 for pack of 100. Available .

    I offer both these materials to moms attending our support groups.

    3. Websites and chatrooms dedicated to family members AND/OR partners also suffering postpartum issues.

    Thank you, Kate, for raising this important subject. Marriages can really suffer from postpartum depression / anxiety. Another reason for moms to get help as soon as possible.

  6. I think a big part of why I'm getting better so much faster this time is because my husband knew what to expect and has been educated on PPD and is being so supportive this time around, as opposed to when I was suffering after I had my first daughter and he didn't know what was the matter with me. Having a support system makes everything seem 10x easier to deal with. Also, like Adrienne mentioned, The Postpartum Husband- reading that really helped him understand how to help, what to say/not to say, etc.

  7. YOU HAVE HIT THE NAIL RIGHT ON THE DAMN HEAD!

    I remember hearing my wife tell me those exact words…"you do other things than talk about poop and spit up," and I remember thinking, "What more does she want from me?" It's honesty time…I didn't get it. I am a therapist…didn't get it. I am sensitive and tuned in and fantastic…and I didn't get it. The face of postpartum sadness is the sad face, and if it's happening after a baby is born enough to spur the above two comments, then REACH OUT for postpartum support! Get people to make meals. Get people to do the laundry for you. Get people to come over and talk for an hour about nothing at all. Get flowers. Get it!

    Thank you for posting this Katherine Stone

  8. I just wanted to add to my initial comment, for those who feel they cannot afford a therapist. My husband lost his job when our son was a month old, so we had no insurance and very little financial means at the time that our struggle reached its worst. Some recommendations for anyone facing similar struggles: if you happen to live in the vicinity of a university with counseling or therapy masters/doctoral programs, they often offer services provided by the therapists-in-training on a sliding scale fee. We happened to live in a city where this was the case, and we paid $20 a session. Also, it never hurts to ask if an established clinician offers a sliding scale fee based on income. I hate to see finances prevent so many people from receiving the help they need; however, this seems to be the reality for many.

  9. We should also really push expecting moms to talk to their spouses/partners ahead of time (before the baby is born) about the possibility of PPD. Although the mom can't predict how she will respond after having baby, it helps the spouse/partner to at least be aware and more prepared. My husband was very supportive, but it was difficult for him to know how to respond because he hadn't been educated about it ahead of time.

  10. This issue is still a huge challenge for me in recovery. It is so hard for me to accept and forgive my husband (and a few other people close enough to me that I believe did realize that something big was wrong) for not seeing the deep distress and despair I was in and not helping. Or attempt to get me to get help. He disappeared into denial and my misery was worse because of it. We are working on it and have an action plan if we have another baby and ppd enters the picture again but it is a painful, sore spot in our relationship.