Traditionally, dads have been seen as playing a supporting role for their partners. “Equal parenting” — that is, not only baby-care, but housework, money making, and wellness — has become more popular. Still, while we are off taking care of mum and baby postpartum, we tend to forget how dad is doing. In the postpartum period, it should be realized that both parents are sharing remarkably similar and life-altering experiences.
Pregnancy and postpartum are whole-family affairs, and the factors we typically think of as affecting a new mother — changes in hormones, excessive stress from becoming a parent, identity shifts, work-related stress, and lack of social supports — can also contribute to a paternal postpartum depression (PPD) diagnosis.
Studies show that PPD can show up in anywhere from four to 25 percent of new dads and could be caused by a change in hormone levels. Testosterone, for instance, starts to decrease a few months before childbirth and stays low for several months. The decrease is said to contribute to lower aggression, better concentration in parenting, and stronger attachment with the baby. In another study, however, low levels of the hormone have been causally related to clinical depression in men.
There are similar stories for the levels of estrogen, cortisol, vasopressin, and prolactin, which could all play a role. Externally, dads could also be struggling with feelings of resentment and shame, sleep deprivation, unwanted weight gain, a messy house, postpartum depression in their partner, and changes to the relationship.
We know that in maternal postpartum depressive episodes, a professional would look for.
- depressed or sad mood
- loss of interest in virtually all activities
- significant weight loss or gain
- insomnia or hypersomnia
- fatigue or loss of energy
- feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- diminished ability to think or concentrate
- recurrent thoughts of suicide
While some symptoms may be similar, depression in men tend to go undetected because it manifests differently to women, such as with anger, irritability, aggressiveness or through physical aches and pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems, among others.
These symptoms can influence how a dad interacts with his family. They are more likely to give physical punishments, which can lead to aggressive behaviour, may negatively affect the parent-child relationship, or increase risk of mental health disorders. Depressed dads are less likely to interact in positive ways, such as reading, singing, and playing with their children. There are risks of developmental delays and emotional and behavioural problems later in life. It also makes the mother more vulnerable to depression and increases conflicts in a relationship.
Encouragement and effective communication from a partner could help lower dad’s feeling of isolation that tends to creep up with overwhelming amounts of baby-mum bonding in the first few weeks. Acknowledging the difficulties that fathers face after baby can help diffuse feelings of shame and validate emotions. Support from the community, whether it be at work, family members, or a support group of likeminded people can help with advice or a much-needed listening ear.
Education is key to keeping control in the postpartum period. By knowing what to expect from new mother and father roles, it can help to alleviate new baby stress and bring hormone levels back to normal, keep the calm in the house, curb negative feelings, get good rest, and build a tolerance that lets you just sit around in the wonderful, crazy, beautiful mess that is a new family.
Kim P, Swain JE. Sad dads: paternal postpartum depression. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007;4(2):35-47.
Kristen Scott Ndiaye is a maternal mental health advocate, a mother of two and the creator and facilitator of EmergED, Bermuda’s first holistic postpartum support program that pairs traditional peer-to-peer talk therapy with access to seven different practitioners over seven weeks. It is a ready built postpartum plan for new families. To find out more or register you or a loved one, visit www.wellbermuda.com.