After the birth of his first daughter, Dan* got into the habit of leaving work early without telling his wife. He would pull his car over to the side of the road on the way home and sit there – for half an hour or more – in silence. Sometimes he’d stare into space, other times he’d nap. More often than not, he’d cry.
At home, things were difficult. “One minute I was myself – a very tired version of myself, but still recognisably me – and the next I’d be this monosyllabic, snappy guy I didn’t recognise,” he says. “And then I’d be in tears.”
At work, he was crippled with guilt and anxiety, feeling like he should be at home helping his family – as if he was letting them down not being there. After a health visitor came round to check on the baby and found Dan crying – “like a heaving, sobbing wreck” – he sought help.
Dan saw a doctor, went to a support group for new dads, and got counselling. He went on medication for depression and anxiety and, after being signed off work for several weeks, started to feel himself again.
He’s not alone – even though, ironically, he very much felt it.
Postnatal depression (PND) was previously been considered a mental health condition that only affected women. It wasn’t acknowledged for a long time in men and, even last year, a headline on a national news site questioned its very existence, asking “Can men get postnatal depression?”.
Of course, new mums go through physical and hormonal changes when having children that men will not experience – and NHS statistics show one in every 10 women experience PND within a year of giving birth. But there are other aspects of new parenting that can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
“Environmental or logistical changes and relationship breakdowns [before or after having a baby] can also have a huge impact,” says Annie Belasco from PANDAS Foundation, a charity dedicated to supporting the mental health of new and expecting parents. “All these things can lead to fear, confusion, conflict and uncertainty, and dismissing these feelings can be dangerous.”
Parenthood often brings traditional ideas about gender roles to the forefront. Men can find themselves recast – in their own minds or by others – as the ‘provider’. Statutory paternity leave is short, and statutory maternity leave means most families take a financial hit, leaving a lot of new dads as the sole breadwinner. It’s a different kind of pressure facing new mums – juggling work and parenthood in those early days – but can feel just as isolating.
[Read More: More Than Half Of New Dads Struggle To Get Flexitime]
“I felt like I was doing a crap job at work because I was so tired from dad stuff, then I was doing a crap job at dad stuff because I was so tired from work,” says Gareth*, a father of two, who suffered from depressive thoughts after his first child was born. “I would sleep on the bus on the way to work, and play stupid games on my phone on the way home, and then just go straight back into it.
“Those stupid phone games might have stopped me losing my mind completely – at least there was one thing in my life I was completely in charge of.”
Gareth might have felt isolated in his thoughts, but a small study by the National Childbirth Trust found more than one in three new fathers (38%) are concerned about their mental health. Research into male PND has been sparse, but a study that followed nearly 87,000 families suggested fathers are at increased risk of depression in the first year of parenthood. And research by CALM found an equal proportion of mums and dads (3%) have considered suicide in their first year of parenthood.
For some dads, being able to talk about how they were feeling was half the battle – they didn’t feel like they deserved to struggle. Will* began to notice signs of depression in himself while his wife was pregnant – known as prenatal depression. “My wife was depressed, so I didn’t feel like I was allowed to be,” he says. “I was, by any metric, completely unwell – I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting no joy from life at all, I was permanently stressed, and I started daydreaming about dying, kind of wishing a bus would just run me over.”
Will felt that his wife was going through so much more – both physically and emotionally – so he didn’t think he could tell her, or anyone else, how he felt.
“Even talking about how much I was struggling felt like this impossible-to-justify self-indulgent act, like how dare I complain when my experience was so much easier than hers?” he says. “I wasn’t the one with a person growing inside me. I ended up feeling guilty at how shit I felt, like I was wasting valuable time and energy feeling sorry for myself.”
But struggling is a normal reaction to any life-changing event, explains Belasco, so outdated ideas like ‘I need to man up and get on with it and not waste my time on these feelings’ can be dangerous. “Men can feel like if they admitted to feeling a certain way they might not be deemed to be as masculine as they should be as the father and provider,” she adds.
[Read More: Male Postnatal Depression – A Dad’s Story]
Last year, NHS England announced fathers-to-be whose partners are suffering from anxiety, postpartum psychosis or postnatal depression will be offered mental health checks – but dads who don’t fall into this category still need support.
A shift in awareness can only be made possible by more men speaking about their experiences. Small steps are being taken – some men have written about suicidal thoughts they’ve had after becoming fathers in the past few years, and deaths like that of John Clayton in 2016 have led to campaigns for more recognition for the condition.
Clayton took his own life in 2016, aged 41, after struggling with his mental health following the birth of his first child. His former wife, Vicky, has since urged people to be aware that new dads can be affected by PND. “The culmination of being a father was a very big thing for John,” she said. “It’s often overlooked that men suffer from postnatal depression. Everything is very much focused on mothers, as you would expect, but having lived my life the way I have over the last five years I wish there was a lot more pointers for men to access help.”
Knowing that it’s okay to feel that way – and that it’s possible to get help – is perhaps the most important thing for new dads. When should a father who feels like he is out of his depth seek help? Sooner than he might think, says Belasco. “Don’t wait for things to escalate,” she says. “Every feeling is worth considering and shouldn’t be dismissed. There’s ‘Everything is a bit rubbish at the moment, I hope my baby has a nap soon’ and there’s ‘I don’t know who I am or what day it is.’” Both, she says, are valid feelings.
If you are suffering, or know a dad who may be, there are various resources available: PANDAS has a volunteer-run helpline, as well as local support groups. There are online spaces like the Daddit subreddit where fathers around the world try to support one another, and there’s also Samaritans.
You can speak to your GP, who may refer you to a counsellor or therapist, or suggest medication. And of course, talking to your friends, family, partner, or anyone you feel comfortable speaking to is vital. Remember that suffering isn’t a ridiculous indulgence, and doesn’t negate what anyone else is going through.
Sometimes, the best way you can take care of your family is to take care of yourself.
* Some names have been changed.