Oh yes, I was so excited about becoming a father. I felt well prepared and couldn't wait for the baby to be here. We had a lovely birth and during my paternity leave (well, I must admit after the initial panic subsided!) I felt like walking over pink clouds. When I returned to work I did my best to support my wife. Often what I found at home was my exhausted wife, a crying baby and general chaos.
However, I always tried to finish work in time, I rushed home and normally I would either be with our baby or start the washing up, in order to have at least two clean plates in the house. Still, I struggled with getting comments or gazes from my wife. Whatever I did wasn't good enough or right. My initial high turned into feeling low and the bitter taste of rejection lingered inside. Does she still love me? Am I a good enough father?
The truth is no-one had prepared me for these emotions and having my life turned upside down, while in the outside world I was expected to just return to normal, leaving me no time or space to reflect or simply breathe and find my feet, left me and many other men struggling.
While women find this time equally hard, support is easier to access. Before and after the birth everyone seemed so supportive towards my partner: the midwife, the health visitor, family and friends. While my wife was able to share her new experience with other mums at various baby groups, getting nurtured and heard, I shut down emotionally and sometimes even physically (by becoming unwell).
I didn't know what was happening to me and had no idea that many fathers, around three -10%, experience similar emotions and for some it turns into Post Natal Depression. There is very little research or general knowledge about it as men don't do the post birth check-ups with professionals, where maternal PND is often recognised.
The Signs and symptoms (which can begin straight after or several weeks or months after your baby's birth) of postnatal depression in men have been described as:
• Tiredness, headaches and pain
• Irritability, anxiety and anger
• Loss of libido
• Changes in appetite
• Feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control and unable to cope
• Engaging in risk taking behaviour
• Feelings of isolation and disconnection from partner, friends or family
• Withdrawal from intimate relationships and from family, friends and community life
• Increased hours of work as a part of the withdrawal from family etc
• Increased use of drugs or alcohol instead of seeking treatment for depression
Generally, it is believed that when their partner suffers from PND, men are more affected, while this is certainly a contributing factor, this isn't always the case.
So why is PND in men more common than we think?
There are several factors contributing to PND, a history of depression or anxiety, lack of emotional and social support, a traumatic birth experience, difficulty adapting to the change in family and relationship dynamics, financial worries, unmet expectations, insecurity around sex and sleep problems. However, after much research I also believe that many men have not yet recognised and reflect upon their own childhood and the resulting needs and fears, which especially when becoming a father, are a big contributing factor to inner balance and whether we are able to have a strong, nurturing relationship.
It is believed that when becoming a parent, many memories of our own birth and childhood are stirred up. What has been a seemingly unimportant part of our adult life, suddenly comes into the fore front. How? Firstly, many men struggle with their new identity and role of being a father, and especially so when they have no role model for guidance. We usually don't grow up watching other close men raising their children, how are we supposed to know what's right or wrong? I didn't feel addressed by many of the parenting literature out there and certainly not inspired by my own dad's child raising skills (put frankly, he wasn't much part of my life as a child).
Secondly, watching our partner showering our baby with love and lots of physical contact can trigger feelings of jealousy, because for once we might not have experienced this kind of closeness with our own mother and secondly because we now need to share our partner physically and emotionally.
That's what happened after the birth of my son: all the attention I had been receiving and craved from my wife went suddenly to the baby. She had only eyes for him; all her unconditional love and nurturing seemed to be withdrawn from me. So where and how could I meet my needs for love and physical contact? We started to argue and blame each other for what we saw as the failure of our relationship.
Recently, I came across the brilliant work of Meryn Callander, who wrote the book Why Dads Leave: Insights and Resources for When Partners Become Parents. She says:
"Ironically, the better the mother is able nurture her child, the more likely the father will be to re-experience his childhood wounding because he sees even more of what he didn't get."
Many men feel guilty or even ashamed of these feelings, some resentful or angry at their partner or child. A lot of new dads find themselves alone with these feelings. Helpless and unable to share with anyone, they retreat emotionally as the pain of emotional isolation is so hard to bear. As a result of this, some men also decide to leave the family.
Great, so all gloomy and hopeless then? Not at all. You can change it around if you think you might head into the direction of developing a depression. Start talking - the earlier the better - to your partner and explore your past: go back to your childhood and honestly look at what actually happened there. Look at your current conflicts. Ask yourself questions like: What makes me angry and what do I do when I get angry? Are you able to see the emotions underneath that anger; often they are linked to our attachment needs and fears. These could be sadness, fear of abandonment, the need to feel safe and loved. If you learn how to recognise and communicate these emotions clearly, show your vulnerability and open up, you can start healing past wounds and establish a strong relationship culture in which you connect deeply, rather than get lost in the cycle of arguments, resentments and withdrawal.
Here are another three awesome tips to take on board:
• The opposing demands of work and family can feel stressful, as there isn't enough time for either and you end up being tired and exhausted. It is important for you as a father to take some time to recharge too. Once your child is in bed, can you go out, once a week, do something you love? Don't feel guilty doing it, your partner needs you fully recharged.
• Spent as much time as you can with the baby and don't be offended by your partner when she suggests you do things differently (she might be totally right, and then you'll find out for yourself anyway or you invent "your" way, that she has not tried yet, that's fine and could work equally well - just give it a try!). The more you do it, the more confident you get!
• Don't ever underestimate the importance of you being around, especially in the early days it can seem like you are not "needed". You are, every time you interact with your baby you are building a bond. Every time you support your partner, you are strengthening the family bond and therefore building your child's safe "nest".
The transition from a life as a couple to life as a family is a huge one. Every transition happens over a stretch of time, it requires a lot of patience, communicating positively, adapting to new roles and especially loving kindness and forgiveness towards yourself (you will make mistakes, and yes, that's ok!) and towards your partner. It's important to open up, get help, connect with other new fathers, find local support services, talk to your GP, start a Dad's group or hop over to our community at www.parentsaslovers.net for some great inspiration. Use every opportunity to bond with your child (they need you!), re-connect to your partner (every day!), be authentic and honest.