First-baby stress in new dadsWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Flip through most books on preparing for parenthood and you’ll find a hefty section on caring for a newborn. Self-care for new moms gets thorough treatment too – including a heads-up about commonplace mood swings known as "the baby blues," and the possibility of more serious postpartum depression and anxiety.
Self-care for new dads, however, gets barely a mention. And that can leave some new fathers unprepared for their transition to fatherhood.
Left to their own conclusions, many dads-to-be imagine their biggest challenge, once baby arrives, will be in stepping up their game. They anticipate putting in a solid day’s work in a sleep-deprived haze, then returning home to pick up more than their usual share of chores. And undaunted, they resolve to take care of meals, laundry and whatever else their preoccupied wife points at or sighs over.
Like any typical guy, expectant dads imagine problems that can be solved by action. But for some new dads – though the awe and thrill of welcoming their newborn into their life never diminishes – baby’s arrival can kick off a disconcerting period of turbulent emotions.
And just as new moms are warned about mood swings in the early days of motherhood, new dads need to be tipped off that they’re at risk for depression too.
Unexpected anxiety, guilt and isolation
Recalling their experiences, these new dads give a glimpse into their early days of fatherhood. They’re all pumped to be "Dad" to their newborn, even if their launch into fatherhood was bumpy at first.
- "I definitely wasn't expecting it to be such an emotional roller coaster in the beginning, with the pressure I already felt to be the breadwinner and then the almost shock of the added responsibility of the father role – of being responsible for two people and realizing that how a father relates to their child can significantly influence that child's development."
- "In my case, I feel extra stress in trying to balance helping my wife with our child and also from additional financial responsibility. My wife is on maternity leave with 50 percent of her former income and now we are buying diapers, formula, organic vegetables for baby food, and new clothes every couple of months and many other things, in addition to all of our regular bills."
- "As a man who has a problem-fixing mentality, it was difficult to accept that I really couldn't ‘fix’ a constantly fussy baby. Things suddenly felt out of control, and I really didn't know how to respond or react, other than to make sure the three of us survived."
- "I knew I needed downtime to recharge after work so as to best support my wife and child, but I really wrestled with guilt for going for a run or to the gym and leaving my wife with the baby, since she got no real break at all during the day. I would convince myself that I was not doing enough to support my family, and then stay in that cycle of exhaustion and guilt. I found it difficult to find other fathers who really felt the same way; I'd usually just get the ‘oh yeah, the nights are rough’ response, but I didn't really know if other dads had gone through those same cycles of emotional exhaustion and guilt and I was left wondering if it would ever get easier."
Orly Katz is a licensed clinical professional counsellor and transition to parenting expert based in Rockville, Maryland. She warns that men, in general, are ill-equipped to deal with some of the intense emotions that their transition to fatherhood can trigger. Instead, they’re primed to suffer in silence.
"In my practice I often see dads who were unprepared for the new reality they faced when their baby was born," says Katz. "Where new mothers are encouraged to verbalize their disillusions, disappointments and concerns – usually in support groups or to other moms – new dads have been raised to not express their emotional needs. Even when they face stresses associated with the arrival of their newborn, fathers tend to suppress their emotions and act as if everything is okay. This of course is not a sustainable behaviour and new fathers can become depressed or have sleep problems.
"A good example is the need for personal and emotional space. Fathers who are criticized for taking time for themselves often can't really verbalize their need to de-stress. They can be perceived as mean or non-caring, and this vicious cycle can throw fathers into depression."
There are other reasons, too, why a new dad might hesitate to divulge his struggles to his wife. Typically, new dads already feel thrust to the sidelines, displaced by the eddy of that strong nurturing instinct that kicks in in new moms. Watching his wife become hyper-focused on their infant’s needs, the husband can conclude, My feelings don't matter. At least, not right now. Or he may resolve to stay quiet thinking, Why add to her stress?
New dads – like new moms – can get postpartum depression
Mood swings in new moms aren’t difficult for others to accept. It’s no stretch to imagine pregnancy hormones and fatigue are to blame, and to sympathize with a "blue" mom.
A despondent new dad, however, is a much more of a mystery to others – and to himself. Most certainly, dads would fare better with more widespread awareness that expectant dads experience hormone fluctuations akin to their wife’s.
In the majority of fathers, testosterone levels drop a few months before their baby is born and recover a few months after. That’s significant, because low testosterone is associated with depression in men. Estrogen and prolactin levels change too. Estrogen rises a few weeks before the birth, and drops again after. Prolactin levels, on the other hand, steadily increase in dads right up until their infant’s first birthday.1
Whatever the cause – hormonal changes, fatigue, stress, or legitimate mourning over the loss of the free and easy "pre-baby" lifestyle – it’s now recognized that paternal postpartum depression is very real for some dads.
In 2010, an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that reviewed 43 studies worldwide pointed out a huge spike in depression in dads three to six months after their baby’s birth. While the average rate of depression in the dads in their baby’s first year was about 10 percent (that’s double the rate of depression in U.S. men in general), a full 25 percent of fathers in the study showed signs of depression at three to six months.2
It seems that just as new moms are finally reaching their stride in motherhood, new fathers can be bottoming out.
And when mom is not reaching her stride because she’s struggling against postpartum depression, studies suggest her husband has a 25 to 50 percent chance of being depressed too.
Overwhelmed, withdrawn, irritable – but not admitting depression
In the past, men have had few allies to help them recognize the signs of paternal postpartum depression. Men tend to withdraw rather than admit they’re overwhelmed. Or they try to "drown out" their anxiety with other behaviours. Psychologists are only just beginning to catch on.
And wives? If only they knew the signs, wives might be more understanding when they’re literally left holding the baby. But for a woman, detecting depression in her husband requires a leap of imagination, because depression in men can look very different from how a woman might express similar feelings.
A stressed-out, overwhelmed new dad might be weepy, lethargic or sleep longer than usual. But on the other hand, he might show other traits like:
- a diminished zest for life and becoming unusually "flat"
- becoming quiet, sulky or withdrawn
- reluctance to socialize with friends and family
- becoming agitated, restless and have difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- becoming unusually irritable, or even aggressive
- retreating from distress by "losing himself" in work or hobbies
- ramping up gambling, drinking or other risk-taking behaviours, or driving more recklessly.
To better understand post-baby depression in men, an excellent resource is PostpartumMen.com – a website provided by psychotherapist Dr. Will Courtenay.
And for new dads and couples finding the early days of fatherhood much more difficult than anticipated, here are some ideas to help:
For new dads
- Learn how to care for your newborn and help out as much as you can. Building your daddy skills will help you see that you’ve got this under control after all, and that you’re making a real difference for your family.
- Don’t be concerned if you haven’t bonded with your baby in the same way your wife has. For many dads those strong feelings don’t kick in until their infant is able to respond to them – by smiling, for example.
- Try to find an experienced dad – a friend, relative or Bible-study member – who can talk you through anything you’re uncertain about.
- Take advantage of offers of help from friends and family – especially if it means you and your spouse can enjoy some uninterrupted time together. Remember, if your wife has significant postpartum depression, there’s a good chance you do too. If that’s the case, you really will need to reach out to friends and family for support.
- Check out PostpartumMen.com and don’t hesitate to seek advice from a professional counsellor or your doctor.
- Practice Matthew 6:34 by taking one day at a time. Life won’t always be this crazy. Pretty soon you’ll love your new "normal."
How new moms can help their spouse
- Although you too, as a first-time mom, are carrying a huge load right now, resolve to set aside some "snuggle time" each day to connect as a couple and give your husband your full attention. Encourage him to talk about his conflicted feelings.
- Let go of any possessiveness you may feel about caring for your newborn and "doing it right." It’s important to let your husband take his turn caring for and connecting with junior.
- It may be some weeks yet before you can be fully sexually intimate, but you can help your husband by showering together or finding small ways to show him you still care about your sexual relationship.
1. Pilyoung Kim and James E. Swain, "Sad Dads: Paternal Postpartum Depression," Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(2) (2007): 35-47.
2. J.F. Paulson and S.D. Bazemore, "Prenatal and Postpartum Depression in Fathers and Its Association With Maternal Depression: A Meta-analysis," Journal of the American Medical Association, 303(19) (2010): 1961-9.
If you or your spouse are facing unexpected struggles as new parents, we invite you to contact one of our professional counsellors to discuss your concerns. To arrange a free, one-time phone consultation, call our care associate at 1.800.661.9800 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time.
Referrals to websites not produced by Focus on the Family Canada do not necessarily constitute blanket endorsement of the sites' content.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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