The childbirth journey: From poor mental health to enjoying fatherhood
The childbirth journey: From poor mental health to enjoying fatherhood
Most people have heard about mental health problems developing or increasing for women during the ante and postnatal (perinatal) period, but there has been a lot less attention paid to how men cope during this time. Women generally attend perinatal medical appointments on their own, with services geared towards screening and assessing the development of the baby along with the mother’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. Usually, any investigation of how the father of the baby is managing stays firmly on the outer, and in many cases is invisible, because no one is even looking in that direction.
When men do attend appointments with their partners they are seen as being there in a support role, and scant attention is paid to how the men are themselves coping with all the changes that are occurring within the family unit. Yet a growing body of research is bringing to light that men are similarly struggling with their mental health as they enter or continue with fatherhood. I am certainly finding this to be the case in my role as a counsellor working with women and their families during the perinatal period. Having been in the job for many years I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of men I’m seeing who are reporting that, despite their best efforts and intentions, they are finding the transition to fatherhood challenging. Men who are from minority groups such as Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer couples are at added risk.
So how real is this problem and what’s getting in the way for men navigating through this life stage?
The rates of anxiety and depression for men in the perinatal period vary slightly around the world, but it is generally accepted in Australia that one in six fathers have anxiety antenatally and one in five during the postnatal period, while one in ten fathers experience postnatal depression. That’s a lot of men! What’s more, it is also widely suspected that these statistics are quite conservative because it’s been found that 60% of the community don’t realise that men are as susceptible as women to postnatal depression.
Anxiety is fighting who we are
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Men commonly dismiss what they are feeling as ‘stress’, even though the severity of the symptoms reaches the threshold for a diagnosis of anxiety and or depression. Indeed, the fact that the vast majority of my contact with men in my role is through my work with their partners – rather than contact being self-initiated – speaks volumes. The vast majority of men I see have come to the service to either placate or support their partner, rather than genuinely seeking support for themselves. Similar to what research has found in other settings around the world, help seeking is seen as appropriate for their partners, but is viewed as a definite sign of weakness within the men themselves if they admit to finding parenthood challenging. I find men are often quite shocked and sometimes dismissive when how they are feeling is explained as ante/postnatal depression or anxiety, or a mix of both. Fear and stigma around mental illness are still very prevalent. Yet frequently there is also a sense of relief in having a name put to how they are feeling and thinking, and in the realisation they aren’t alone and that other men are finding fatherhood similarly challenging.
Transition to fatherhood is a time of golden opportunity – but the learning curve can also be quite steep and challenging for some. On the one hand there can be an enormous amount of love, joy and delight, but the flip side is that fatherhood brings with it new levels of responsibility and quite a lot of change within relationships and lifestyles. Many men do adjust without major problems and enjoy the experience, but others find the road quite rocky. I’ve observed that this latter group of men is made up of two sub-groups – those fathers where the pregnancy is unplanned, and especially if the relationship is also very new, and other fathers who think they are prepared because the pregnancy is planned, but looking back, agree that their understanding of what’s involved was superficial. The fact is that the infant comes with their own temperament and set of needs and therefore may not fit the expectations of how a baby should behave and fit into the parents’ lives.
I find that the sorts of difficulties fathers frequently speak about with me are:
- Adjusting to lack of sleep, dealing with a crying baby and generally feeling out of their depth when it comes to caring for an infant beyond the basics
- Being unsure how to support their partner with her mental health issues
- Negotiating the changes within the couple’s relationship and within their own family and social networks. Often men feel excluded as they are no longer their partner’s priority because their partner is focussed on the baby, as are many others within the couple’s family and social circles
- Meeting expectations, especially in relation to ideals and beliefs around gender roles and with being the ‘bread winner’ in the family. Many men also feel they need to take on more of a protector role with their family
- Struggling with trauma and other complications as a result of a difficult birth experience
- Feeling lost and confused about how to care for and take a ‘hands on’ role with their infant due to having experienced abusive parenting when they were growing up and subsequently lacking appropriate role modelling for fathering.
Like many of us, the more men feel out of their depth, the more they try and control situations, which leads to further tensions within relationships and the drive to maintain a semblance of masculine identity and authority. The ways I’ve found that many men cope with the internalised pressure and hurt they are feeling is through:
- Increased irritability, anger, resentment and guilt due to a belief that they ‘shouldn’t’ be struggling
- Demanding that things be a certain way, yelling and swearing at their baby and partners, becoming aggressive
- Withdrawal through working longer hours or spending time away from the home with mates
- Checking out with online gaming and/ or large amounts of screen time
- Harassing their partner for sex or engaging in affairs as proof that they are still desirable and not forgotten
- Increased drug and alcohol use and poor attention to diet
- Having thoughts of suicide. This last point is particularly dangerous given that men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women.
Clearly these types of issues are a recipe for more problems to develop if they are swept under the carpet. The situation becomes especially problematic when partners are struggling with poor mental health as a moderate to strong correlation has been found linking maternal mental health issues to a corresponding increase in paternal mental illness. The above is just a snapshot of what is going on, but it does point to the need for a deeper exploration of why these types of behaviours are becoming common within the realms of fatherhood and furthermore, what can be done about the situation.
The whole experience of motherhood and fatherhood is riddled with ideals and beliefs which we as a society have accepted largely without question, with adherence to gender roles being an obvious example. Gender roles have certainly undergone a lot of change in recent years, but many traditions remain quite entrenched. We now see men, for example, attending the birth of the baby, accessing paternity leave, albeit very limited in most work domains, caring for their child at times while their partner works, dropping off and picking their children up from childcare and school, sometimes attending baby related medical appointments and cooking family meals while the mother attends to the baby. This can all flow smoothly and both the mother and father can find the adjustment to parenthood enjoyable and relatively smooth sailing.
Yet mostly, childcaring and rearing continues to be seen as women’s work, and I find men see themselves as ‘helping out’ here and there, rather than as taking responsibility for an equal role in caring for their child. Many men still strongly believe their primary role is to be the provider for the family and that anything outside of this is on an optional basis. I’ve lost count of the number of women who are exhausted but feel that they can’t ask for additional support from their partner because ‘he works all day and needs his sleep and downtime’. Or they feel they can’t ask their partner for money now that they have ceased work to care for a baby because it’s ‘his money’ and therefore feel quite tentative about asking for financial support, even when it is for basics. The mindset is further entrenched by either their own or their partner’s expectation that they justify how they have used any funds provided. Women are usually very frustrated and resentful about the imbalance but accept the status quo and feel they need to protect and defend their partner’s lack of involvement due to ingrained beliefs around it being his ‘right’ now that he is the sole/main provider for the family. Men and women both comply with this patriarchal consciousness that says that fathers are in charge of the family unit, without realising the trickledown effect this can have on all concerned.
Relationships with partners are critical and having a baby can support the relationship to strengthen, but likewise the partnership can be severely tested. I’ve observed that women often give mixed signals to their partners whereby they say they want more input from them, but then explicitly or implicitly gatekeep or micromanage the father’s involvement with the baby. This control over a father’s involvement with his child is often unintentional but is nonetheless challenging for a couple to navigate due to a societal belief which assumes that mothers are naturally more caring, loving and essential to the baby than the father. It’s true that the mother was the one who carried the baby through pregnancy and gave birth, but fathers can also bond with their babies during this time and equally love the child both before and after birth. In reality – love doesn’t distinguish male from female and men also dearly love their children. When they are shut out of sharing opportunities to care for and nurture their baby they can withdraw as a way to bury any sense of hurt and sadness and the loss is then felt by both them and their child.
Men talk about feeling rejected – like they can’t win whichever way they go – and so give up and become less and less involved, with wayward behaviours and tensions between the couple increasing as a result. Research indicates a similar story with 51% of men reporting that they argue more with their partners, while 47% feel like they have been pushed aside and are less important to their partners during the perinatal period. Clearly communication is key, but acknowledging the need for and accepting extra support from an outside source can be difficult when pride is at stake and each person feels judged or criticised by the other and understanding is at rock bottom. As the cracks become harder and harder to ignore and self-confidence drops, the door is left open for mental health issues to increase or develop.
When I speak with men it’s common to find that, despite the façade of being in control, they feel confused and like they are crumbling on the inside. They do want more support but don’t know how or where to ask for it. Formal modes of support are undoubtedly important but as a generalisation, perinatal services for men are extremely limited. The problems still stubbornly persist, which points to the need for something else to be available to complement what Western medicine, psychology and services such as support groups offer.
What my experience has taught me in working with individuals or couples, is that underneath everything is the need to keep sight of the human being and that each parent has value in caring for and raising a child. Fathers have an enormous amount to offer their children and their mental health is closely linked to long term emotional and behavioural outcomes for their babies. Fathers often do things a little differently to mothers, but as long as the basics are agreed upon and there isn’t a compromise on the baby’s safety and security, it all adds up to positive experiences and relationship building between the father and his child. It’s the relationship quality that counts most – rather than a specific tick box of do’s and don’ts.
What the child is responding to most is what’s on the inside of the man. Babies can teach us all so much. Words don’t mean anything to little babies (although tone makes a difference) – what they are connecting to in interactions with their father is all to do with the innate inner qualities he holds and nothing at all to do with how smart, successful or important he is in the outside world. We have been set up to believe that we need status and recognition to confirm our worth, but in reality, this myth can be blown apart just through observing the way that babies’ faces light up and their bodies become animated when they are positively interacting with another caring human being. There is not an ounce of judgment or shame in the child, and neither are they holding the person interacting with them in anything less than love.
Babies know nothing about the mechanisms of the exterior world; all they are focussed on is being met for who they are at their core, that innermost part of themselves, and vice versa. We often find it hard to accept that our babies don’t see the imperfections and our heads can go into all sorts of stories about what our baby needs and wants from us and what their behaviour means in terms of either rejecting or accepting us and what we offer them. A baby instinctively knows that what their father is on the inside is a tender and sensitive being who is made up of love. It’s a heart-melting yet usually difficult concept to grasp, let alone allow ourselves to fully receive.
The simplicity of what a child is offering their father, and all men, is often beyond our comprehension. Instead, the pictures of masculinity men frequently hold are that they need to be tough, hard, non-emotional, competitive and in charge. Anything less is seen as weak and pathetic. Men have accepted that this way of living is ‘normal’ and it’s reinforced through broader societal systems such as religion, sport, culture, nationalism, politics, workforce policies, procedures and legislation and the media. Many women have also accepted the status quo, which further emphasises to men that anything outside these parameters is unsafe and abnormal. Little wonder then that men may find themselves struggling during the perinatal period as they have a baby whose behaviour contradicts everything else they have invested in and subsequently built their identity around. It’s easy to understand that mental health issues arise or increase when men are caught in between living up to the external pictures of masculinity and fatherhood and what is playing out in the relationship with their child!
"This world pulls us in every direction except the one that is the true purpose of life. So, go easy on yourself; don’t be over-critical or self-effacing. Instead, question why the tendency is to disrupt the consistency of love and truth. Hence, develop a prevention for the disruption by saying yes to greater forms of love and truth. And, if this is your way, the self-sabotage will exist no more."Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume III, ed 1, p 188
It is possible for men to be gentle, caring, sensitive and nurturing, yet at the same time also be strong and confident. However, it does take a willingness to be very honest and to look at all the aspects of their life, discerning what does and doesn’t work and then being prepared to make adjustments accordingly. Making lifestyle changes usually takes people outside their comfort zone and leaves them feeling vulnerable, but even small steps can lead to big differences in how we feel and see ourselves and the world.
A good starting point can be learning to connect with your breath and then noticing what difference that makes to your body, such as if you feel calmer; more able to think clearly; able to notice any aches and pains and so forth. This type of information is all telling you how you have been living up to that point. From there, some examples of self-love and self-care might include:
- Looking at and perhaps moderating alcohol intake and diet and observing the effect this has on your mood and energy levels
- Noticing the effects on sleep quality with late night television viewing and online gaming compared to when you don’t do those activities and go to bed earlier
- Experimenting with exercising or playing sport at a less competitive, hard pace and paying attention to the effect this has on your body, then choosing which ongoing adjustments you might want to make
- Noticing the flow-on effect in your day when you give yourself space to get to work on time and then leave on time
- Paying attention to how different parts of your body feel when you yell or swear at someone compared to when you speak calmly and lovingly
- Noticing how your body feels when you have been driving aggressively and how long it takes for this energy to clear from your body
- Dealing with what’s in front of you right now rather than procrastinating – then noticing how this feels in your body and if it helps you to feel lighter and less stressed.
The more you can practise connecting with your body, the more natural it becomes and from there you can discover more layers that are holding you back from being the real man that you innately are, i.e. the one your infant keeps a steady eye on. It’s an ongoing process, but one that just keeps paying you back with vast amounts of increased wisdom and a sense of self-worth.
Your baby will be your number one fan from the sidelines! It’s not all plain sailing and there will be many ups and downs along the way, but the investment in yourself is both deserved and worthwhile. It’s actually a powerful undertaking because not only do you come to realise that you have choices each step of the way, you also come to understand yourself much more profoundly, including realising that sensitivity is a strength and not a flaw to be ruthlessly squashed.
This deeper self-understanding opens up space to heal old hurts, to forge new relationships with those around you, including being a role model for others and to enjoy a much more harmonious life – all of which supports positive physical and mental health and wellbeing. It’s such a delight to hear fathers say how much more they are enjoying fatherhood and their intimate partner relationships as they make positive changes in their life.
Men, you have your true magnificence on speed dial if you are willing to leave the safety of what’s comfortable and familiar and connect with and accept what is naturally ‘you’ on the inside and don’t let it get buried under all the external pressures that are ever ready to hold you down.
The real ‘you’ is your greatest asset personally and particularly as a father it’s a gift for all, so why hold back!
"The power of reflection speaks louder than words; in fact, it speaks lifetimes. And what a great gift to children this will be. And let’s not forget society, it needs it too."Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume III, ed 1, p 193