How I Fell Apart as a New Father
I suffered from postpartum depression for the first few years of my son’s life and, while I had been there physically, mentally and emotionally I was locked in a box far away, screaming.
As a new father you tell yourself, “my body didn’t change during the pregnancy, I didn’t go through childbirth. My body didn’t have to spend months recovering, or deal with the associated hormonal changes. So what do I have to complain about?”. You tell yourself to stop complaining and get on with things. That you have things easy.
Messages abound in our culture that men should “man up”. That they should just deal with things, but this approach can be damaging to your health. As a consequence of this approach, there is limited information online about men suffering from postpartum depression. Most people aren’t even aware that it exists. The disease makes you feel isolated, and this lack of support online only validates that feeling.
When our son was born, we lived five and a half thousand miles from from our family and I had few friends with kids. I didn’t appreciate how little support I had and, when anyone asked me how I was doing, I’d say “fine” and change the subject.
I’d go to all of our son’s medical appointments and, at each, my wife would be given a mental health questionnaire to check for signs of depression. I’d often fill these out for her if she were holding our son, asking her the questions and filling in her response.
“Trouble concentrating? Little pleasure in doing things? Restless? Feeling you’re letting yourself or your family down?” To each she’d reply “No, no, no, no” and I would tick that box. In my head, my own response was “Yes, yes, yes, yes”.
But no one ever asked me those questions, and I didn’t think I could be depressed because I wasn’t the one who’d given birth.
Research suggests that environmental factors surrounding becoming a new father can trigger clinical depression. Additional studies estimate that somewhere between 4-25% of new fathers develop depression, rising to as many as 50% if their partner also suffers from depression. The estimated range is so wide because, as the study notes, paternal postpartum depression has only been studied by a small number of researchers.
Another three months
I’d been expecting the first three months to be tough and, around that time, a friend told me after six months of being a parent I’d find things begin to level out. I thought to myself, “This is okay. I can do another three months of this”. Turns out, I couldn’t.
Common behaviors in men suffering depression include an increased focus on work, risk taking, substance abuse and I, to a greater or lesser extent, slid into these. That ‘another three months’ horizon kept creeping further away. By the time I sought help, 18 months later, I was drinking heavily to self medicate my condition and had pretty much written off the next 10 years of my life.
My son was growing and, as he noticed the symptoms of my condition, I didn’t want him to think any of this was his fault. So I talked to my doctor. I reached out for help.
Through the Looking Glass
And here’s the thing I wasn’t expecting; getting help worked.
That probably sounds obvious, at the time it was anything but. Depression places a distorted lens across your view of reality. How you’re experiencing the world isn’t an accurate representation of how the world is. But you have no way of seeing around the edges of that lens to compare. People tell you you’re thinking about something wrong, but it’s like someone telling you that green is blue. You have no way of reconciling their view of the world with your own.
There were a many negative spirals I would find myself taking before I sought treatment. Individually I could deal with them, but cumulatively they were an unrelenting black hole. During therapy, I learned to address them one at a time and spin that downward spiral up. Now, in remission, I use the same techniques to deal with these instances of negativity as they occur.
Through therapy and medication my condition was brought under control. It took six months for my depression to go into full remission. I began to get my life back. I was finally able to begin developing a relationship with my son.
If you’re a new father reading this and are struggling, I hope you know that things can get better if you ask for help. If you know someone who’s a new father, then maybe reach out and ask if they’re okay. Because they may be struggling to reach out to you.
Stuart Fitzwilliam is a runner and writer living in Southern California. Following his treatment for depression, he developed a card game, Cards for Calm, that helps players deal with anxiety and negative thinking. Available on Amazon.