One in 10 men suffer from “postnatal depression”, The Journal of the American Medical Association has just informed me. Postnatal depression in men often goes “undiagnosed”, and “men are as likely as women to suffer from postnatal depression,” say various reports.
Apparently it’s at its worst between 3 and 6 months post partum and in that period as many as a quarter of new fathers suffer postnatal depression.
I should be clear from the outset that postnatal depression is a serious and real problem, for dads as well as mums, and I do not want to in any way undermine that, but I can’t help feeling that a large part of what we have in these reports is a nasty case of giving a medical label to the more fundamental reality of one’s life being turned on its head.
Having recently passed that 6 month post partum stage with our second child, some thoroughly unscientific self-diagnosis through the NHS Choices website comes up with the following results:
Do I have feelings of hopelessness? Yes. (Particularly at 3am when he just won’t shut up)
Feeling irritable and intolerant? Yes. (Particularly at 3am when he just won’t shut up)
Thoughts of harming someone else? Yes. (Particularly at 3am when he just won’t shut up)
Reduced sex drive? Yes.
Change in appetite? Yes.
Lack of energy? Yes.
Reduced social activity? Yes.
Change in menstrual cycle? Not so much.
Disturbed sleep? Does the Pope shit in the woods?
I am a walking dictionary of depression.
The only choice to make is between a talking therapy, SSRI or ECT. And yet I felt exactly the same with our first child. And it passed. I didn’t go to a doctor or get a prescription or meet a counsellor. I got a good night’s sleep: at first just the odd one, then a couple in a row, and before I knew it a whole week. At six months we went out for dinner for the first time since becoming parents and banned baby chat. It was a revelation. I was still human. And strangely as my wife got more sleep as well, our relationship got back to normal. Given time, I adapted to this new reality and the fog slowly lifted.
Over-medicalising the situation doesn’t help. Recognising the realities of early parenthood would be a start, after which more could be done to support and prepare couples, particularly men, and so cope with it or even prevent it.
New parents need to know that the beaming celebrity in Hello! Magazine, with perfectly trim physique and a little cherub that “completes her” is not the reality that most new parents will face. The overnight loss of independence, the sudden burden of responsibility, regular night feeding, and the panoply of human emotions and emissions that go with it all amount to a major culture shock. The early months can leave many new parents hanging on by their fingernails.
Prior to birth the NHS offers regular antenatal checkups for the mother, antenatal screenings of the mother, ante-natal classes aimed at the mother. After the birth the mother receives home visits, support for breastfeeding, goes to regular checkups with the baby, and her mental health is closely monitored. These are all good and important but while fathers are welcome to engage in all of this, none of it is aimed at them.
The National Service Framework states that it: “supports a cultural shift in all service provision, to include fathers in all aspects of a child’s well-being.” It talks about the importance of involving fathers in birth and the significant benefits of their involvement in parenting.
But the bottom line is that fathers are not factored in to NHS provision around childbirth.
I’d like to see less talk of diagnosing depression in fathers and a lot more about preparing them for the difficult reality of early parenthood. I’d also like to see an end to depression being equated with the desperate need for a good night’s sleep. And, personally, I’d like a baby-sitter if anyone’s offering.
Edward Davies is the editor of Career Focus.
Conflict of interest: Edward Davies works on a voluntary basis for As 2 become 3, a charity for first time parents.