A Father’s Day Post: The Effect of PPD on the Dad

I’d like to take this opportunity, as today is Father’s Day, to thank and acknowledge my husband for being such a wonderful daddy.  During the living hell I went through during my darkest days of PPD, I can tell you that had I not gotten the help when I did, my husband may very well have followed me into that living hell.   I know he, the epitome of a handyman who likes to fix everything, felt helpless that he couldn’t fix me.  He couldn’t help me feel better.  He was completely sleep deprived, having to do as many night feedings as he could muster during the week, even though he had to be at work by 7 AM each day.  He was worried beyond words about me, thinking I might never return to my old self.  His sleep deprivation and anxiety all started at the same time my sleep deprivation and anxiety started, which was as soon as my OB/GYN uttered the words “Your placenta won’t come out” and then we proceeded to spend the next 7 days of living hell together in the hospital.   He didn’t sleep in a bed for 7 straight days.  The sleep he did get was spent in a chair next to my bed during 6 of those 7 days.   He was a blessing to me during my PPD days because he helped out with the baby so much.   And thankfully, he had more experience taking care of babies than me.  He was the one who taught me how to change our daughter’s diaper.  He was comfortable holding her, feeding her, bathing her.  Thank you for everything, dar (this is what we call each other…long story that I don’t want to bore you with).

Now to the meat of the post, which I’ve written for the husbands whose wives are suffering from a posptartum mood disorder.   

The postpartum depression (PPD) of the mother has a significant impact on the father who is, particularly if this is the first child for both, trying to get a handle on parenthood but now also trying to get a handle on PPD.   In fact, it’s not uncommon for fathers whose wives had PPD to be so traumatized by the experience that they are reluctant to consider having another baby. 

The father is an integral part of the family equation.  Throughout pregnancy and during the months following the baby’s arrival, the spotlight is on the new baby and mother and no one seems to ever think that just maybe the father may feel ignored and unimportant, with all the attention of visitors and his wife focused on the baby.  It’s even more so when the mother experiences PPD.  No one seems to consider the effect of the mother’s PPD on the father.   There is this tendency, albeit inadvertent I’m sure, for the father’s feelings to not be acknowledged.  People tend not to acknowledge his feelings, ask him how he’s holding up, and realize he’s also got it tough and might even be suffering a degree of depression as well.  People think, “Well, he didn’t just give birth and isn’t the one experiencing PPD.  He gets to go back to work as if nothing happened.  He should be able to take care of everything until she gets better.” 

Everyone seems to think it’s natural for the father to go through all this with a “no worries” attitude, but did you ever consider that he might just be putting on a front so that everyone thinks he’s the perfect dad, and in actuality, he might just be thinking “For crying out loud, why doesn’t anyone ever ask me how I’m doing?  I mean, after all, I’ve got to continue working right after the baby arrives.  And now I also have to help with taking care of the baby and chipping in with cooking and housework?  Doesn’t anyone realize I’m tired too?” 

In addition to bringing home the dough, he now has the added responsibility of taking care of both the mom and the baby.  Needless to say, that can cause any father to feel overwhelmed, particularly if he doesn’t know how to take care of babies, what is happening to his wife, and whether she will ever be herself again.    It’s no wonder the rates of PPD are as high as they are for men.  That’s right, men can get PPD also.  Though you will seldom hear about it, it is entirely possible for the father to be depressed with or without the mother being depressed.  In fact, studies indicate that nearly 1/3 of women with PPD have a partner who is also depressed. (1)

When one parent is depressed, it makes situations all the more difficult for the other parent.  After all, being around a depressed person can be very depressing indeed.  The father, who will experience his own feelings ranging from fear and despair to anger and frustration for not understanding what’s going on with his wife and not knowing how to help her can make him feel very helpless.  All these feelings can spiral into depression if he doesn’t get the rest and support he needs.  All of this can take a toll on the father, particularly since it usually takes 4-6 weeks for the mother’s medication to kick in, and it can take many months, even over a year, for her to recover fully. 

Here are some daddy Do’s:

  1. Do eat well, exercise, take breaks, and try to get enough sleep as possible.  Taking care of yourself is key to avoid getting depressed yourself.  There are TWO parents in the equation (well, usually there are).  Both lives are in the process of adapting to having a brand new baby to take care of.  There are instances of fathers becoming depressed at the same time or once the mother is on the road to recovery.  If you get depressed too, you will not be able to provide the support your wife needs to recover from her PPD, and you won’t be able to continue helping with the baby to the extent you would like and/or she needs.
  2. Do confide in relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or any other dad acquaintances (preferably new dads), rather than keep all your concerns, fears, thoughts and feelings to yourself.   Just like your wife, you need a support network to get through this difficult period.  You may not know any husbands whose wives suffered from postpartum mood disorders.  You may never know unless you ask.  You’ll learn that people don’t really prefer to talk about such experiences.  Hearing experiences from other fathers will help you feel less alone.  You may want to consider joining a support group for fathers, which is particularly helpful for first-time dads.  You will meet other fathers who are experiencing similar issues, and if this is their first time at fatherhood, then you can learn from each other. 

Most men are not accustomed to relying on others for any kind of support, least of all emotional support.  Remember that now is not the time to try and prove to yourself and others that you are a self-reliant, multi-tasking, perfect father and perfect husband.  There are plenty of opportunities for that down the road.  Remember, you are a family unit and the baby needs both of you to be happy and well.  Right now, you need to focus on getting through this tough period.  To get through this tough time, you’ll need to accept advice and help from others.  You deserve it just as much as your wife does.  If your  extended family is not as understanding as you’d like them to be, there are friends, neighbors and co-workers you can go to for advice who are also fathers and you may find have also gone through this.  If not, a therapist may be the way to go.

You can’t continuously provide support without finding an outlet for yourself.  Just like a sponge can only take in so much water before it can no longer absorb any longer, you will reach your saturation at some point and will need to unload.  And you shouldn’t wait until the saturation point to talk to others and get help.  After a couple weeks, the stress and exhaustion will wear down even the strongest of people.  With a wife suffering from PPD and so much responsibility on one person’s shoulders, it’s natural for you to feel overwhelmed with everything, angry/resentful that you are stuck with all this responsibility and she is “slacking on her motherly duties,” exhausted from sleep deprivation and never getting a break, disappointed that this first experience at parenting did not turn out as expected, frustrated that you can’t seem to help her get better, feeling isolated in experience from the other dads who seem to be coping so well with fatherhood, and terrified that she will never get well and you will have to care for her and the baby indefinitely. 

3.     Do seek therapy if you feel you need professional help, or just someone with an objective, non-judgmental point of view to listen to you.  It is always good to have someone to talk to and hear your side of the story and what you’re going through.  Do avoid at all costs any tendency to rely on alcohol or any other substance to try to make yourself feel better.  There is a tendency with a certain population to self medicate rather than getting the professional help that they need should they become depressed. 

Anyway, I do hope some of you daddies (and even mommies) who read this post will find some of my information helpful.   I truly wish you a very Happy Father’s Day!

———————

1 Venis, Joyce, RNC and Suzanne McCkloskey, Postpartum Depression Demystified: An Essential Guide for Understanding and Overcoming the Most Common Complication after Childbirth.  New York: Marlowe and Company, 2007. p. 164.

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