Last month, we published an article exploring postnatal depression (PND) in men and issues around it not being discussed or in some cases, accepted as a reality at all. In this interview we talk to Ben, someone with lived experience of PND after having his first child.
Ben is a high-school teacher, as well as being a father of two children, one boy, one girl, so has a unique perspective on mental health, especially the mental health of boys and men. To start though, we first discussed PND and his understanding of it, before eventually experiencing it himself.
Before having any children, had you ever heard of post-natal depression?
“Yes. Although I have to admit it was somewhat at a distance. We were only the second of our friends or family (in our generation) to have kids and as such we didn't have any first-hand experience of sharing our friends' experiences. I had my parents and grandparents’ stories of 'how different' and 'how tough' it was having a baby and raising children then, but as is common with people of those age groups there was very much a culture of knuckling down and keeping going.”
If you had heard of it before, what was the context you understood it could occur in and who did you assume it would happen to?
“Before our first child was born and despite all of what I would call progressive, liberal ideas of gender roles in the family, I remember there was definitely a sense that this was something that only happened to women.”
“I guess I linked it to the huge hormonal, emotional and physical changes that happen to women during childbirth. Perhaps this was amplified, by my wife having been diagnosed and medicated for her depression and anxiety during our relationship. During both pregnancies she was under a specialised mental health midwifery team and would attend regular meetings.”
“I also was able to support her by attending these meetings, but we had developed a variety of self-care strategies together over our 5 year relationship to that point, so this additional midwifery support was a natural progression.”
“I think that I felt during that process that if we could cope with the additional mental, emotional load of the pregnancy for her together, then we would find the post-pregnancy depression (if it were to arrive) more manageable. Not as if the birth 'solved' some of the depression for her, more that she would have a more settled emotional and physical state.”
If you’re happy to, could you speak to your experience of being a first-time dad?
“This is hard to write because I am someone who prides themselves on giving out as much hope and positivity as possible. It is something that I implement in my professional career in education, but also as a friend and family member. I find myself helping people frame or reflect on an experience or interaction to find a positive. This is not meant to exclude the negative feeling in a toxic way, but to encourage them and myself to identify joy and happiness.”
“So I'm going to share these positives in the first instance. Firstly, I loved holding my daughter. We did skin on skin regularly to bond, I would barely put her down, I learned very quickly to make a coffee / tea with one hand while holding her 'american football style' in the other.”
“Secondly, I seemed to be the go-to person to settle her. I would sing gently to her and walk around to soothe her. I remember feeling an awesome pride at this bond, as if I had 'found my niche' and it meant that not only was I developing a close, deep and honest connection with my child, but also that I was 'showing up' for my family.”
“Lastly, I loved just involving her in my life. My vivid memories are getting her up on a weekend to go to do the shops and out for a walk with the dog.”
With some hesitance, Ben began to recall some of the more negative emotional experiences from that time, as well as the mental distress.
“After my paternity leave, I found myself bursting into tears while walking to work. I put this down to the stress of my new life balancing fatherhood and working full-time. I would have to work smarter and harder to make sure that balance did not create this outburst. When I had cried before it was from a breakup, a funeral or some film I was watching. This was different, I felt very guilty suddenly. Either because I was leaving my wife to look after the baby alone or that I was leaving work not having given my all to the students at that time.”
“I felt an overwhelming sense that I couldn't maintain both to an appropriate level.”
“I also felt quite lonely. I had one friend who was a father and although we were close, we didn't see each other as often and we tended to concentrate on talking music, films and sports (there is an elder millennial cultural male trait of not discussing feelings here - maybe more on that later).”
“So, I had nobody to really share my experiences or to discuss them with. Not anyone who could emote or really understand emotionally. One of my best friends who I love with all my heart would listen and sympathise (and I thank him for that of course)...”
“But to 'help' we would always default to activities that I found diversionary or escapist. This was wonderful and incredibly helpful, but it didn't mend the outpouring of emotional guilt and sadness I felt.”
“I began to realise that my only model for fatherhood, the one I knew most, was my father. An incredibly loving and funny man who I vividly remember spending time with. I had a relatively privileged time as a kid. Both my parents worked in the leisure industry, and I spent my school holidays accompanying them to work and taking part in activities at their workplaces.”
“To me, he was a great model for a father. In fact, following the positives from my father - "finding a role" for myself included the playful, silly behaviours that he exhibited. My parents divorced in 1994 and I remember it feeling amicable. I maintained a good relationship with both my mum and dad.”
What made you realise you needed to seek help?
“After the spontaneous crying, low mood and intense tightening of shoulders became worse, I saw a doctor. After explaining the symptoms and a brief discussion they said to me that: “I think you are aware of what is happening to you”, in response I said, “I'm not sure what you mean” then they said “You have some clear symptoms of depression. We can look at some medication or we can begin with some counselling”
“This rocked me. I had failed. I was doing everything I could to be the happy, fun, hands on dad that I wanted to be. Everyone said how great I was with the baby. “Surely most new dads have an adjustment period?” I thought, but not all of them have clinical depression, if anything the weight of being a father became the heaviest at that time.”
- See also: 'Why isn’t postnatal depression in men being discussed and diagnosed more?'
- See also: 'An exploration of motherhood and postpartum psychosis: reviewing 'afterbirth''
- See also: '‘Overlooked and underfunded’: experts call for global action to deal with depression'
“I opted for some counselling (still clinging to the “I don't need pills for my brain” rubbish hyper masculine stereotype). In the first run of 6 I didn't find it useful (because of me) - I was 100% behind the process, but I refused to be open to believing that MY childhood was the cause of this. I had the fondest memories of my very lucky and loving childhood as described above. I rejected any notion that it had a negative impact.”
Ben also later spoke about a further series of counselling sessions where he delved a little further into his past and was able to open up more, it was in these sessions he realised that, although at the time he thought he dealt with his parents divorce positively, it was actually through the birth of his daughter that triggered all the negative emotions that had been buried in association with that time.
Did you/do you feel there needs to be more cultural discussion around how the perinatal period can impact men/dads?
“I feel that as a general point, discussions between men about the emotional impact of experiences just doesn't happen enough.”
“Most of my life I have had people looking out for me, but the people who asked questions like: “How did that make you feel? or How are you dealing with that emotionally?”, were women.”
“If I ever did open up to a male friend, father, grandfather, or uncle and said I was feeling low or grey, the response would be far more of a binary problem-solving exercise, a quick fix: “have a beer and forget about it”, “you'll feel better tomorrow” or “you've got loads going for you, stop moaning”, these cliches are all too familiar to me.”
“More specifically, I went to an expectant father's one day course in the run up to my first child. Most of the session I remember as a practical workshop. The kind of “what to do if” questions. These centred around nappies, vomit, crying, burping. I remember some minor topics of discussions about how to support a woman emotionally after the birth and some discussions of what challenges we will face as new fathers. These topics were awkward, not many of us were willing to share our experiences or emotions.”
“I would be lying if I said it was unhelpful, that course gave me lots to think about, but I never really had any men to discuss this with organically.”
“The cultural discussion, from where I sit, appears to have 2 strands: first, the suicide rate among men is high, this is the reason we need to talk about men’s mental health. Second, Men's mental health can be improved by doing activities with your mates.”
“These are both valid and important topics in this discussion, however I feel they are too limiting. The first seems to suggest that if the suicide rate lowered, then men's mental health would not be as crucial a discussion point. Some men I know have admitted that their mental health “isn't that bad” and refer directly to the suicide rate. So, whilst raising it is clearly important to grab the attention and focus of audiences, it perhaps, stigmatises mental health in general.”
“Whereas the second assumes that other men in friendship groups have the emotional capacity and empathy to help and furthers the stereotype of "quick fixes". There is a lack of discussion about professional therapists.”
What do you think could be done to improve how new dads’ talk about and relate to their mental health?
“Free counselling for everybody, one hour, once a fortnight! So people get used to sharing their emotional wellbeing. Not practicable, but an ideal. There is obviously not a quick fix, but some ideas come to mind.”
“Some sort of new father or grandfather discussion groups perhaps.”
“I would have LOVED to talk with my father when I had my initial diagnosis in 2012. I wanted so much to tell him that I was struggling emotionally and that I needed him to listen and understand. I wasn't able to speak to him about this until 2017 when I had to take some off work for my mental health. When I did tell him, I could see him instantly feel like it was partly his “fault”, but also, we hardly discussed it. I told him, he said he was sad about it, asked me what I was doing about it and said I should look after myself. Essentially this was a positive sharing of emotions, but it felt a little staged. Not that he and I were not genuine, but it was so alien to us that we didn't really know what to say or do. We could've done with some guidance.”
Ben’s final comments here go far to demonstrate the need for more specific support, designed and tailored for men. Especially in the context of fatherhood and pregnancy. When researching for our initial article on PND in men and for our interview with Ben, we came across one dedicated website page listing advice for men who might be experiencing PND or any kind of mental distress during and after a pregnancy.
As Professor Viren Swami said in our original article on PND in men, “honestly, the best change we could make is to ensure that all parents ̶ not just mothers ̶ are screened for symptoms of mental ill-health during the antenatal period.”