Can dads get postpartum depression? Overwhelmingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Men definitely can get postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression is widely assumed to be caused by hormone changes after birth, and therefore only applicable to women. But men can get postpartum depression. And I know because I am one of them.
A study conducted in 2016 found that 8% of men get postpartum depression. Okay, that doesn’t seem like much of an issue, does it? A year later, however, academics suggested that the tools used to detect postpartum depression in women are not as effective for men, and therefore the figure would likely be higher. That study found more than one in five men experience postpartum depression and a third worry about their mental health after the birth of their child.
Despite such high numbers of fathers suffering with postpartum depression, there is very little focus and attention in medical and health organizations around the world. In fact, a search on the World Health Organization website for ‘paternal postpartum depression’ provides zero responses. ‘Maternal postpartum depression’, however, provides 44.
Like millions of new fathers around the world, I never knew men could get postpartum depression. So it was a monumental shock when I realised that’s exactly what I was going through.
This is my story.
Starting with guilt
At the time, I believed myself to have never suffered with mental health issues before. Although looking back, I realise I have struggled with mild anxiety at different points of my life. Nevertheless, I considered myself to be a mentally healthy guy in his mid-20s over the moon at the prospect of being a father for the first time.
I’ve wanted children for as long as I can remember. And I fell head over heels in love with my son, Raife, the moment I laid eyes on him. Everyone talks about how tough the first few weeks are, but I loved it.
Fast forward to the three month mark and the first big sleep regression hit. I had absolutely no problem getting Raife to sleep at bedtime. Instead, it was the early hours of the morning. Rocking him back and forth, gently rubbing his head, softly singing without success. Over and over again.
I didn’t want to wake up my wife and ask her to take over. She was exhausted from breastfeeding, she looked after him all day on her own. I needed to be able to do it to help her. I felt like I had to keep going. Eventually the crying woke her, anyway. So, after 30/40/60/90 minutes I’d hand Raife over, lie down in bed and try to sleep as a tear fell down my cheek.
Those feelings intensified when I was on my own - trying to get back to sleep, on the commute to work, sitting in the office alone. I felt useless, a liability, someone who couldn’t do the one thing expected and needed of him. Around people - my wife, Raife, family, friends - I felt fine. My wife would often go to bed a little earlier than me, hoping to get some extra sleep before breastfeeding during the night. And suddenly, I would feel anxious. I’d worry about the night ahead, about feeling guilty, about having to wake up my wife because I couldn’t settle our son.
I was exhausted. So much so that I could often feel my eyes getting very heavy driving home at 70mph. But I couldn’t get to sleep at night. It would take ages. I’d lie there feeling sick with worry.
For weeks and weeks, I told myself I was just tired. After all, every parent gets tired.
My wife and I rarely argue, but we started bickering a lot more. I was snapping at her a lot and I just wasn’t the kind and loving person I normally am. During one argument, she told me that I’d been “miserable for weeks” and that other people had started to notice. That hit me hard.
In the weeks before that argument, I began comfort eating. And I’m not talking about the odd indulgent snack while relaxing in the evening. I’d buy and eat three chocolate bars alone at work before any of my colleagues arrived at the office. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t know why I was doing it. I didn’t even put the wrappers in the bin. I’d stuff them in my bag so my colleagues wouldn’t question why there were three chocolate bar wrappers in the bin at 8am.
I knew what I was doing wasn’t good for me, and that it wasn’t ordinary for me. That year, I was the heaviest I’ve ever been at around 250lbs. I was ashamed, and yet I couldn’t stop. And that only added to the feelings of guilt. It added to my anxiety about what was to come that night and compounded every negative feeling I had.
For the previous month, I’d been suffering with postpartum depression without knowing it. I didn’t even know men could get postpartum depression. I honestly thought it was something that only happened to women after birth.
The night before my wife told me I’d been miserable, I read an article by a dad blogger who was writing about his journey with postpartum depression. I was shocked that men could even get it, but I was even more shocked when I read on and thought ‘that’s me’. I was now aware of what was happening, but I couldn’t quite process it.
I wasn’t tired. Not all parents go through it. I was depressed. I had postpartum depression.
The morning after the argument, I sat at my desk and the anxiety was through the roof. I looked at my laptop but had no idea what any of the emails said. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and I knew I had to tell my wife. I messaged her saying we needed to talk later that night, which I’m sure put her mind at ease first thing in the morning. I felt so sick, my heart was racing. I came so close to closing my laptop and going home without telling anyone, but just at that moment one of my colleagues came in and, as usual, everything subsided.
I’ve never felt so nervous than when I prepared to say the words “I think I have depression” out loud.
I knew my wife would be amazing. She was understanding, compassionate and supportive.
Thankfully, I’m someone who is quite good at addressing an issue with myself once it’s identified. I wanted to try and deal with the problems as a family before seeking professional support or medication.
Talking about it, firstly with my wife on an almost daily basis, and then with friends and family helped massively. I had some of the most open and honest conversations with family members after telling them.
Fairly soon I started to feel better about myself. I hadn’t experienced some of the more serious or significant symptoms. The author of the blog I read talked openly about not loving his daughter for the first six months of her life. I never had that - I always looked at Raife and felt all-consuming love. I never had thoughts about hurting myself. Looking back, I can say with certainty that I was lucky enough to experience mild postpartum depression, and lucky enough to have read that blog and identify the problem early.
Symptoms gradually got fewer and further between and within a few months, I wasn’t feeling any symptoms at all. I know so many others aren’t as lucky.
Fast forward roughly two and a half years later to November 2019, we found out we were having another baby. I couldn’t wait to be a father again and I couldn’t wait for Raife to have a sibling. As the months of my wife’s pregnancy went on, we both wondered how I would cope this time around, particularly through the difficulties of living through a global pandemic and the restrictions placed on everyday life.
Our baby girl, Eden, was born in July 2020 and I fell just as deeply in love with her as I did with Raife.
Having been through postpartum depression once before, I feel so much more aware of my mental health and the warning signs. My physical health is vastly improved from that time, too, which we all know has a positive impact on mental health. As I write this roughly 50lbs lighter, exercising regularly and eating healthier. I learned that the two are intertwined and I need to work on both.
I’m conscious that the same sleep regression is fast approaching. But I’m not worried or anxious about suffering again. My wife and I regularly talk about our mental health and I feel far better equipped to handle the struggles that parenthood throw at me.
If, like I was back then, reading this blog thinking ‘that sounds like me’, please talk to someone. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of men have had and will have far worse experiences with postpartum depression than I did, both in severity and duration.
And yet, I strongly believe that talking about it is the single most important step in getting better. It can be the most all-consuming feeling with no end in sight. Whether talking with family members or seeking professional help, being honest with yourself and accepting the problem is the first, but most crucial step.