When I was working with new parents, a midwife related a story of visiting a mother who had recently had a baby. The extended family were all there celebrating. During the course of the visit she asked the new Dad how he was – he became upset and told her she was the only person who had bothered to ask him.
International Father’s Mental Health Day has been organised to raise awareness that new fathers have mental health needs.
Having a baby is a huge change. Becoming a parent is a major life transition. For women it is both a physical and a psychological challenge. Women’s bodies experience birth in a variety of ways and rightly health services are geared to help women and babies survive the process. In the UK there is now, at last, a recognition that women also need psychological help after birth and funding has been announced to support it.
But men have mental health needs too.
The challenges that men face are different to their partners. Their bodies don’t experience the same gruelling marathon of a long labour – although many Dads who have been supporting their partners for several days in hospital might beg to differ! However, what Dads can experience is being fully aware of what is going on in the labour room. They are more likely to notice the urgency and conversations between medical staff than a woman who is labouring and using pain relief such as pethidine or gas and air.
Men have described to me how terrifying it is to be present in the birth room when it appears that their partner’s or their baby’s – or both – lives are at risk. At this moment the focus has to be on the patients and despite the best efforts of the medical staff the father can be left on his own to cope as he can.
One aspect of trauma is lack of control. When a woman is rushed into an emergency procedure there is nothing the man can do. Often he simply has to wait outside the operating theatre not knowing if his loved ones will survive. This is not only a lonely and terrifying experience, it is also emasculating. How can he live up to the norm of protecting his family in this situation?
If the baby and mother survive the experience, both parents can be thrown into a position where they are expected to be grateful and celebratory about their new arrival. I have heard from women about how they tried to talk to people about a traumatic birth and been told it doesn’t matter because the baby is safe. This may lead to the woman feeling guilty about her emotions and may contribute to depression.
It must be even more difficult for men to talk about a traumatic birth. After all, they weren’t the ones in labour. New mothers are in recovery and in the first few days are simply trying to move without pain while caring for a new born baby. They often feel very vulnerable and need their partner’s constant support. They are very unlikely to be able to hear their partner’s shock and may even block out his experience because they feel it is their own body’s fault that it happened.
Who else might the man turn to? Possibly the grandparents if he has a supportive family. Will they be open to his experience or distracted by the delight of a new grandchild? Medical staff, such as midwives and health visitors, are under time pressures and their focus is on the patients.
How easy is it for men in today’s society to be able to talk about the difficulties of birth? Or indeed, to talk at all about their feelings? Are we as a society, prepared to listen? Are we prepared to allow our men to be human? Or are we expecting them to be strong?
It is up to each of us to listen and to ask questions without the expectation that a new arrival in the family brings only joy. We all joke about lack of sleep but perhaps it is also time to acknowledge that the post natal period is a challenging time for all concerned. Fathers may be grateful to be asked how they're really coping, what was the birth like for them, and whether they have any support themselves. Empathy for their situation - simply speaking out the listener's understanding of their experience - can enable them to talk without shame and it may be a real relief for them. New fathers are often the glue that hold a young family together. If we support them we support their family.
My video this week talks about new fathers and mental health. If you are reading this by email you can also access it on www.thegoodenoughmum.com/videos
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash