Any parent will tell you that raising kids is one of the biggest, most rewarding challenges you’ll face in life. They’ll probably also tell you that things can feel hardest at the beginning, when it’s all new and you’re still figuring out how to dismantle the pram without losing a thumb.
And while we all recognise how hard things can get for mums, it’s important to cut yourself some slack and realise that dads are in the thick of it too.
There will be times when you have no idea what to do. You won’t get much sleep. You’ll spend half your pay cheque on nappies and a cot that takes you four hours and lots of swearing to assemble. And we can hazard a guess that even when you’re exhausted, broke and have no time for yourself, you wouldn’t change it for the world.
But if you’re finding your new dad life harder than you expected, you’re not the only one. It’s a tough gig – one that can feel chaotic and relentless at times.
Anxiety and depression in new dads
Most people are aware that anxiety and depression can affect new mothers, but did you know that fathers are also at risk? If not, you’re in solid company – almost 50 per cent of dads aren’t aware of this fact.
And while anxiety during pregnancy and after the birth of a baby isn’t as well recognised as depression, we know it’s likely to be just as common among new parents.
Are you at risk?
Ask yourself how many of the following apply to you:
- Have you had anxiety or depression before?
- Does your partner have anxiety or depression?
- Do you have a lack of practical, emotional or social support available?
- Are you feeling the burden of financial stress?
- Did you support your partner through a difficult birth?
- Do you have current or past issues with drugs or alcohol?
- Is your baby unwell?
- Are you going through major life changes and/or relationship difficulties?
- Are you finding the reality of parenting different from your expectations?
Other contributing factors can include:
- not being able to bond with your baby
- attitudes towards fatherhood and masculinity – thinking you can’t talk about how you’re feeling or ask for support, or a fear that you’ll be seen as a ‘failure’ if you’re not coping
- changes in your relationship with your partner, which can lead to feelings of resentment and exclusion
- worries about extra responsibilities, financial burdens and managing the stress of work.
Is your baby premature or unwell?
If your baby is premature or has health complications, they may need to spend time in hospital. This can be an extremely distressing situation for any new parent, and can increase your risk of developing anxiety or depression. It’s important to look after your mental health at this time, and many hospitals have dedicated support services for families to help you. Make sure you take advantage of any support that’s offered, and ask what else is available to help you.
The more you answered ‘yes’ to these questions and recognise these scenarios, the greater your risk of developing anxiety or depression.
This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically experience a mental health condition, but it’s important to keep an eye on your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. If you notice changes in yourself, or you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed below, it’s time to seek support.
Signs and symptoms
The signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression in new dads are broadly the same as those experienced at any other point in our lives. But because becoming a dad represents such a big life change, there are also some feelings and responses that are unique to new dads’ situation.
Everyone’s experience is different, but if you’ve noticed more than a couple of these signs and symptoms in yourself or a new dad close to you, it’s important to seek support.
Anxiety and depression can sometimes be hard to spot in new dads because of the overlap between symptoms and the general stress and exhaustion that comes with caring for a baby. It can be hard to know if what you’re feeling is ‘normal’ when your sense of normal has been completely blown apart.
That’s when it can be helpful to take a close look at how you’re feeling – about yourself, your partner, and your baby. If your thoughts and feelings are predominantly negative, this can be a sign that you’re experiencing anxiety or depression.
Symptoms of depression
- low mood
- increased irritability and anger
- ·often feeling close to tears or crying a lot
- feeling sad, down, numb and empty
- feeling hopeless, with no interest in baby or other people or things you or your partner used to enjoy
- decreased energy and exhaustion
- having trouble thinking clearly, lack of concentration and poor memory (which can also result from a lack of sleep).
Symptoms of anxiety
- anxiety and worries that keep coming into your mind and are difficult to stop or control
- constantly feeling irritable, restless or on edge
- having tense muscles, a tight chest and heart palpitations
- outbursts of extreme fear and panic
- constant worries or fear about the health of baby during pregnancy or after the baby is born.
Feelings and responses
- Feeling trapped. Some new dads describe feeling stuck in their situation with no escape, as well as feeling incredibly alone.
- Anger and rage. Other dads feel angry at their partners, children or other family members. These feelings can be confusing and distressing.
- Hopelessness and helplessness. Some new dads feel that their situation is hopeless, and unable to change it. They feel their lives and sense of self might never return to normal.
- Disappointment. Some dads feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment. They might think they’ve failed in their role as a father and let everyone down, or feel let down themselves if fatherhood doesn’t meet their expectations. Some new dads get a double dose of disappointment if both these scenarios are true.