Most men want to be a dad one day and hundreds of thousands father a child each year. In Australia, the average age of first-time fathers is 33. So, how are new dads faring? Does the health system care for them as well as it cares for mothers and babies?
In March, Healthy Male asked men these questions in an anonymous survey. Nearly 300 men who had fathered or tried to father a child in the past five years responded. Overall, they paint a picture of a health system that is letting them down. This is what they told us.
Men aren’t told enough about their fertility
A man’s health, including his weight and habits such as smoking in the lead up to conception, can affect the chance of a pregnancy and the health of a baby thereafter. And male infertility is common. Of all infertile couples, the male contributes to the problem in around half of all cases.
Yet many men said they did not feel engaged, informed or supported by health professionals prior to conception. Some wanted more practical information about reproductive health such as tips for improving their fertility and stats on how long it usually takes to conceive. One man said: “I remember asking my GP for health advice relating to becoming a father and he told me it was a strange question.”
Some of the men who had been through IVF felt excluded and wounded by it. One said: “I was never really given any information. No one was interested in how I was emotionally dealing with being unable to conceive naturally”. Another said: “Repeated failures are really hard for the man too… I think most of us probably just suck it up and feel we can’t talk about it because, whatever we’re feeling, it’s ten times worse for our partners.”
Men feel excluded by the health system during pregnancy
For all the excitement pregnancy can bring, it can be stressful too. One in 20 men experience depression while their partner is pregnant and yet the vast majority of men (84%) told us that no one checked in on how they were feeling during this time.
Many felt excluded and dismissed during appointments with their partners, too. Men told us they wanted more than a lesson in how to swaddle a baby or change a nappy. They wanted to be asked probing questions such as how they’ll be involved in the birth, or if they know what to do if their partner’s waters break, for example. They wanted to hear about coping strategies for problems to come, like sleep deprivation.
Men want time off to help care for their baby
The Australian government has had a parental leave scheme for nearly a decade and yet less than 1% of people accessing it are men. This does not accord with what men told us, suggesting other barriers exist.
Men told us that they wanted more time off to care for their partners and baby. Fifty six per cent of men reported feeling supported by their employer to take time off to spend with their child or children, but others said they got a week or less and continued to answer work calls during that time.
Some felt like society didn’t view fathers as parents, but rather “baby-sitters” or “second class parents”. One stay-at-home dad said he felt like a “circus act” who received overt praise for looking after his child.
Another said: “If you happen to take your child to an appointment while your wife is with you then you may as well have waited in the car because you no longer matter.”
Men need more help to look after their physical and mental health during the first year
One in 10 fathers experience depression, anxiety, or both, before or soon after birth. And sadly, the risk of suicide surges for men when they become fathers. Despite this, less than 30% of men said they were provided with useful information about their own physical or mental health, or felt supported during this time.
Men called for more mental health services for both parents and urged people to ask how fathers were coping. One said: “There are many things he could be struggling with which can affect the mother, the baby and the family unit and these could be prevented by starting a conversation.”
Their grief is often overlooked
More than half of the men surveyed reported difficulty conceiving a child, a premature birth, or the loss of a child through miscarriage, stillbirth or during the baby’s first year. And the vast majority of these men did not feel supported by the health system when these things occurred.
Some men said they were “traumatised”, “broken” and “numb” after losses and that they, too, were emotionally invested in the process. “Nobody follows up with the man, in my experience. You pretty much have to bury how you’re feeling and focus on supporting your partner through it,” one man said.
How can you help?
It’s clear that Australian society, and our health system, has not kept pace with the changing needs, expectations, roles, and diversity of modern-day families.
Achieving meaningful change will require collaboration and commitment from a wide range of people and groups. Join the collective effort to improve care for men by reading and endorsing Healthy Male’s Case for Change.