A newborn baby is often referred to as “a bundle of joy”. But the cliché of goofy-grinned euphoria during the early stages of fatherhood doesn’t ring true for a confronting number of men.
A study of 28,000 participants found that 10 per cent of men experience some form of post-natal depression. The research also revealed that men were particularly at risk during the period three to six months after the birth of a child.
In the second episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work, we explored this issue with Professor Richard Fletcher, head of the Fathers and Families research program at the University of Newcastle and author of The Dad Factor, a book showing how father/baby bonding helps a child’s cognitive, physical and emotional development.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Listen to the full podcast: here.
The Father Hood: We know one in five mothers will experience perinatal anxiety or depression. How does that compare to the plight of dads?
Richard Fletcher: Well, the symptoms look pretty much the same for dads, in that they also become unhappy, lose interest in things and start to feel a lack of involvement. The impact is also similar in that their baby is affected by a father’s depression as well as by their partner’s. The rates, as far as we know, are about half for dads, so about one in 10 dads will have anxiety and/or depression in that period from pregnancy through until the baby is one year old. But that’s a critical time, of course, for the family and for the baby.
TFH: What are some of the contributory factors that can trigger perinatal anxiety or depression in dads?
RF: The common factor for mums and dads is a previous history of depression. But dads can also experience a sense of dislocation where the whole process around the birth and those first early months often seem to revolve around the mother and any support that she might need. Often the father is left out of that picture altogether. Or they’re expected to just pick up the pieces and continue doing the job of bringing in the money, returning to work and looking after the other kids. That sort of dislocation can lead to dads losing their sense of confidence with the new baby and can be another factor leading to a dad’s anxiety and depression.
TFH: Is that lack of connection primarily an issue about the amount of time that dads spend with their baby?
RF: Time is a big issue for new fathers because our current social arrangements means that dads usually go back to work after two weeks. From then on, their time with the new baby is mainly limited to before work and when they get home. Those are not actually the best times to be interacting with a new baby if you want to make the most of those moments where the baby’s fed and rested enough to interact with you. Those important moments that build the connection between dad and baby are inevitably restricted when you only get to see them early in the morning or late at night.
TFH: So if you do have the opportunity to take parental leave that’ll presumably only enhance your chances of building up that bond with your baby a little bit quicker?
RF: Yes, and that’s an important message that many fathers that I’ve worked with over the years still seem quite unsure about. I’ve often been asked: “How important is it really for me to spend time with the baby before it’s old enough to kick a football? At that stage, do they really need me so much?” But the answer is: “Yes, they do.”
Your bond with the baby isn’t going to be best started when the baby is two or three years old. It’s ideally started even before the birth, but certainly once the baby is born by interacting with it. So yes, I recommend taking as much leave as you possibly can get.
TFH: Studies today show that dads today are more actively involved in their kids’ lives than ever before. And while that’s obviously a positive development, do you think that can potentially exacerbate the pressure for some dads?
RF: I think it can, because the pressure to do everything without any real guidelines is a difficult challenge. You’re expected to do as much as you can at home. You’re probably still expected to be making up for some lost income when the mother isn’t working. But there’s also not really much support for dads, not just in terms of parental leave, but also in terms of social support? If you want to hang out with your baby but not just by yourself, how are you going to find other blokes in a similar position? Those sorts of structures around dads aren’t very supportive yet. We’ve still got a long way to go.
TFH: You’ve previously described modern fathers today as almost being like pioneers.
RF: Most dads today didn’t have their own fathers at home for very long when they were first born. That just wasn’t the norm back then. In fact, the standard practice was that dads would not be involved much in the birth and would certainly be back at work as soon as possible. So fathers today wouldn’t be able to use their own dad as a model because it just wasn’t done then. That means that dads now have to figure it all out themselves.
TFH: Moving back to the here and now, what do you think that new dads can do in order to try and look after themselves better and potentially avoid perinatal anxiety or depression?
RF: Firstly, I think fathers need to understand how important they are for their baby’s wellbeing and development. If they start to believe they’re somehow a secondary parent that can get in the way of their interactions with their baby.
But I also think dads need to be speaking up about what they need, because they often feel that they have to hold everything together. If the mum is struggling with breastfeeding, for example, then dads often feel they have to remain strong and not talk about anything that might be difficult for them. But that’s not the best approach, either for them or for their family. Dads do need to speak up for support and recognition. But they also need to speak up and ask either a mate or a professional for a hand when they’re not feeling good themselves.
Listen to the full episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work: here.