Joe* came to see me with the same sort of thoughts that a lot of people have – that he was wrong to feel anxious or depressed. Like them he didn’t simply struggle with his feelings, but beat himself up about being anxious or depressed, and end up feeling twice as bad. And just like them, Joe felt that whilst other people might be different, for him it was definitely wrong.
“It’s different for me you see” he told me “because I really shouldn’t be like this. It’s my girlfriend who should be like this, but it’s me instead. It doesn’t make sense, and I want you to help me to get rid of it.” And the ‘it’ that Joe felt he shouldn’t have had? Post natal depression.
“My girlfriend had the bay-blues, getting weepy and all that, but she seemed to be over it after a week. Me, I’m getting worse. Every time I hold the little guy he’s just crying and crying for his mum. It’s like he’s telling me I’m no good, and that I’ll never be his real dad. And it keeps going round in my head because who can I tell? Not his mum, and how do I tell my mates I’ve got what mums get?”
In fact 10% of new fathers experience post natal depression, and the reasons are the same as they are for new mothers. It’s not about the hormonal readjustment that comes after pregnancy, it’s about the profound change in life circumstances.
Joe had plenty of the risk factors for post natal depression in men – he wasn’t the baby’s biological father; he was already under stress at work and financially; as a couple they had little social support: and he had low self-esteem.
“Does that mean you can’t get rid of it?” he asked me. “Am I stuck like this forever? Because it would be better for them if I give up now and leave them if I’m not going to get it right.”
That was partly Joe’s problem – he had an expectation of getting it ‘right’ the first time and every time. Like a lot of new fathers he was finding that perfection wasn’t possible. But not being perfect wasn’t any reason to leave – as he agreed, his parents hadn’t been perfect, but he wouldn’t have wanted them to have not been there for him.
It’s also about how he measured himself – against perfection he was always going to fail, and no wonder that left him feeling hopeless and depressed. But measured against the biological father (“I think you mean ‘sperm donor’” he said”), and as a man who just wanted to do the best, he wasn’t shaping up too badly.
And partly that was how we helped Joe solve his problem. Not to ‘get rid of it’, but to teach him the skills he needed to see himself differently. The first step in that was to help him reduce his feelings of stress. Very quickly we were able to introduce ideas about things getting better – more familiar, more natural, easier.
This allowed me to introduce something else too, something that was vital to Joe – hope. When he came to see me he’d felt hopeless, not just about the immediate demands of being a dad, but about things ever getting better.
In many ways increasing Joe’s optimism about the future was what helped him to climb out of the pit of post-natal depression. Teaching him to value and care for himself as much as he did the new baby that he’d taken responsibility for were what helped him to stay out of it.
*Joe is happy to share his story, and his identity has been protected
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