Post Natal Depression in in Fathers: a case study

30 June 2005

The crying was an indication of how bad things had got. It was nothing like the tears of joy I had previously witnessed at our wedding and the birth of our two sons. These were heavy great sobs that seemed to engulf my husband’s body.

Seeing him like this, sprawled across the bed, made me feel uneasy. As far as I was aware there had been no arguments or difficulties at work and for once the kids weren’t playing up.
It was unusual for him to show his emotions in this way and I was not sure how to respond. However, deep down I suppose I had been expecting it.

There were a number of factors that had effected his mood over the last year. Self-absorbed with my own needs, I had overlooked the possibility that he too may have been feeling unhappy for a number of months.
Looking back, I think it was our financial situation that first triggered his change in mood. Having the children (now aged 17 months and three years old) in our mid-twenties had proven more difficult than we had anticipated. We were prepared for the sleepless nights, constant feeding and lack of freedom but it was the added expense of bringing up two kids so close in age that we had not bargained for.

Despite earning a reasonable salary as a lawyer, my husband was finding it difficult to break even each month. Having given up my job to look after the boys, I had no source of income and living off his salary had become a struggle. Pressures at work meant he was forced to stay at the office late and when he eventually came home he found it hard to unwind.

Looking after a baby and toddler was proving to be a tough job for me and when our youngest became ill at four months old, the situation became even more difficult. After weeks of persistent crying and visits to various doctors, he was diagnosed with an acute form of reflux- a condition in which the contents of the stomach, food and gastric acid, flow back up out of the stomach and regurgitate into the oesophagus. This meant he was in constant pain and despite being put on anti-reflux medication he continued to have long periods of crying for days on end.

Whilst trying to make life as normal as possible for our toddler I paid little attention to my husband’s complaints of feeling exhausted and panicky. He had been having regular mood swings as well but I put it down to the stress of his work. Since every conversation we did have seemed to revolve around money issues, we spent most of the time at each other’s throats.

Although I was finding it extremely hard to put up with my baby’s long bouts of crying, I was lucky enough to have the support from friends and family. Being able to talk openly about my feelings of despair helped me enormously and even my GP, aware of how difficult it was to look after a baby with reflux, ensured my health visitor provided me with additional support.

Although in hindsight it is easy to say, I only now wish someone had stopped to ask my husband how he was coping at the time.

Having taking some compassionate leave to look after our eldest son, he had been left with a huge amount of work, as well as numerous outstanding bills that he had not had time to deal with. The burden of our baby’s illness had also taken effect on him. Sadly, I was unaware at the time how miserable he looked and how his usual sunny appearance had long since vanished. Whilst there were times when I thought he looked like he had been crying, he flatly denied it. Only now has he admitted that he was too scared to talk about his emotions, for fear of appearing weak.

It was a few months after our baby became ill that my father, an oncologist, suggested my husband seek medical help. Having noted the change in his son-in-laws appearance over some time he was aware something was in fact wrong with him.

This happened to coincide with the time I found him crying and it didn’t take much to persuade him to visit our GP. Being able to talk about his feelings to a professional came as a relief to him. Having bottled up so much inside, he found it therapeutic to admit to someone that he had been finding it difficult to cope under the strain of our financial problems and baby’s health. Sadly, I had been too wrapped up in my own emotions to give him the support he needed.

As well as talking to our doctor, what helped him overcome his misery the most was being able to open up to me. For months I had unknowingly pushed his feelings aside and it was only once he pointed this out to me did I realise how unhappy he had been. I had relied on his support and strength for so long and now he needed the same in return.
Fortunately our relationship had not suffered too badly and once we could openly discuss our feelings, my husband began to feel more positive.

It took a good few weeks for him to return to his normal happy self and once our baby finally outgrew the reflux a couple of months ago, things have started to look up.

According to Mary Alabaster, the manager of maternal mental health services at the South Essex Partnership trust, there are many cases like my husband’s that go unnoticed.

"There is nothing to address the needs of fathers," she pointed out. "There are plenty of services for mothers like post-natal check ups and health visitor services but fathers are often excluded. A lot of new mums become so involved in looking after the children, their partner can often feel left out."

With this in mind she is to set up a new counselling service in Essex for fathers, that is expected to be up and running next month.

The project, called ‘Fathers Matter’, will be funded by a £3,500 grant from the Queen’s Nursing Institute, a charity that supports community health schemes.

"Trained volunteers will be on hand to distressed fathers whose partners have recently given birth and we hope this will make it easier for dad’s to talk openly about any problems they may have," added Ms Alabaster.

Fortunately, my husband’s signs of depression were spotted early and counselling, rather than medication, has helped him recover. However, our experience has made me aware how vulnerable men can feel after they become fathers. There is plenty of care given to mothers following the birth of a baby and the medical profession should perhaps realise it is important to address the needs of the father as well.