Unlike mothers, dads/partners do not get to go through all the physical changes of pregnancy and giving birth, so they may not begin to adjust to parenthood until the baby is actually born. Becoming a parent can be an important milestone in a person's life and often marks a change in family relationships.
Some people believe that a baby will enhance their relationship. However, most find a new baby brings additional stress as the reality of parenthood may not be quite what they expected.
Some new fathers can experience some difficulty in adjusting to their new role, such as:
- struggling to adapt when the family dynamics change and feeling unsure about their place in the family.
- needing to be the main caregiver for the family, which can be very demanding and exhausting, particularly when they are unable to get other support.
- needing to take care of their emotional health, especially if their partner has mental health problems, and seeking help for themselves if they experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Most people know that depression related to pregnancy and birth can affect mothers, but it's important to remember that fathers/partners are also at risk. Research shows that about 5 per cent of men experience depression in the year following the birth of their child. This risk increases if their partner is experiencing mental health problems.
Many symptoms of depression and anxiety apply to men as well as women, although symptoms may vary from those experienced by mothers. For example, men may be more likely to experience symptoms such as frustration or irritability, increased anger and conflict with others, and increased drug or alcohol use.
What puts dads/partners at risk?
As with mums, statistics show that perinatal depression and anxiety may be more common for dads/partners who:
- have been depressed before
- have less practical, emotional or social support
- feel the burden of financial stress
- have major life and relationship difficulties, past and present
- find the reality of parenting is different from their expectations
- have a wife/ partner who is experiencing or has been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Dads/partners: taking care of your emotional health
Dads/partners play a key role in the health and wellbeing of the family. Here are some ways that you can take care of yourself, so that you can continue to provide the support your family needs.
- Talk to friends or workmates who've recently become parents. You'd be surprised how much you have in common now.
- Have a check-up with your GP in the year after the birth. If you're feeling tired, cranky and low in energy, it might be exhaustion (men get it too).
- Be aware of your own health and wellbeing. Make sure you exercise, relax and set aside time for yourself.
- Don't expect to be a superhero! You can't always fix everything that goes wrong.
- Let your employer and workmates know if you're not getting much sleep. Try to arrange your work hours to suit family life.
- Think about the sort of partner and parent you want to be and work out how you can achieve those goals.
- One of the best things you can do to keep your relationship on track is to talk with your partner, both before and after the birth. Who will do what around the house? How much time will you each spend with your baby? How do you each feel about the changes you have to make?
- Nurture your relationship with your partner. Spending quality time (at least a couple of hours once a week) and talking together every day (even 10–15 minutes) can help.
- Find someone you can talk to honestly about your feelings and how your new role is affecting you. This may be your partner, a friend, a family member or a counsellor.
- There are groups just for men to help with adjusting to fatherhood. These are often run by men. Contact your local council or Maternal, Child and Family Health Nurse to find your nearest group.
- Download Dad's handbook: A guide to the first 12 months
- Download The beyondblue guide to emotional health and wellbeing during pregnancy and early parenthood
Helping dads: tips for mums
Here are some tips on how to involve and support your partner in his new role as a father:
- Encourage him to be involved in the care of the baby. Greater involvement increases confidence and helps build a strong relationship with the child (while taking some pressure off you).
- Give your partner some credit for feeling comfortable in the role of parent and accept that when someone does something differently from you, it doesn't mean it is 'wrong'. Give your partner a little space to explore parenthood without you 'watching over' everything he does or giving advice.
- Invite your partner to attend appointments or groups with you. This is a good opportunity for your partner to be involved with the child and can provide a chance to touch base with a health professional.
- Remember, you will both need 'time out', away from each other and the baby, but you also need time out together to be a couple.
Dads/partners: how to look after yourself if your partner has mental health problems
Partners of women with mental health problems are sometimes forgotten. This can be a very stressful time for partners and they may also run the risk of becoming depressed.
Here are some tips for dads/partners on how to look after themselves during this difficult period and maintain their own good mental health:
- Remember that mental health problems are treatable.
- Talking honestly about feelings to someone like a friend, family member or a psychologist can help.
- Plan some time together as a couple and try to do something that you have both always enjoyed.
- Get involved in support groups offered for partners and discuss your feelings.
- Accept offers of help or organise for someone to help with meals, housework and the children.
- Encourage your partner to see a health professional.
- Offer to arrange for your partner to see a health professional and go along to the session with her.
- Offer to help your partner around the house.
- Expect that a woman with mental health problems can be moody, irritable, volatile, teary and withdrawn. Try not to take what she says as a personal attack.
- Understand that your partner may not want to be close or intimate. It is common for a woman with mental health problems to be withdrawn and less interested in sex because she may be overwhelmed, exhausted and not feeling good about herself.
- Live life one day at a time!
- Download the beyondblue Guide for Carers – Supporting and caring for a person with depression, anxiety and/or a related disorder booklet.
Dads/partners: how to help yourself if you have symptoms of mental health problems
Many men do not feel comfortable seeking help for any kind of health issue, but it's very important that depression and anxiety are assessed and treated. With proper treatment and support, a man can recover fully and be the father and husband he wants to be.
If you're reluctant to get help for yourself, consider doing it for the wellbeing of your child and family. Research shows that when either a mother or father is experiencing depression or anxiety, there will be an impact on the baby and other children in the family. That's why it's so important to get professional help sooner rather than later.
Seeking help and treatment
If you think you may have the symptoms of depression and anxiety, it's a good idea to learn more about these conditions and the effective treatments that are available. Seek help and treatment from a doctor or other qualified health professional and follow your treatment plan which will have been tailored to your specific and individual needs.
Accept help and support
It can be difficult to reach out to people and ask for help, but a good support network can make a big difference. Here are some suggestions that may help:
- Develop a support system of friends, family and professionals and actually accept help.
- Find someone you can talk to honestly about your feelings. This may be your partner, a friend, a family member or a counsellor.
- There are groups just for men to help with adjusting to fatherhood, which are often run by men. Contact your local council or Maternal, Child and Family Health Nurse to find your nearest group.
- Call a support service or mental health crisis line if other help is not available.
Look after yourself
It's important to take care of yourself, not only for your benefit, but for the benefit of your partner and child or children. Here are some tips on how to take care of yourself physically and mentally:
- Nurture your relationship with your partner. Spending quality time and talking together everyday can help.
- Take things slowly. Sometimes the only way to cope is to take things one hour at a time.
- Try to eat healthy meals. People who experience depression can find that their appetite changes. Even though you may not feel like eating, it is important to at least eat small healthy snacks and make sure you include fruit and vegetables, milk, wholegrain bread and lots of water in your daily diet.
- Exercise regularly. Planning physical activities with other people can help motivate you to get moving, especially on days when it seems hard to do anything.
- Try to establish good sleeping patterns and rest when you can.
- Practise techniques to reduce stress. Exercises that involve relaxing muscles slowly and deep breathing have been shown to be useful in the treatment of depression. For more details download Fact Sheet – Reducing stress
If you, or someone you care about, are in crisis and emergency assistance is needed, call 000. You can also contact one of the services listed here or consult your local telephone directory for emergency support.