From being present in the delivery room to homeschooling and figuring out childcare options, researchers say fathers are becoming more active in their children’s care in recent years.
But now the mental toll of taking on more responsibilities is becoming evident, suggests recent research on postpartum depression in men.
“I understand they’re not pregnant. I understand they’re not giving birth. I understand they’re not breastfeeding, but they want to be involved and they want to be engaged,” said Cindy-Lee Dennis, Women’s Health Research Chair of Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, and a professor at the University of Toronto.
Just 50 years ago, men were not included in labor and delivery wards, said Dennis. But as things change fast, the transition is proving difficult for many.
“Fathers are now facing the challenges of transitioning into parenthood because of their involvement and their engagement, so they encounter the stressors that mums encounter with the birth of a new baby.”
Its a toll Drew Soleyn knows well. The father of three always knew he wanted to be a dad, but he began to question his caregiving capabilities six years ago, following the birth of his third child.
“I had a lot of negative thoughts. Angry thoughts. I had a lot of doubts,” Soleyn told Global over Zoom.
“Instead of enjoying my children, I found myself frustrated at my children. The biggest thing is that I had less patience than I normally would’ve. I also found myself needing to withdraw more. ”
He was also falling ill more frequently, lacking motivation, and feeling inadequate in his role compared to his partner.
Soleyn, now the director of Dad Central Ontario, has seen many fathers struggle to stay afloat following the birth of a child.
“Fathers experience postpartum depression at double the rate of the adult male population,” he said.
However, many of those fathers are forced to turn to ‘informal’ modes of support, like social media groups, to vocalize a health issue that the general public rarely acknowledges.
“We know that dads are going to their cellphones for so many things. but there are very few formal resources that are dedicated for fathers.” he said.
Dennis has dedicated her career to researching topics such as “perinatal” health, or the period of time before and after the birth of a baby.
She says men are rarely included in studies revolving around pregnancy and childbirth, as they are often viewed as issues that affect women only. But the literature surrounding the topic is growing.
Dennis led a large Pan-Canadian study published in December. The findings showed almost a quarter of the 3.217 fathers enrolled reported high levels of depression and anxiety at some point during the first year of a newborn’s life.
Another impact study led by Dennis prior to COVID-19 recruited 3,200 pregnant couples across Canada.
The study found that 1 in 10 men experienced high levels of anxiety and depression in the first three months following a child’s birth.
28 per cent experienced depression throughout the first year, and 36 percent of those continued to have symptoms after that.
Dennis expects those numbers to have grown following the onset of the pandemic.
Symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety can present themselves in various ways:
- increased anger or frustration
- lack of motivation
- body aches or complaints
- isolation or withdrawal from others (such as working constantly)
- significant weight gain or weight loss
- feeling sad or crying for unknown reasons
- feelings of inadequacy
What are the risk factors? Dennis said anything from financial insecurity, obesity, partner abuse, adverse childhood experiences and marital dissatisfaction can play a part. Men who faced anxiety during the pregnancy or were previously diagnosed with ADHD are at higher risk.
Gender roles can also play a part.
Soleyn said modern-day culture lays an expectation on men to be “problem-solvers” who cannot ask for help. Immigrant fathers may also face challenges when met with the different social norms and expectations of what a father should be.
How does this impact children?
While child development can be a attributed to an array of complex reasons, Shahirose Premji said unwell fathers can negatively impact their children.
“Men have very different ways of engaging and interacting with their babies than mothers,” the York University professor and director of Faculty of Nursing told Global.
A key trait, said Premji, is fathers tend to be vocal with their young children – something that significantly contributes to their vocabulary and language development.
However, a common sign of fathers struggling with their mental health is they might become silent, and only engage physically with their children.
Mentally-well fathers can turn the tide around, according to Dennis. Engaged dads contribute to children doing better in school, being involved in their community, forming better friendships and having higher self-esteem.
The ripple effect touches mothers as well, said Soleyn. Mothers are four times as likely to experience postpartum depression if the father experiences it, he said.
Are intervention tools keeping up?
As the science grows, both health experts say men are often left out of treatment.
“Unfortunately perinatal mental health is not standardized across Canada for women, and even more so for men,” said Premji.
Soleyn says while screening for fathers rarely happens, those who get screened sometimes report their healthcare providers used a tool geared toward women.
For that reason, “partner-focused” screening and intervention would be valuable, both Premji and Dennis say, as both parents can learn about how childbirth affects them personally, while also watching out for signs that their partner is struggling.
The “accumulation” of disappointment and frustration in his own home had led Soleyn to search for answers, but he hopes other dads would never have to reach that point.
When Soleyn learned about postpartum depression, the father was able to seek professional help, to talk to family, friends, and his faith community, and to develop self-care habits that kept him going and helped him “show up” for his family.
“It was crucial. It helped me move through that difficult time. ”
He also hopes dads never lose sight of worth in the midst of their mental battles.
“Your value to your family is critical … fathers need to know that their role matters significantly to the future outcome of their child.”