Postnatal Depression And The Father’s Role

A few days after delivery, many women go through a phase known as the ‘baby blues’. They feel unaccountably sad and may cry for little or no reason. It is thought that these ‘blues’ are caused by the immense hormonal changes taking place at this time. This period of sadness usually passes quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours.

True postnatal depression, although rare, is more serious and can affect any woman, however emotionally stable she was before. Postnatal depression can strike at any time within a year of the birth, although it tends to occur most often within the first few months, and it can be disabling and long-lasting if proper treatment is not given.

The treatment may include admission to hospital for both the mother and baby, as even if the mother may not feel like looking after her child (in severe cases she may not acknowledge its existence) to part them at this stage may make things worse in the long run. Even when she has recovered, the mother may be unable to love her baby if she has been deprived of him or her for too long. Whether the mother goes into hospital or not, she will probably be prescribed drugs and placed in the care of a psychiatrist. This may sound frightening, but postnatal depression is not something a mother can fight on her own. Her best chances lie in prompt medical help, counselling and support.

Involving the father

During the nine months of pregnancy and the birth itself the woman has been the focus of attention. The couple’s family, relations and friends have naturally been most concerned with the health and well-being of the mother-to-be. Even if the father has been present at the birth of his child, whether at home or in hospital, his role has essentially been supportive. Once the baby arrives the father may be pushed even further to the sidelines as the latest member of the family becomes the new focus of attention. For many men this lack of recognition of their parental role can lead to what might be loosely termed male postnatal depression. Instead of the birth of the baby leading to a new form of domestic harmony and increased intimacy between themselves and their partner, as they had expected, they feel estranged from both the mother and child.

In some respects, despite discussions with medical staff and antenatal counselling, a couple may be ill-prepared for what is after all a major psychological upheaval. Society tends to depict the birth of a child as a time of unalloyed joy and dreams fulfilled. In reality, childbirth brings with it the need for what may be painful adjustments to the couple’s relationship. However strong her ‘maternal instinct’ a woman who has become a mother for the first time will need to learn particular skills in order to look after her baby

effectively; she may become so absorbed in her task that she forgets that the father also has emotional needs which, if they are not satisfied, can lead to deep unhappiness. He may feel that his role of breadwinner is being taken for granted, while being afforded few opportunities to actually share in the potential satisfactions of parenthood.

If this situation continues the antagonism and resentment that the new father experiences may be difficult to resolve. It is important to remember that aside from psychological problems, the father may also be subject to the disturbed sleep patterns when the baby cries in the middle of the night and by a similar kind of general physical wear and tear that the mother has to put up with.

In tackling these problems the keynotes are, of course, reassurance and a sharing of responsibility for the care of the baby. The father should be made to feel that his contribution to the welfare of his child is as important as the mother’s, and the mother that not all her time needs to be devoted to the baby. Above all, the couple should remember that they embarked on the journey to parenthood together and that the continuation of that mutual spirit is to the benefit of their child.