My experience of becoming a dad was an absolute rollercoaster - very difficult, anxious pregnancy and traumatic birth, mixed with sheer joy, as we had talked about kids when we were only 16. We got married at 18 and my first son was born when we were 20. From the beginning we knew our future involved children. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how the birth itself would impact me and my mental health. As with many parents, and most definitely dads, it’s later on in life that we realise. It was our seventh son that caused me to hit rock bottom. I heard a man called Mark Williams speak about paternal mental health and I was able to trace it back to a number of traumatic births. That’s why I raise awareness so people can fully understand what they or their partner is experiencing.
Recovery and self-care
I personally believe that if you are affected by severe mental ill health, you never fully recover, you just adjust and recovery is your rock bottom for the rest of your life. I, like many others, struggled to talk about how I was feeling and didn’t listen to my wife when she was raising her concerns about me. I think you have to reach that point where you know things are bad before you can make them better because only you can turn it around. For parents it’s really hard to admit to ourselves, let alone others, that we are struggling even though, in theory, all parents - in fact all humans - find it hard sometimes... some obviously more than others.
My recovery plan is to just take it day by day. I still have very bad days and that’s life. I just accept it’s a bad day. I ride it out and I go again tomorrow where in my darkest days a bad day could last a week now it’s just a bad day... and that is what realistic progress looks like! Enjoy the sunshine while you can and don’t worry about the rain that will inevitably come.
Self-care is such a vital tool to have, I used to see it as selfish: finding time for me meant being away from them. But what I learnt is a simple walk or even a go on the PlayStation to switch off kept me fresh and made me better equipped to deal with my boys’ needs. So I reframed it that I was doing it for them and I found it much easier to justify that time out. My recovery is built on journaling - keeping a diary of my emotions and how I felt each day and reviewing weekly to see if there were some good days. Some weeks were worse than the previous but it averaged out and eventually you get more good than bad days and that’s when you start to see the end of the tunnel or at least a glimmer of light on the horizon.
Mums’ vs. partners’ experience
I think it’s the same situation for mums and dads, but a completely different experience, especially the birth. I think the process begins sooner for mum whereas for the dad, or partner, it doesn’t start till you hear that heartbeat, something that Covid-19 has unfortunately limited in many cases. Sometimes the realism doesn’t kick in for dad until the baby is born. Something I try to promote is engagement with babies while still in the womb. Talk to them just to get them used to your sounds and tones to aid the bonding when they arrive.
I felt and hear from other dads that when we, as dads, hold the baby, they cry and yet when mum holds them it stops. Which makes us feel that the baby must hate us! But it just doesn’t know you yet, it only knows mum. This can put so much pressure on the mum and makes dad withdraw. By talking to parents antenatally and supporting postnatally, we can improve the parenting relationship right from the beginning.
We all feel guilt, whether mums, dads or partners, and we all feel that “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I wish they would just sleep and stop crying, even just shut up for a minute!”
We all at times pine for how things were, it will never be like it was. It's better now but it’s changed and that is hard. New parents are learning new skills and information at a rate like never before and are achieving unimaginable things, but too often we focus on what we are not doing well. That negative voice is getting louder and that is something that is shared between all parents. If we look at mental health, we know the signs and symptoms and there is nothing on that list that can’t affect both parents.. they are not just applicable to mums, but dads too.
What help is out there for dads today?
Unfortunately frankly not a lot. Some organisations like Dad Matters are becoming embedded in perinatal mental health and have a pathway for peer support with local hospitals. There are other dad support groups offering lots of support and meet ups, but we need proper Perinatal MH teams for dads and partners and proper funded peer support for the mild to moderate end - that is what is needed. Sometimes dad is affected when supporting a mum that is struggling, but sometimes mum is ok and there is no support for dad, especially if it’s dad supporting dad then no one has that conversation.
So when people point the finger at the health visitor and midwife for not engaging with dads and partners, it’s easy to see why. If they say “I’m really struggling”, there is nowhere to send them for more support, so it’s easier not to ask. If we continue down this route and wait till the problem gets bigger, perhaps eventually treating it as men’s mental health rather than paternal mental ill-health, then men will continue to be 47 times more likely to be a suicide risk in the perinatal period than at any other time in there life. Which is the sad case today.
About the Author
My name is Scott. I am a husband, Veteran, dad to 7 boys and founder of PMH Support. I set up PMH Support after experiencing paternal mental Ill health after traumatic events during deliveries of 3 of my boys. Which left me with PTSD and anxiety. There was no awareness or real support I could find so I set up PMH support to promote awareness and educate parents on parental mental health while also offering parenting hints and tips I have picked up a lot of my 18 years of parenting. I work locally and nationally speaking to expectant parents at antenatal classes and consult on ways to support dads/partners. I am a member of the Paternal Mental Health Alliance, peer to peer leader trained, team member of the Perinatal M H training CIC and a qualified Beyond Birth Mental Wellbeing Practitioner.