My friend called the other night, upset and nearly at her breaking point. Her 6-month-old had just vomited (again), and rather than offer to help, her husband got up and left the room. But that wasn't all. For the last couple of months, he's been distant, irritable, pulling away. He's happier spending time with the family dog than he is with his own daughter, and he openly mourns the life he had before baby made three. Just as distressing for her? The anger that quickly sets in when he hears their baby girl crying—and the crippling guilt that consumes him afterward.
I was floored. I know this guy, and he's always been so loving, so attentive. Maybe something was going on at work? Maybe he's just tired and taking it out on his family?
"No," said my friend somberly. "He's acting exactly like I did when I had postpartum depression."
Though not often talked about at the playground and in mommy-and-me groups, paternal postpartum depression (PPPD) is very real, and thanks to new research, we're getting a clearer picture of so-called "sad dads." For starters, it's quite common: Experts estimate that one in four new fathers becomes depressed after the birth of their child, and a 2014 study published in Pediatrics found that depression among new dads increases by 68 percent during the first five years of baby's life. (The main reasons? Maternal PPD, fluctuating hormones, and good ol' sleep deprivation.) And according to a new study, his baby blues affect the kids just as much as yours do.
Yet despite all of that, PPPD is still easily eclipsed by its maternal counterpart. Perhaps that's because many men would rather stifle their feelings than talk about them, which can make the situation at home much more heated and fraught. It's something my friend is seeing firsthand. "We talked about going to see a counselor, to talk about how our lives are so different after having a baby," she told me. "When I had my depression, I took medicine and saw a counselor. But he won't do it."
So she's using the coping mechanisms she learned in therapy to help him face his PPPD head-on. She looks for ways to make him feel a part of the family. For instance, if he's in another room, she'll bring the baby to him so the three of them can be together. She celebrates all of his victories, no matter how small. "If the baby starts to cry and he can't handle it, I'll come in and relieve him," she says. "I tell him, You made an effort. You gave five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever. You did the best you could."
But more than anything, she reassures him that it's ok if you don't feel an immediate bond with your baby. It's a point both of them wished they knew before their daughter arrived. "Everyone tells you it's the miracle of life, and they're giving you all the good aspects but not the negatives," she says. "My doctors never talked about postpartum depression with us. We went to a parenting class, and the teacher brushed on it. She told the men that if we're crying all the time and not showering, then we were depressed. I thought the chances of my getting it were one in a million. I really didn't think I was going to get it, much less my husband."
Did the teacher also talk about paternal PPD, I wondered. "No," she says, "I didn't even know it existed."
Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+
Postpartum Depression: What Your Partner Can Do
Image of father and baby courtesy of Shutterstock