National Maternity Voices associate member Paul Webster on why Dads matter too in the maternity experience.
Becoming a parent is a moment of incredible change in all aspects of life; mentally, physically, socially and professionally. Before baby is even born, getting yourself ready for the impending arrival seems like a never ending to-do list. The old saying that preparation is key, brings a flurry of books and articles, advice from friends and family, and purchasing all the gizmos and gadgets that may help make life as a new parent, that little bit easier.
The care that a new mum receives is vital and the support antenatally and postnatally, can bring increased confidence when learning the parenting ropes. Regular midwife appointments, antenatal classes and baby groups, all aid in building a network of communication, of peer connection, of togetherness.
The picture for fathers can look very different. Society tells men how to be a dad. What a dad should do, how a dad should be, the importance of a dad. All these answers are learnt through relationships with their own father figures, with other dads in their peer groups, and through various media outlets. Advertising for baby items are predominantly promoted to a female audience and promote a ‘mother knows best’ viewpoint, leaving men entirely absent.
When the mothers receive regular follow ups and are monitored for anything out of the ordinary, a majority of fathers are missed due to work commitments and unavailability, or simply not asked. The lack of male presence at baby groups, where early bonding with other parents is a possibility, also means the role of a modern father is lost and they are isolated further.
The need for more education, support and communication is required not only for both parents, but also for society as a whole, to help them understand that parenting is a partnership and both have the same responsibilities and are just as important as each other. Education is especially required around emotional support and how the shift in fatherly roles can lead to a need for increased, and more diverse, mental health services. An incredibly positive step is that NHSE announced at the end of 2018, that mental health checks are to become accessible for new fathers, as well as mothers, meaning a family level of mental health care (https://metro.co.uk/2018/12/03/new-dads-to-be-offered-mental-health-checks-and-treatment-on-the-nhs-8203044/).
Post natal depression is a highly documented issue across mothers and regular access to support networks are widely available. However, paternal depression and anxiety are much less publicised, but are increasingly affecting new fathers as they take a more active parenting role.
According to mental health charity Mind, “only mothers can formally be diagnosed with a perinatal mental health problem. However, studies suggest that partners can also experience perinatal mental health problems.”
A baby can be challenging for both parents and there is recognition that mental health issues are also experienced by fathers. Fatherhood brings its own set of challenges, including financial and lifestyle shifts, that contribute to a drop in mood.
According to a study by the National Childbirth Trust, more than 38% new fathers (1 in 3) have worries about their mental health. The NCT also states that general studies have shown that 1 in 10 dads has depression and they appear more likely to suffer from depression three to six months after their baby is born.
Becoming a father can be made increasingly difficult if there is a lack of available support networks, both personally and from the wider community. This can contribute to the thought process that the feelings are a phase and simply coming to terms with the lifestyle change that fatherhood brings.
According to the NCT the symptoms of paternal depression amongst dads can be similar to those found amongst new mums experiencing depression. These symptoms can include:
- Feeling very low, or despondent, that life is a long, grey tunnel, and that there is no hope.
- Feeling tired and very lethargic, or even quite numb. Not wanting to do anything or take an interest in the outside world.
- Feeling a sense of inadequacy or unable to cope.
- Feeling guilty about not coping, or about not loving their baby enough.
- Being unusually irritable, which makes the guilt worse.
- Wanting to cry/crying a lot or even constantly.
- Having obsessive and irrational thoughts which can be very scary.
- Loss of appetite, which may go with feeling hungry all the time, but being unable to eat.
- Comfort eating.
- Having difficulty sleeping: either not getting to sleep, waking early, or having vivid nightmares.
- Being hostile or indifferent to their partner and/or baby.
- Having panic attacks, which strike at any time, causing a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms and feelings of sickness or faintness.
- Having an overpowering anxiety, often about things that wouldn’t normally bother them, such as being alone in the house.
- Having difficulty in concentrating or making decisions.
- Experiencing physical symptoms, such as headaches.
- Having obsessive fears about baby’s health or wellbeing, or about themselves and other members of the family.
- Having disturbing thoughts about harming themselves or their baby.
- Having thoughts about death.
The NCT goes on to state that one “… symptom of paternal depression can be feeling guilty about not loving your baby enough or feeling indifferent to them. Try and remember that you are important and special to your baby and, if you can, spend time doing simple things like bathing them, changing their nappy or just playing. This might help you feel closer to them.”
Each dad will experience paternal depression differently and being aware of your feelings and knowing when things change, is indication that you may want to seek further advice. A key hurdle to gaining support is that some men can find it embarrassing or weak to share their emotions and open up. If you find that you have feelings of anxiety or low mood that continue over a longer period, visiting your GP can aid in signposting to relevant support services.
Fatherhood related support groups are becoming more prevalent and links to specialist organisations can be found via the Mind website:
- PANDAS Dads offers specific information for men experiencing paternal depression, via its Facebook page.
- The Birth Trauma Association has information and support for partners of someone who’s experienced a difficult birth.
- The Fatherhood Institute works on policy and research to support fathers.
- Light Sheffield is a Sheffield charity that offers support through pre and postnatal mental health issues. They provide support to mums and families, through counselling, peer support or via their online forum.
- From Dads to Dads is a website created by Sheffield charity Forging Families, as an informative resource for fathers.
- Dad Matters, is a Greater Manchester based group, run by Kieran Anders. This is a volunteer group started to include and involve dads in the care of their baby.
Paternal mental health is an issue that requires support, through healthcare services and within the community, but also fathers feeling this way need to feel free to open up to friends, or their partners, without fear of appearing weak. Although there are more available points of contact for dads to reach out, much more can be done within society to give them a place and listen to their voice.
However, with that being said, there are positive ways in which fathers can be involved in helping to improve maternity care for everyone, one of which is by joining or providing important feedback to their local Maternity Voices Partnership (MVP). National Maternity Voices’ definition of a MVP is an “… NHS working group: a team of women and their families, commissioners and providers (midwives and doctors) working together to review and contribute to the development of local maternity care.”
“National Maternity Voices provide support and advice to service user chairs of Maternity Voices Partnerships. NMV promotes awareness of good practice in setting up and developing MVPs among commissioners and provider staff of maternity services in England.”
Therefore, by highlighting the importance of paternal mental health and by making valuable suggestions, dads can work alongside their MVP and bring concerns or constructive feedback to the forefront of the maternity conversation. There is strength in numbers and together, fathers teamed with an MVP, can bring about real change and give their voice an increased volume.
To find out more about Maternity Voices Partnerships, and search on a map to find your local MVP, visit nationalmaternityvoices.org.uk