There is a lot in the media at present about the mental health needs of new mums, and rightly so. But in the spirit of Father’s Day and the huge increase in suicide amongst men, I thought I would draw on personal experience a little, to write this piece about new dads and their mental health.
My first baby was born premature on the 17thof September, 2003. She had not been due until the first week in November, so to say it came as a surprise is an understatement. Within three days, I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, admitted to the Royal Hospital, and had given birth via emergency caesarean. That last day was the hardest. My blood pressure slowly continued to rise until I was a screaming, vomiting mess, and was rushed to theatre. My husband received the call as he was climbing into bed, and he says the drive to the hospital was one of the hardest he has ever done. He was shaking and had to stop the car by the side of the motorway to regain his composure. I was being wheeled into theatre as he arrived at the hospital, and a ‘well-meaning’ midwife said, ‘Your baby is fine but your wife is probably not going to make it’! He lost the feeling in his knees and collapsed to the chair nearby. I can only imagine how he got through the next half hour as our beautiful daughter was delivered, weighing 3 pound and 10 ounces. He sat alone, in a new country, with no extended family, waiting to hear if his wife would make it.
And at the same time he waited with joy, to hold his daughter, his first born. Our daughter was wheeled out first and he was instantly besotted. As soon as he heard the surgery had been successful and I was ok, he followed her up to the special unit and could not tear himself away. He felt he needed to protect and accompany this fragile, tiny life, that had originated from him.
I was kept under anesthesia for the best part of two days. During this time he spent the day between our daughter and me. On the third day I realised that clicking the morphine pen wasn’t helping me to wake up and stopped. I was awake and in bad form. I hadn’t seen my baby yet, my brain felt like cotton wool, my hair was a big mass of knots and I was sore – very sore! So I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t wipe the big, goofy grin off his face! It irritated me immensely, and I shouted and moaned as he tried to brush the knots out of hair. In that moment I begrudged him. I begrudged him the visits to our daughter that I couldn’t make, the lack of pain and trauma that I felt only I had experienced. I could feel no empathy for him and had no appreciation for his experience. I was completely wrapped up in my own pain and trauma, and saw his primary role as caring for me!
That night I was taken up in my bed to the special unit, to see my daughter for about 15 minutes and was then moved to the ward. Things only got worse for me. Everyone else on the ward had a baby and I didn’t. I would have minded being woken by crying babies if I had one to wake me. Being woken by other women’s babies was not as desirable. By this stage my milk had ‘come in’, and with no baby to feed it was a nightmare. The hours I spent expressing only added to my exasperation and misery. It all came to a head that first night on the ward when I rang the bell and no one came. I rang my husband and sobbed down the phone to him. He didn’t know what to do or how to help me, sitting miles away at home. I swore at him and put the phone down.
The next morning the baby blues had set in and I couldn’t stop crying. My husband didn’t ring me and I didn’t know if he was coming at visiting hours. When he did finally arrive he stayed for five minutes and then went up to see our daughter. I don’t think I have ever felt more miserable.
Luckily the blues only lasted one day and things gradually began to get better. I got stronger and began visiting my daughter a few times a day and finally got home but without her. Getting her home was another journey, driving back and forth to the hospital, continually expressing, and with one big health scare for baby, it was not an easy journey but we had hope and finally I had the motivation I needed to fight.
Life moved on. But I held on to how utterly alone I had felt. I had flashbacks to the day I had the baby blues and felt betrayed by my husband. I felt his only job had been to look after me and he had failed. I held on to that over all the days he held my hand and held our baby and drove me back and forth from the hospital. But it wasn’t until nearly a year later that he told me what had been said to him, when he had arrived at the hospital that night that I was wheeled into theatre. And it wasn’t until almost exactly two years later when we came home with our son in our arms, that I began to heal, and in the healing developed empathy for what he had been through alone. I had cried and complained to him, but he had said nothing to me, knowing I had my own trauma to deal with.
We had both been determined that this time would be different and it was. My son was six days late. I went into labour on the 27thof September, 2005 and ended up having another emergency section that night at twenty minutes past one. But this time I was awake, and he was with me in the theatre. It felt like he was a part of it, whereas with my daughter I had felt alone, and I suspect he had too. As he held up this monster baby with the big head (7pounds 13 ounces seemed HUGE after our tiny daughter), I felt a surge of love for them both! My son needed no tubes or prompts to feed and it was the first thing he did. I did get an infection and took quite a long time to heal, but in the scheme of things these were minor inconveniences. Finally I felt like we were a family. The four of us! (I had another little terror along the way but that story is for another day!)
My husband understood better what I needed this time round. He did housework till he fell and made me cups of tea and walked the baby up and down. He had felt nervous even holding our tiny daughter but this time he could make up for it, and he did.
This seems such a long time ago now, as my daughter prepares to start GCSE’s. But it took me many years to really develop empathy for my husband’s experiences at that first birth. He simultaneously dealt with the joy of having his first born, and the fear of losing his wife. The helplessness he felt in not knowing how to help me, and the feeling of being torn between knowing I needed him on the ward, and wanting to be with his daughter in the special unit. And where I took a year off work, he was back to night shifts, 2 weeks after this mammoth life event, the birth of a first child amidst traumatic circumstances. When he came home from work he wanted to see his daughter and I wanted to sleep. He balanced permanent sleep deprivation while doing overtime at work, and never felt he could discuss it with me. And that was my fault. Because all I could think about was my sleep deprivation and my needs. I am not judging myself here, this is natural in the aftermath of producing another human out of your body, but it still amazes me how unaware I was of his feelings, emotions and experiences.
So spare a thought for the new dads. If you are extended family or friends, ask him how he is coping too! Ask him if he would like a cup of tea or a break to get a nap! He already feels a bit isolated from mum and baby, don’t make him feel more so by goo-ing over them and leaving him out. And if you are a new dad, just know you are not alone. Talk to someone even if you can’t talk to your partner. Don’t feel selfish if you take out some time for self care or a nap! If there is no one else around, speak to a counsellor if you are struggling, and encourage your wife to do the same. This is a hard time – full of conflicting thoughts and emotions. The best way you can look after your family? Is by looking after yourself.