Tears before bedtime - from dad

Women are not the only ones to suffer post-natal depression. and for traumatised fathers, support isn't easy to find Emma Cook reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Nigel Smith, 26, is a self-employed stained-glass window maker living in Romford, Essex. He is married to Julie, and they have two children: Maria, 19 months old, and two-week-old Harry. Fatherhood, it seems, is proving traumatic.

When Maria was born, Nigel didn't bond with her straight away, which made him feel guilty. "I was quite distant at first and just saw her as this little screaming thing in the corner. I didn't like her because of the way she changed my wife."

Eighteen months later, the birth of his son was accompanied by a new problem, sibling resentment. "Maria turned overnight. She's a little horror at the moment and I've got to keep control, which I'm not used to."

Nigel hasn't slept properly for days and feels constantly exhausted. Last week he almost burst into tears. This week he's more positive but coping is still difficult and there is no one to confide in. "I've had a little cry now and again but it's more out of anger. You get angry about things."

Nigel insists that his grievances don't add up to depression but are just signs of feeling a "bit down". Yet a 1994 survey carried out by Dr Clive Ballard, psychiatrist and lecturer at the Queen Elizabeth Psychiatric Hospital, Birmingham, indicates that he could be suffering from post-natal depression.

Through structured questionnaires and interviews, Dr Ballard measured the levels of depression in over 200 parents. Nearly 10 per cent of fathers were diagnosed depressed six weeks after the birth, falling to five per cent six months later. (The figures for new mothers were 27 and 25 per cent during the same periods.)

He also found that men were significantly more likely to be depressed if their partners were as well. The type of symptoms each sex presented were very similar: irritability, withdrawal, insomnia, lack of self-confidence, poor concentration, restlessnessand worrying.

Dr Ballard believes post-natal depression isn't an exclusively female condition. "People have latched on to this idea that it's hormonal in women but there is no evidence to support this," he argues. According to Dr Ballard, the mild to moderate depression some women experience after the birth is more likely to be caused by social and economic factors or previous psychological problems. Fathers who suffer from post-natal depression can be more vulnerable than mothers because they are reluctant or unableto admit there is a problem.

"Getting help to men isn't easy. They're bad at talking about their feelings," says Briony Hallam, national secretary for Meet-A-Mum, a support association for mothers and their partners. "It's so unusual for a man to say, `Yes, I'm miserable.' They can also be bad at accepting advice."

Even if men do want to share their feelings, there appears to be no adequate support network for them. "It's so retrograde," Dr Ballard says. "In all other areas of medicine, especially psychiatry, we talk about the family as a whole unit, yet fathers are offered no counselling. Health visitors are only interested in them if they're worried the baby's been battered."

Dr Charlie Lewis, senior psychology lecturer at Lancaster University, interviewed hundreds of men for his book Becoming A Father. He believes that up to 30 per cent of fathers are likely to suffer from some form of post-natal depresion. One cause, he suggests, is when the mother or other female in-laws step in and take over. "Before the birth he expects to play an active role, then finds that his partner doesn't actually want him to have a dual part."

Instead the father is often assigned the more tertiary tasks. "Males often work around the mother-child pair. He'll ferry elderly relatives around or be sent off to Sainsbury's with a list his wife has written out," he says. "The assumption of male incompetence is strong." As Ms Hallam points out: "Childbirth is seen as very special to the woman but less so for the man, which makes him feel marginalised."

Thirty-six-year-old Richard Frost from Exeter, who is still resentful about his experience as an expectant and actual father, says: "Nobody once asked me how I was feeling about this great life-changing event."

Like Nigel, he is anxious not to describe himself as depressed. He does, however, admit to feeling angry and miserable before and after his 21- month-old son, Jonathan's, birth. Although he could confide in his wife, Jane, he still felt excluded. "After Jonathan was born all the enquiries went to her. The asumption was that I never got up in the middle of the night to change the nappies or help with the feed."

Richard was in fact completely involved in every detail of his son's childcare. But as the months went by, he found the dual role of provider and supportive parent increasingly difficult to maintain. "I became irritable. When I got home to my family I wasn't being as caring and kind as I wanted to be." Now the situation has been resolved and Richard looks after Jonathan while Jane teaches full-time. "There seems to be a great desire and a lot of envy among men to do exactly what I'm doing," he says.

Another problem for new fathers is lack of preparation for the overwhelming and sometimes painful life changes that parenthood brings. A newly-launched magazine, Our Baby, promoting the "fathers have feelings too" message, appears to be targeted at men who, like Richard, have felt undervalued. In this month's issue, several features aim to make them feel part of the club - "Forgotten fathers", "Dads in the delivery room" - illustrated with pictures of bare-chested men proudly cradling their offspring.

Even in this supposedly progessive publication, though, the father is treated as lost, a helpless novice in need of guidance. "Try and stay as calm as possible," one reader advises. "It's a natural event even if it all seems unnatural at the time." Another "new dad" recommends getting acqainted with a partner's hospital bag and stocking up on "plenty of snacks". Men are reassured that although "your smile may be fixed and your knuckles hidden behind your back . . . when that newborn bundle is placed in your arms, it will all be worth it".

With promises of such a blissful union it's hardly surprising that men are likely candidates for post-natal depression. "An awful lot of men go into fatherhood with no realistic idea of what it's going to be like," Ms Hallam says. "Superficially they realise what's involved but on a full level they don't. Many end up feeling bewildered and not knowing what's really going on in their lives."

Nearly two years after his first child, Nigel still sounds shell-shocked. "It's seeing Julie so down with a screaming kid - she looks half dead and that gets to you," he says. That's the bit they tend to gloss over in the latest generation of baby-care magazines.