Fatherhood Expectations and Depression

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • If we look around at the various commentaries and research findings it quickly becomes clear that everyone agrees fathers play an important part in the lives of their children. Notice however that much of the focus is on the effect the father has, as opposed to the emotional effects of fatherhood itself. Typically we find that involved fathers provide good role models for sons and daughters and that a caring father’s involvement has all manner of spin-offs in terms of psychological adjustments and better educational outcomes for their children. Great, but what do we actually know about fathers and the affects of fatherhood?


    I think it’s interesting to note that while the issue of fatherhood is more prominent in literature there remains something of a gap with regard to the emotional effects on men of becoming fathers. There is perhaps an exception with regard to postnatal depression, where it now seems clear that men can and do suffer depression after the birth of a child.


    Many people still assume that most women make a natural transition into motherhood, although the evidence supporting this is far from conclusive. What we are really witnessing is the strength of our cultural beliefs about what motherhood 'should' be - an ideal type of motherhood that is often hard to live up to. In fact the evidence on parenting, especially new parenthood, suggests that both the mother and father find it a challenging experience. Various studies over the past decade or so have reached the same conclusions. Men are as likely as women to suffer post-partum depression. Ballard’s study in 1994, for example, found 9 percent of fathers were depressed six weeks after the birth of a child and 5 percent were depressed at six months after the birth. The peak time for fathers’ depression is thought to be around three to six months after the birth. Furthermore, both fathers and mothers have similar levels of depression, which perhaps suggests the stress and life changes associated with a new child are more likely to cause depression than any exclusive hormonal changes in women following childbirth.


    The relationship between father and mother is also significant, as is the support of others. We know fathers are more likely to become depressed if the mother is depressed. Fathers also have more problems adjusting where the levels of social support are low or don’t exist, but fathers’ adjustment issues also relate to economic pressures and work-related pressures. A father with a pre-existing mental health problem is also more vulnerable to depression.


    Fatherhood is probably still less likely to be considered a life-changing event in the way motherhood is. Even men who are very positive about their role as father, and most are, can begin to feel the niggling effects of depression during pregnancy. They may start to feel more isolated as the mother becomes the focus of attention at classes and at home. Even if classes take men, they may not be able to take time away from work to attend. New responsibilities, the change in home circumstances, financial changes, and possible changes in intimacy can all appear to conspire against the father. After the birth both mothers and fathers can become tired, stressed and depressed, and men cope with this in very different ways.


    Some places are better than others at supporting and including men as fathers. It is however still quite common to perceive men as somehow outside of the process of pregnancy and birth yet expected to play a full and active role as a father. Screening women for signs of depression during and after depression is now much more common and in many places, routine. This is not the case for men, yet with our knowledge of the incidence of depression in men, it really should be.

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Published On: February 18, 2014