Parenthood is always a shock to the system. “Frank,” a 48-year-old Adams Morgan resident, got hit even harder.
He and his wife decided that he would leave his job to be a stay-at-home dad when his daughter was born late last year. Although it was a role the first-time father had eagerly anticipated, the transition took an immediate toll.
“For the first two weeks, I was cross-eyed. It was intense,” says Frank, who asked to use a pseudonym as he undergoes therapy.
He had dealt with depression before, but he soon began to experience something different. He was constantly cranky, stopped cracking his usual jokes and began withdrawing.
“Part of it was the feeling of not being able to escape,” he says. “There’s no break.”
This initial reaction isn’t surprising, says Jennifer Kogan, a licensed independent clinical social worker in the District who focuses on children’s and parent’s issues.
“There’s sleep deprivation and a lot more to do,” Kogan says. “That’s when people start to have problems.”
In the ensuing weeks, Frank’s unhappiness escalated. “Every morning, it was completely grim,” he says. “I would relive the day before and how exhausted I was. I used to fantasize about doing fun things if I had free time; now I just wanted to be under the blankets in a dark cave.”
While reading online about parenting, he stumbled onto an article about paternal postpartum depression (PPD). Within a few paragraphs, he recognized that he was exhibiting its symptoms.
“I didn’t even know the condition existed,” he says.
Not only is paternal PPD out there, it’s surprisingly pervasive. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Prenatal and Postpartum Depression in Fathers and Its Association With Maternal Depression: A Meta-analysis,” roughly one in 10 fathers suffers from paternal PPD.
“The definition is the same as it is for maternal postpartum depression,” says the study’s co-author, James Paulson, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who has been studying paternal PPD since 2004. “It’s an episode of depression that occurs during the pregnancy or in the first year or so postpartum. If it’s left untreated, it can affect the child and the whole family in the same way maternal depression can.”
Paternal PPD doesn’t necessarily present itself in stereotypical ways — sadness, crying or feelings of worthlessness.
“Instead, it’s a sense of detachment, a loss of ability to connect with what’s important in the world or the inability to experience pleasure,” Paulson says. “It’s a loss of emotional capacity.”
The conditions are often exacerbated by the father’s failure to address them.
“Men are much less likely than women to admit that they’re feeling depressed, that there’s something wrong and that they need help,” Paulson says.
Frank has found support online by joining a group for stay-at-home fathers, D.C. Metro Dads (Dcmetrodads.com). Through chats with other members via discussion groups, he’s sought advice on his stresses and frustrations. It’s provided some solace, but he’s decided to take the next step and start to see a psychologist.
And he is striving to keep positive by reminding himself of the fun stuff — like seeing his baby roll over and make goofy faces.
“My daughter’s so fabulous and cute that there’s a lot of joy,” he says. “Fatherhood’s a real roller-coaster ride.”
“There’s very limited help and very few resources for men in this area,” says Jason Monroe, co-founder of Postpartum Support Maryland (Postpartummd.org), which offers educational resources and support groups to parents. For help finding counseling, fathers can contact their primary care physician. Postpartum Support International (Postpartum.net/Get-Help/Resources-for-Fathers.aspx) also offers information and resources for fathers afflicted with paternal PPD.