Ask the Expert: I am not much of a father to our new baby
Rather than just rushing to get jobs done, take time to slow down and really enjoy and delight in your baby. Photograph: Thinkstock
Q My wife and I have a baby boy, who is four months old, and I am struggling to cope. I’m under pressure at work and there is pressure at home, minding the baby.
My wife, understandably, is consumed by minding our son and is frustrated with me for not helping out more. I feel guilty that I am not doing it right and I find myself staying longer at work. I’ve started drinking a little more and this is causing rows.
I don’t know what is the matter with me. I didn’t think having a baby would make things so much different. I feel quite depressed and guilty that I am not much of a father.
A Although everyone expects mainly joy, the truth is that babies bring a lot of stress and change for both mothers and fathers, and lots of new parents can struggle and even feel depressed at times. Although postnatal depression is often regarded as affecting only mothers, equal numbers of fathers go through a similar period of depression and adjustment.
Two large studies published in the US and Australia have shown that up to 10 per cent of fathers experience depression on the arrival of a new baby. This is twice the normal rates of depression for men at other times and similar to the rates of depression for new mothers, suggesting men also experience some form of postnatal depression.
There can be a greater stigma for fathers experiencing depression; they might have a strong belief that they should be coping and be an all-providing father when the baby is born. Fathers tend also to experience depression differently, being more likely to become emotionally cut off and withdrawn when they are not coping.
As you have discovered, there is a risk at this point of resorting to drinking or overworking as a way of coping, but these strategies tend to make matters worse and increase the guilt as well as putting strain on their relationship with their partner.
The good news there is that you are not alone and there is a lot you can do to change things.
The simple fact you have written looking for help is an important first step.
Accept how you feelThe first step to improving things is to accept how you feel. Don’t beat yourself up and add to the problems by feeling guilty. Instead, be more self-compassionate by recognising that it is perfectly normal to feel negative or low at times about being a father.
Try to find a way of talking about your feelings to your partner or another supportive friend. If this is hard, start by writing how you are feeling in a journal.
Commit fully to the role of parentingOften the fathers who cope best throw themselves into the role of parenting and this gives them the confidence that they can do it.
Try to find some part of the daily routine that you are fully responsible for and that gives your partner a break. For example, you could commit to getting up early in the morning to look after your son before you go to work, allowing your partner to sleep on. This could become your special time with the baby.
Take time to
delight in, and enjoy your babyRather than just rushing to get jobs done, take time to slow down and really enjoy and delight in your baby.
Set aside physical playtime when you can just relax and enjoy your son. Search babycentre.co.uk for ideas on four-month-old baby games that you could enjoy with him .
You could take him to a baby massage class or a music class when he is older, but make sure to carve out regular enjoyment times that are just the two of you together.
Focus on positive self-careAvoid negative coping strategies such as drinking too much alcohol or overworking and staying out of the home. Instead, try to make sure you are eating well, getting physical exercise and getting as much sleep as possible.
Small things such as going for a regular walk will make all the difference in your personal coping and give you the energy to respond to the demands of parenting.
Attend to your relationship with your partnerDon’t neglect time with your partner even when you are both busy with the baby. Try to have a daily chatting time where you share news and listen to each other. Make sure to talk to your partner about what is going on for you; the good things, the hard things and the ordinary things. Arrange a regular babysitter and go out together at least once a week and do something fun together.
Making small steps to stay connected and to communicate with your partner will make all the difference to ensure you support each other.
Go with the flow
ry to see the funny sideThe key to success as a new parent is to relax your expectation and to go with the flow of the daily ups and downs along the way.
It can help to have a sense of humour and not to take it all too seriously. Many fathers draw great solace from seeing the funny side to the challenges of being a parent.
If you are feeling a bit low, have a look at the material of the many comedians describing the experience of parenthood. The comedian father of five children, Jim Gaffigan, described that he thought he was going to be the first person to “die of parenting” before describing the many joys he had gained.
The excellent book Babyproofing your Marriage provides a lighthearted but very wise view of the transition to parenthood that you could read with your partner.
Seek further support if neededFinally, if you continue to struggle, seek further support as necessary. Contact your GP if you remain depressed or ring a helpline such as Parentline for other help options.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. See solutiontalk.ie for details of his books and courses.