‘I tell dads to enjoy the small things — act like a child and do stupid things’

Transformative role of fatherhood (part 3): Perinatal period can affect a man’s wellbeing

“Men are afraid to say they are afraid,” says dad-of-two Jeff Downes when asked if he believes dads are comfortable speaking about their experience of fatherhood and the challenges that come with it.

“Or worried,” he continues, “or even ask for help. Including myself. However, with a few good friends, it helps to just ask. Just ask if what you are feeling is normal. Just ask if you need to vent. Just ask for any type of help if needed.”

The perinatal period is not often thought of as a time that will significantly affect a man’s physical and mental wellbeing. The scattered discourse around fatherhood is limited as the primary concern, naturally, at this time is the safety of the mother and baby. New fatherhood, however, is a complex stage in a man’s life with a substantial shift in their mental wellbeing which needs to be talked about, understood, and valued.

“Just as it is for a woman, becoming a father is a significant and transformative life event,” says Dr Aoife Menton, senior clinical psychologist at the National Maternity Hospital. New fatherhood, “involves a period of psychological reorganisation and brings about questions and reflections about their own experience of being mothered and fathered”, says Dr Menton. “We know that the type of father a man aspires to become has a significant impact on the nature of the relationship a father fosters with his child. Therefore, the question becomes ‘how do we facilitate men in reflecting on their own psychological and emotional journey into parenthood?’ Who can men talk to? Who do men talk to? How do we, as a society, support men in defining their roles as fathers, rather than being typecast in gender stereotypical roles?”

Research remains heavily one-sided when it comes to understanding the parental experience of pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood with most of the studies reflective of the mother’s experience.

“As a result,” says Dr Menton, “we have very high expectations of women with regard to their mothering and parenting role while our, frankly, much lower expectations of men undervalue the importance of their role (particularly when they are actively involved with their partners) and what they have to offer not only to their pregnant partner but also to their future children. Research would indicate that men in a same-sex relationship are less constrained by the gender stereotypical and narrowly defined role of ‘father’ so in many ways have more freedom to decide how to arrive at their role as a result. Systemically, many of the same challenges persist, with regards to accessing support, in the context of the emotional and psychological stress and distress that can be experienced.”

For Downes, he says he had no idea what fatherhood would be like or how he would react to being a parent. “My own childhood was a fantastic time of playing and laughing, so I wanted the same for my kids,” he says. “So much of the early years with my kids has been making memories. Whether that was disco dancing on Sunday mornings, making messy projects and baking terrible cakes, or trips out together. I felt as though I had to try and fill each weekend with something. However, it turns out that kids sometimes just want to hang out and do nothing. Sometimes the best thing to do is a front room fort, some munchies, and a film.”

Understanding what makes fulfilling fatherhood means attempting to balance the scales on life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing, both of which can be heavier than the other at varying points of parenthood. For instance, relationship dissatisfaction can be a risk factor for postnatal depression in men.

“We know from research that fathers are more likely to discuss the ‘stress’ of fatherhood rather than talk about being depressed,” says Dr Menton. “Fathers tend to minimise their feelings and are more likely to externalise their experience presenting with aggression or irritation towards others. They may complain of physical symptoms such as irritability, headaches, poor concentration, and fatigue and they may harbour thoughts of not being a good enough father along with feelings of guilt and hopelessness. In many ways, their experience echoes that of mothers. However, again, it’s something that we as a society tend to overlook.”

The unknown and unfamiliar territory of new fatherhood can cloud the perinatal and postnatal periods with stress and concerns that fluctuate from financial considerations, and relationship worries, to questionable self-esteem and confidence. Recognising that fatherhood comes with many of the same vulnerabilities, worries, and concerns as motherhood can alleviate the expectations of fatherhood.

“Nobody told me that, when having a baby, it was not like in the films,” says Downes. “It’s not all sweetness and cuddles. It’s screaming, painful, crying and some choice words during the delivery. From both parents usually. When handed the baby I was expecting fireworks.

“Instead, I was left wondering why I was not filled with excitement. I was happy but also worried that what I was feeling was so much less than I had expected. Nobody told me that it may take time to bond with my baby. It does happen. And when it does there is no other love that compares. However, it can take different lengths of time for it to kick in.”

‘Hard work’

The juxtaposition of parenthood is another aspect rarely discussed with parents-to-be and it can come as a shock to realise that you may love your child but not always like them. “Nobody tells you that you can dislike and love your child at the same time,” says Downes. “Kids are hard work. They will test your patience, bank accounts, and keep you awake worrying at night, while all the time acting as if you are the worst person in the world. They can make you feel inadequate. They can make you sad, angry, worried (always worried) and then turn it around in a heartbeat with something small and nice.”

Dr Menton recognises the many barriers men face in accessing supports around the perinatal period, the most obvious being a lack of inclusiveness within the maternity services in providing supports to fathers. “Another significant barrier that we need to challenge is the social and cultural narratives regarding masculinity and fatherhood,” she says, “such as what it means to be a man and a father and how such narrow gender stereotypes only act to ultimately preclude fathers from seeking out support. It is imperative that we invest in our human capital, and to do that, we need to recognise the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives; fostering a healthy, stable, and productive society.”

“I tell dads to enjoy the small things,” says Downes. “Act like a child and do stupid things. There comes a day when you realise that they don’t hold your hand crossing the road or ask to be lifted up anymore. And that hits you like a ton of bricks.

“So, cherish the small things because it’s them that we remember. Everybody, I feel, worries they are not doing enough for the kids. From financial, to health, to guiding them on their best path. The worry is always there. All we can do is our best.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family