Ask the expert: I can’t love anyone, not even my baby
Can I still be a good father to her, or should I walk away for her own good? Photograph: Thinkstock Images
Q I have just become a father and am finding it hard to feel much for my four-month-old daughter. I am very fond of her, but I don’t feel anything profound towards her. I feel pretty bad about it all and very guilty. Basically, I don’t think I can form emotional attachments. I’ve tried to get help for myself in the past, but it didn’t work for me. I simply can’t get close to other people. Can I still be a good father to her, or should I walk away for her own good? My daughter’s birth was unexpected and I have had an on-off relationship with her mother for a few years. She is keen for me to stay involved as a father in some way, but we are not getting on great and I am not sure where things are going with our relationship.
A I think it is great that you have reached out and sought support by sending your email. It strikes me that you might be depressed; this is something that is not uncommon for many parents after the birth of a baby. Your worries about not having the correct positive feelings about your daughter and your fears of not being a good father are all common features of depression in parents. While there is a lot of awareness of postnatal depression in mothers, there is very little awareness of how this happens for fathers (though several studies show that similar numbers of fathers and mothers become depressed after the birth of a baby).
Sadly, many of the coping strategies people employ when they are depressed make things worse for them. For example, when depressed, many people – men in particular – have a tendency to cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others, although this can make them even more depressed.
In addition, people can feel there is something wrong with them and guilty about what they are feeling, but these ruminations serve only to increase their depression.
Learning to cope
The first step in learning to cope is to recognise and accept how you are feeling at the moment. It can be helpful to use the name depression for your feelings as this can help not to over-identify with them and to see the depressive thoughts as separate from you.
Don’t add to your problems by feeling guilty or beating yourself up about how you are feeling – see this as the depression talking. (You don’t have to listen.) Also, I would strongly suggest that you don’t give up and walk away, as this is not in your daughter’s interest and is likely to make you feel worse in the long term.
I would also suggest that you seek support to help yourself to cope. This can be informal support from friends and family as well as professional help. It sounds as if you had a bad experience the last time you sought professional support, but I would suggest that you try again.
When you are depressed you can often be negative about the benefits of getting support – but this could be a function of being depressed in the first place, so it is important to try to reach out and overcome this.
You now have a special motivation to get help for the sake of your daughter – the more positive your own mental health is, the better for your daughter.
There are lots of potential sources of support such as through your GP or your baby’s public health nurse, who should be well aware of the options for struggling parents. Alternatively, there are great voluntary services such as parentline.ie, which provides telephone support and/or can point you towards a parenting group, and aware.ie, which has a national network of support groups as well as online skills programmes and a telephone helpline.
Getting involved in the care of your baby
Lots of the parents I have worked with cannot feel the positive feelings they want towards their babies from the start. Although this can surprise or shock them, they are not alone and the good news is that positive, loving feelings can be cultivated. The key is to get involved and to decide to care for your baby. Get involved in her care as much as possible and make sure to set aside regular times when you can play with her and simply enjoy her. Love is more about what you do and less about what you feel. Once you commit yourself, you will be surprised at how positive feelings will follow.
Co-parenting with your baby’s mother
You also have the extra challenge of dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and co-parenting in a relatively insecure relationship with your daughter’s mother.
At the best of times, the birth of a first baby puts a great strain on the parents’ relationship, so the stress you are experiencing is relatively normal. It is positive that she is keen for you to stay involved as a father, and this is something to build upon.
If you can find a way of being a support to her as a new mother and being constructively involved as a father, this will reduce a lot of the stress you are experiencing. Work hard to negotiate with her about how you can do this. Consider seeking supports such as relationship counselling or mediation to help you achieve this. You may also find it beneficial to attend a parenting course, together or separately, to help you with this.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus Charity. See solutiontalk.ie for details of books and courses.