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New fathers and mental health: ‘So much of the focus was on supporting my wife’

Many men will struggle in the postnatal period but finding support can be difficult

Health and wellness consultant Fin McKenna-Fox knew all about looking after his physical and mental health until he became a father for the first time. “In the flip of a switch I lost the whole identity of who I was,” he says. “So much of the focus was on supporting my wife through that massive transition.”

While women experience huge changes in their bodies and go through the rite of passage of giving birth, “the father is there like the deer in the headlights”. Family, friends and health professionals rally around the woman and her baby in the early, mother-centric days.

Fin knew what sort of father he wanted to be – present and hands-on, unlike many men of his father’s generation. He was there to support his wife, Shona, and to be an active parent in his child’s life. He was aware that some fathers regarded their involvement at home as little more than “babysitting” their children.

“I am not babysitting the kids. I am rearing my children,” says Fin, who is now father to three children, aged eight, five and two, with another baby due any day. “It’s co-parenting, working as a team with my wife.”


At the outset, however, he struggled to manage the expectations he had of himself and family life.

Losing sense of who he was proved to be the biggest challenge. “It took about a year of going through the murkiness of that – trying to be a support for my wife and my daughter, to provide for them, make sure they were looked after and I just put myself down last in the pecking order. I felt that is what I needed to do, what I should do.

“The biggest thing for me was I didn’t open up and admit to it. I didn’t feel I had people around to talk to.”

He had grown up with the idea that when men face challenges, they just get on with it. “Things didn’t change until I admitted I was struggling.”

He first told his wife and then began to seek support and talk to other people. “That is when a lot of things started to change for myself. There is help available but again, for most fellas, we don’t know about it; we just keep pushing on, wearing masks.”

The notion that new fathers could suffer from postnatal depression is often met with scepticism. Really? It’s not as if they have been through the bodily rigours and hormonal surges of child-bearing and birth. Surely they get all of the joy and none of the pain?

The role of fatherhood I feel is changing ... now there are expectations of providing for your family, but also providing emotionally for your partner. So much more about work-life balance

Yet research indicates that one in 10 fathers may be affected and probably more. Studies that link the arrival of a baby to a sharp drop in the father’s testosterone would suggest they are not immune to biological changes. Meanwhile, the emotional and social upheavals of new parenthood, seen as significant contributors to mothers’ postnatal depression, can clearly take their toll on fathers’ mental health too.

“The term postnatal depression is problematic for me, because it is so universally associated with women,” says Prof Sinéad McGilloway, founder director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University. “Some other term should be used.”

But she and PhD student Mary Maguire are striving to increase awareness around the issue. “Fathers’ mental health in this [perinatal] period is unrecognised, under treated, undiagnosed and a lot of men are unsupported,” says Prof McGilloway.

A belief that postnatal depression is exclusive to mothers is part of the problem. Men are not seeking help and health professionals are not asking about their mental wellbeing. Men who have contributed to the limited amount of research conducted in this area talk about knowing how important their role as a support to the mother of their child is. They see themselves as needing to be the strong one. The sense that “it’s not actually about us” reinforces the stigma around new fathers admitting they are not coping.

“What kind of man gets depressed after having a baby?” is the title of a 2021 Bournemouth University study on new fathers’ mental health, reflecting one participant’s explanation of reluctance to disclose difficulties. They feel shame and guilt in admitting any vulnerabilities. The study concluded that health professionals need more training to recognise fathers who are struggling.

It is estimated that about one in five mothers in Ireland will experience mental health distress – most commonly depression or anxiety – in the year following the birth of a child. If a mother has depression, that’s a red flag for the father being at risk too, says McGilloway. Yet, routine screening is geared towards women and when possible postnatal depression is flagged, the diagnostic tools are also designed for mothers. While there appears to be similarities in symptoms, “men seem to have additional things going on, like escape behaviour, irritability and indecisiveness”.

People may question how a father could have postnatal depression, says Fin. It is part of the narrative that men just need to get on with things.

“Whereas it is a totally reasonable expectation that this is something that could happen if they are not supported. With mothers going through the new motherhood phase, there is so much support there through that transition. Fathers are supposed to pick it up and figure it out.”

The focus of the research by Maguire, who is on a John Hume scholarship at Maynooth, was initially on how women with mild to moderate postnatal mental health issues seem to fall through the cracks of services, despite improvements in Ireland’s mental healthcare. However, in doing a literature review, Maguire saw there was a huge gap in research on fathers.

“We are now thinking of incorporating something on dads into her work because we believe you can’t really look at the mother without the dad and partner,” says McGilloway. “It is all about taking family-based approaches to mental health issues.”

We are now aware how crucial the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is, being a time of rapid brain development, so “we need both parents well to do the job because we know parenting is hard”. Yet parenting by fathers, she suggests, is still not seen as important as by mothers. This is despite the “wealth of literature around parental mental health and its negative impact on kids’ development and other outcomes”. Not to mention the evidence-backed importance of children having dads as role models.

The current generation of men may not have role models themselves when it comes to the increased expectations of today’s fathers. It can take more than good intentions to override the tendency to parent the way we were parented, as Fin found out.

“So many things came naturally for my wife but I could just see myself reverting back to these old patterns. It was like, ‘why am I getting frustrated’?, ‘Why am I getting triggered in these ways’?”

He recalls his first year of fatherhood in 2016 as a time of going through “a dark night of the soul, where I found myself living with high levels of stress, anxiety and panic attacks”.

He realised he needed to learn a different approach and recognised that his feelings were nothing to do with his wife or his child. He had to deal with his own patterns of behaviour and thinking to enable him to start “reprogramming” himself. “I needed to strip back and understand why was I reacting the way I was reacting? Why was I bottling everything up?”

Having been through these experiences, his focus as a men’s empowerment coach is now to help other fathers remove their masks. He set up The Grounded Masculine in Western Australia, where he and Shona lived for 12 years, before returning to his native Monaghan last July. “We went out with two backpacks and came back with three children,” he says with a laugh. The last seven months have been a time of huge adjustment for the family, not least with the expected arrival of a new baby this month.

What’s more, Irish men might not be queuing up to do the sort of work on themselves that he facilitates as a coach. “It is definitely a slow burn,” he says. “It is about getting the right people and getting men to start to see it doesn’t have to be as big and as scary as what they first expected.” Most of his coaching is done remotely but he does have a wellness hub in north Monaghan for face-to-face appointments. Also companies are starting to ask him to lead sessions specifically for men in the workplace.

“From doing this work, I always see as soon as men get together and start hearing other people’s stories they understand it’s not just them. It takes the weight off, seeing you’re not alone. By being able to speak about it and learn from other people, that’s what is going to help you through, rather than just trying to do it on your own.”

In addition to the mismatch between Fin’s expectations of fatherhood and the reality, the changed relationship with his wife was also a challenge. “It’s a constant for myself and my wife over the last eight years. As a mother they get so fixated over being the mother to the children that it is easy to fall to the wayside in the relationship side of things.”

But he says he and Shona communicate openly about this aspect and are always seeking to nurture their own relationship as a couple. “We get busy with work; we get busy with family life and that spark just dwindles away. I know, we experienced that at times in our relationship – you just feel like ships passing in the night. There is no connection, no intimacy there and that ends up a big struggle as well. It just adds to the stress of fatherhood.”

What couples bicker over is often the superficial stuff, he says, while failing to understand what’s going on for both of them underneath. “If you are going tit for tat on jobs around the house, you’re setting yourself up to have a challenging time.”

He encourages men to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. “If you do that you can look at things from a different perspective. Emotional intelligence is massive. It’s something a lot of guys really struggle with.”

Too often men’s response to feeling overwhelmed is that they get busy, he says – with work, sport, gaming, or more self-destructive behaviours. “They just numb out and avoid the problems that are going on. That is when it is really hard to have a connection back with your partner; you are just in this avoidance pattern.”

While attitudes to difficulties with mental health are improving, he believes lingering stigma still holds men back from asking for the help they need. However, online technology has spread more awareness and knowledge. “You’re starting to see people in the limelight speak about their mental health struggles a lot more. That’s giving guys ‘permission’ to start speaking.”

However, “you don’t have to be broken to start doing some work on yourself”, he says.

Equipping yourself to deal better with the stress and chaos of family life would be hugely beneficial and save grief down the line. “Unfortunately a lot of guys keep just pushing on – until they can’t.”

If a man was promoted to a new role at work, he would expect to get training to upgrade his skills and help him successfully adapt to that job. Yet, “we have stepped into fatherhood and we haven’t even thought about, shall I upgrade my skill set of being a man to be able to adapt to the changes I am experiencing on a day-to-day basis?”

Fin advises men to look after their physical health first – exercise, nutrition and sleep – and to think about how that benefits their mental and emotional wellbeing. They also need to look at how they respond to stress.

“The role of fatherhood I feel is changing. You look at our fathers, it was much just about the providing side of it. Whereas now there are expectations of providing for your family, but also providing emotionally for your partner. So much more about work-life balance.”

But do the men who want to throw themselves into 50:50 parenting outnumber those who still seem to be quite happy to be more hands-off in the daily grind of child-rearing and to avoid the “mental load” that women complain about?

“There are so many different levels of consciousness in how we want to father,” he says. “There is that old school mentality of ‘I am showing up by working every hour that I can so I can provide for the family’ but then not [being] present for the kids. There is that disconnect there.” He has no doubt that in 10 or 15 years’ time, his children’s fondest memories are not going to be some present he gave them, but rather the days they spent playing outside together.

“More and more fathers are beginning to see the importance of that presence, that connection, that time,” he says. “That’s what we’re going towards.”

Meanwhile, “dads are notoriously bad at participating in research”, says McGilloway. The Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University would be delighted to hear from any men interested in helping to close the “really important gap” in awareness and research on fathers’ mental health. Contact the lead investigator on the new Perinatal Mental Health Services in Ireland project:

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