My girlfriend Lauren fell pregnant with her first child soon after tying the knot. She and her husband were elated about the baby, until the little one arrived.
Lauren immediately settled into motherhood with ease despite not having the luxury of a nanny or help of some sort. Not once did she complain about the late nights or the constant crying. She was instead bewildered by the fact that her husband experienced a wave of negative emotions.
Within a few weeks after the birth, Lauren’s husband confessed to being overcome by sadness and anxiety. He said he felt no connection to their newborn. He complained of exhaustion and feelings of emptiness. He said he felt trapped. He referred to himself as a bad father and believed that he did not deserve to be a father. He didn’t want to harm “the baby”, as he referred to their child.
It was soon after affirming his true emotional state that he said he no longer wanted to be a father and withdrew himself completely.
This confused all his loved ones. Lauren felt abandoned. His mother-in-law called him lazy and cruel and said that he was finally showing his true colours. Everybody told him to man up and take responsibility.
Not one person realised that he had postpartum depression — because it’s a female thing, right?
Darby Saxbe, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, reported in The Conversation in August last year that depression in fathers is real. Estimates indicate that about “10% of men report symptoms of depression following the birth of a child”, which is “double the typical rate of depression in males”.
Similarly, Dr Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote in The New York Times that men plummeting into postpartum depression has far more consequences, because it not only affects the father but the mother and child as well. This is supported by Katherine Stone on her website Postpartum Progress, who said depression may have a “detrimental effect on marriages, child development and one’s overall wellbeing”.
Research indicates that postpartum depression in women may be linked with hormonal shifts during and after pregnancy but the cause of men’s postpartum depression remains largely unknown, said Saxbe.
A male patient who suffered postpartum depression told Friedman that “he had spent the nine months of pregnancy in a state of excitement about being a father without really registering what a life-transforming event it was going to be”.
Friedman states that, although male postpartum depression may be attributed to “social or psychological stress”, there may be more to it than that. “Like motherhood, fatherhood has its own biology, and it may actually change the brain.”
In this regard, Friedman and Saxbe believe the culprit is male testosterone.
According to Friedman, the association between depression and low testosterone in middle-aged men is widely acknowledged.
Widespread research indicates that fathers experienced a drop in testosterone during their partner’s pregnancy. Lower testosterone made “expectant fathers less aggressive and more likely to bond with their newborns”. Saxbe found further that “lower-testosterone men may be more dedicated to their relationships or spend more time with children, helping to relieve some of the pressure on moms”.
Friedman and Saxbe said their research ultimately found that men with low levels of testosterone might be more susceptible to depression and, although their hands-on contribution to child-rearing is fantastic from the family’s perspective, it may put men at heightened risk of some of the depressive symptoms that many new mothers face.
The truth is, tending to a child is not an easy task, so fathers, including higher-testosterone men, may also feel overwhelmed and stressed.
As Saxbe puts it, their research indicates a “potential dark side to high testosterone in the postpartum period”, which is no surprise because male testosterone is associated with “more aggressive and competitive behaviour”. Higher testosterone may further cause aggressive behaviour that leads to unhappy partners, which then makes parenting even more stressful, said Saxbe.
It’s important to highlight that men should not feel shame about being overwhelmed by the arrival of a newborn.
As Saxbe said, men can take some comfort in the fact that these feelings are normal — and may even be rooted in our evolutionary biology. There is no shame in seeking therapy and antidepressants may also be useful.
Men also have hormones that can shift during and after major changes in their lives.
Palesa Lebitse is a legal researcher, writer and feminist