Fatherhood can be challenging. Here are some of the key mental health issues that dads can face — and what they can do about them.
Being a dad isn’t always easy. Because no matter how joyful and rewarding the role can be, it’s also very demanding. What’s more, fatherhood has a lot of ideals attached to it, meaning that some dads feel pressured to live up to impossible expectations.
We also live in a society where many men had difficult childhood experiences, for instance, growing up with absent or abusive fathers. This could mean that healthy and loving male parenting wasn’t modelled to them when they were young. As a result, they might worry that they have no idea how to be a good dad. Additionally, if their child has additional physical, mental, behavioural or emotional needs then the pressure can be overwhelming.
For these reasons and more, many men are finding that fatherhood brings its own set of mental health and wellbeing issues, such as stress, low mood and anger. Yet sadly, they might feel that they can’t talk about this to anyone, due to cultural expectations that they should be ‘strong’ for their partner and children. For this reason, it’s crucial that dads are seen, heard and supported, plus have safe spaces to share their worries.
If you are struggling with fatherhood, then you’re not alone in feeling this way. Here are some common issues that dads can face, even if they don’t always talk about them…
Although the painful topic of parental regret is being discussed more openly these days, there is still a taboo around it. Yet no matter how much some men might love their kids — and no matter how well they care for them — they can also have a mixture of feelings, including regret at becoming a father.
For some dads, these feelings last for years. For others, they happen at a certain stage of their child’s life, for instance, toddlerhood. Either way, men can go to great lengths to hide these feelings from their partner, children and extended families. However, the regret can still eat away at them, especially when they can’t express it to anyone. And often, they feel deeply ashamed of these feelings and wonder why they can’t just take joy in their kids.
Yet this issue of regret is actually fairly common. For instance, a 2021 YouGov study found that one in twelve parents regretted having children, while one in seven had felt that way in the past. The numbers were higher for younger parents aged from 25 to 34, with one in five feeling regret.
But why do parents feel this way? According to 2018 research by Moore and Abetz on ‘What Do Parents Regret About Having Children?’, key reasons include:
· Feeling that they had children at the wrong time
· Feeling that they had more children that they wanted
· Feeling that they had to make too many sacrifices for the children
· Experiencing difficulties with their partner
· Having difficult or challenging children
· Feeling that they are a bad parent
· Feeling that they would be more suited to being childfree
Some men describe feeling trapped and suffocated by the role of fatherhood because it seems as if they don't have a single moment to themselves. They can also experience grief over losing their childfree lifestyle, including the ability to be spontaneous, socialise and have free time. Some men may fantasise about running away and escaping from it all.
These feelings can cause anger, anxiety, stress, depression and emotional withdrawal, all of which can affect the entire family. So if you’re experiencing parental regret, it’s really important to deal with it rather than letting it fester.
Much of the problem could be in feeling that you no longer have an identity outside of parenthood, including time for hobbies, socialising and self-care. And while it’s not always easy to carve this time out for yourself, it’s important to try.
It could also help to have an open conversation with your partner or to connect with a men’s support group through Man Health or Dangerous Dads. Also, confidential therapy could help you to sort through your feelings. You might also want to explore different parenting styles to see if this reduces strain and conflict at home.
Regretting fatherhood isn’t a trite issue with trite solutions. But many parents do describe it as being a passing phase that fades away as their children grow older and more independent.
While parenthood can bring some couples closer together, it can be a huge strain on others. This can be for all sorts of reasons, including unplanned pregnancy, financial worries, conflict over parenting styles, reduced sex life, lack of sleep and overall burnout.
In fact, numerous studies over the years have shown that marriage satisfaction can take a dip after couples have a child. Yet rather than seeing this as ‘doom and gloom’, it could be viewed as a natural part of the massive transition into parenthood — something to be acknowledged and navigated.
Causes of dissatisfaction can vary. Some men describe feeling ‘abandoned’ by their partner when she becomes a mother, as her attention is taken up with the baby. They might also feel that their partner has changed since becoming a parent and is not the same person that they first dated. Or they might feel unhappy that their relationship is now based around parenting and practicalities, rather than passion and romance.
Attachment styles (the amount of distance or closeness we prefer in relationships) can also play a part. For instance, men with an avoidant attachment style might feel suffocated by the demands of a family unit. Conversely, men with a more anxious attachment style might feel abandoned when their partner’s attention is taken up by a child.
The good news is that there are steps that parents can take to try to mend distance and conflict in their relationship. These include:
· Managing expectations — realising that no relationship or family is perfect
· Communicating openly, regularly and non-judgmentally with each other
· Seeing things from your partner’s point of view
· Making time to each do your own thing e.g. hobbies
· Making time for just the two of you e.g. date nights
· Scheduling time for sex (even if that feels unromantic at first)
· Prioritising sleep as much as possible
· Learning about parenting techniques
· Making sure that chores are divided up fairly
· Asking for help from family and friends
· Getting individual or couples therapy
Of course, all of the above things take time, patience and commitment, as no relationship can magically change or heal overnight. And if you are juggling parenthood, housework and full time jobs, then it can be hard to make time for romance or date nights.
But if you and your partner can make working on your relationship a key priority, then that in itself can be a big step towards you feeling less lonely.
While postnatal depression is an issue that affects 10 to 20% of women, men can also experience depressive symptoms after a baby is born.
And it’s a common problem. For instance, a study by Paulson and Bazemore found that one in ten fathers experience male postnatal depression in the first year after birth (that’s an annual figure of 75,000 in the UK). They also found that in the first three to six months after birth these figures can be much higher, with one in four dads showing signs of depression.
And according to the National Childbirth Trust, up to 38% of new dads are worried about their mental health. Other research by the Movember men’s charity found that 20% of new dads felt completely isolated in their first year of fatherhood. So it’s important not to ignore the feelings and experiences of men after a birth.
The causes of male postnatal depression can be varied. For some men, becoming a dad is a huge shock to the system and they might find themselves highly stressed by the lack of sleep, juggling of responsibilities and loss of freedoms. Also, if their partner is showing her own postnatal symptoms, then this can be distressing for the father too.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that if a woman goes through a traumatic delivery experience or unplanned caesarean, she can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), otherwise known as birth trauma. Sadly, this can sometimes be misdiagnosed as postnatal depression, meaning that the woman might not get the support she needs. This can also have a huge impact on new dads and the couple’s relationship as a whole.
Additionally, if a woman needs a longer time to recover post-birth — perhaps due to complications or surgery — then this can put additional strain on the father. Also, if the baby has complex needs (for instance is born premature or unwell), then the man might feel a huge cultural or familial pressure to be ‘the strong one’. But inside, he might be wrestling with his own fear, stress and grief.
What’s also under-recognised is that male postnatal depression can be a hormonal issue as well. This is because men experience a post-birth dip in testosterone and an increase in oestrogen, which can cause low mood.
Whatever the causes, it can be really helpful for new fathers to educate themselves, their partners and their families on the reality of post-natal depression in men. And it’s also important for society as a whole to acknowledge that this is not just a ‘women’s issue’ and can be a cause of real distress to dads.
After becoming parents, different couples make different arrangements. For instance, both might return to their jobs full time, or men might become stay-at-home dads while their partner works.
That said, it’s still common for many couples to enter into traditional roles after having a child, with women being homemakers and dads being the sole breadwinner. And this can cause intense pressure for men.
Due to cultural stereotypes around masculinity, some men can feel like ‘failures’ if they don’t earn enough to support the family, or if they lose their job or don’t get a promotion. They might find that their inner critic takes over to constantly tell them that they’re inadequate. And this can be made worse in a society where men aren’t always taught about the importance of self-compassion.
Some men might also be trapped in an unhappy, toxic or unfulfilling job, yet feel that it’s impossible to escape it as their family is relying on them to pay the bills. This can lead to stress, depression and anger, as well as coping strategies like addiction or emotional avoidance. Some men might even experience imposter syndrome, a sense that they are just playing the role of good father, husband and employee while feeling hollow or frustrated inside.
Some dads also describe always having to be ‘on’ — for instance, coming home from a long day at work, only to have a baby or toddler handed to them when they walk through the door. Of course, their partner has been under intense pressure all day too and also needs a break. But conflict about childcare responsibilities can also add to the feeling of being on a never-ending treadmill.
In fact, a 2016 study by the University of Connecticut found that men who act as the primary breadwinners are more likely to face psychological and health hurdles. According to lead author Christian Munsch, ‘Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one’s family with little or no help has negative repercussions.’
He also felt that men’s stress about this role was due to cultural expectations placed on them. Yet interestingly, the study found that the men’s mental health improved when their partners took on more financial responsibility.
Of course, there is no quick solution to the pressures fathers face from being the main breadwinner, especially if their partner isn’t able to return to work. But if men can find ways to express how they feel to loved ones, practice greater self-compassion and take steps to maintain their mental health at work, then they might feel less like they are struggling on in silence.
Dads under pressure might also find relief through talking things over confidentially with a therapist. And it’s worth noting that therapy nowadays offers a whole lot more beyond simply talking — in fact, there are various evidence-based approaches you can try. For instance, therapy can help you to develop a different mindset around parenthood, shift unhelpful behaviour patterns and develop better ways of communicating with your family. It can also help you to overcome specific issues such as burnout, stress, anger, anxiety, depression or PTSD.
A good therapist can also help you to process difficult experiences from your younger years that might be causing you to feel conflicted about fatherhood. This could include abuse, neglect or abandonment. Or if you and your partner are dealing with conflict, then couples therapy can help you make sense of how parenthood could be affecting your relationship. And if you have a child who is dealing with challenges, then family therapy can help too.
Fatherhood isn’t simple, which means that finding solutions to the challenges of being a dad aren’t simple either. But by opening up to others — whether that’s your partner, family, friends, a men’s group or a therapist — you will begin to realise that you are not alone. And you will begin to realise that you don’t have to always be a ‘perfect’ husband or father. That it’s okay to be compassionate and forgiving to yourself instead.
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