It’s International Fathers’ Mental Health Day, following on from Fathers’ Day in the UK yesterday. We have increased awareness – at last – that becoming a parent can impact upon mothers’ mental health, and Mark Williams and Dr Andrew Mayers (among others) are campaigning hard to ensure that fathers’ mental health has similar recognition.
It’s been a relatively recent thing that we’re even talking about how important dads are. Fathers were pretty much left out of psychological research into the impact of parents until the 1970s. Now, we recognise that fathers have a very unique role in child-rearing. They are not just an alternative Mum, but contribute to a child’s emotional, social and intellectual development in very different ways to mothers. Since the 70’s too, fathering has moved on a tremendous amount. Many families, with two parents who want to (and need to) work, wish to co-parent equally and are very aware of the importance of the role of both parents. Yet we haven’t quite caught up to this yet in the way fathers are presented. This week I continued to be exasperated at the Fathers’ Day cards in the shops portraying fathers as slightly feckless, beer-swilling, golf-playing giant toddlers. Legislation, too, is way behind most families’ reality. Although Shared Parental Leave policy was created in 2015 – allowing parents to share 50 weeks of leave after having a baby – only around 2% of eligible families have taken this up. This may, in part, be due to lack of awareness but many families can’t afford to take up Shared Parental Leave – and many employers may not encourage it. Those such as John Adams, campaigning for ring fenced shared parental leave, and Anna Whitehouse & Matt Farquharson who are campaigning for better flexible working policies – highlight not only how much dads want to be involved – but also that they need to be better supported in this to ensure families are able to function in the ways they want to.
Increased recognition of the impact of parenting on men’s mental health has been fought for by Mark Williams, who speaks of his own experience of post natal depression in his forthcoming book Daddy Blues. For many years, it was not recognised that men could suffer from mental health problems related to parenthood – because the dominant viewpoint was that postnatal mental health problems were due to the physiological changes brought on by pregnancy and birth. There is a greater awareness now that there are many complex factors which might impact upon mental health during parenthood, which affect both men and women, but interestingly we’ve also found that men undergo many of the same brain changes as women do when they become parents, especially if they take on a primary carer role. But whenever I read an article about parenting, or run a group, or even speak to potential clients – I’m often left wondering ‘where are the dads?’ Often excluded from mainstream conversations about parenting, dads (and partners in general) are often almost invisible in perinatal services. When I worked within the NHS, referrals for dads were few and far between, and we never had a single dad attend our new parents’ group. Now that I’m working independently, at my Village group (open to all local parents to attend), we have one brave dad who has stuck it out despite always being our only male presence.
Stats tell us that around 10% of dads suffer from postnatal depression – but its likely there are many more dads who go through mental health difficulties without being diagnosed or even seeking help (one of the reasons behind Mark Williams’ #Howareyoudad campaign, encouraging health professionals – and all of us – to check in with dads about their mental health). It’s well known that men are much less likely than women to seek help for mental health problems, and stigma still exists around male mental health problems. Messages such as ‘boys don’t cry’ encouraging men from the earliest age to be tough – aspiring to the romantic ideal of the strong silent type – make it very difficult to admit to any feelings at all, let alone painful ones. Add to this the continued ideal of the man as ‘provider’ and another barrier is created to speaking about difficult feelings. This can be really exacerbated during the early days of parenting, when attention is on the baby first, and supporting the new mum second – with very little awareness that dads are also going through a major life transition.
This is reflected in the way that services are structured. Antenatal appointments, during working hours, are often difficult enough to get to for the pregnant woman, let alone her partner. This in itself creates an idea that the partner is secondary to the whole process. During birth itself, partners often speak about feeling pushed aside, with little communicated to them, feeling invisible during the birth itself and unable to seek support afterwards (see How To Heal a Bad Birth for fathers’ descriptions of difficult birth experiences). After birth, playgroups and baby groups are often full of mothers (with the occasional Dad-only group springing up on a Saturday morning).
And then the transition to fatherhood itself can be tremendously challenging – with little space to reflect on this. I’ve written before about Ghosts in the nursery, and how this can influence our own parenting decisions. While mothers often build a network of other mothers to discuss and reflect on some of these influences, dads are less likely to create similar networks. This means that sometimes very painful or conflicted feelings have to be dealt with alone. For many men, settling into the role of ‘Dad’ and what this means can be so difficult to resolve that they take a step away from the family (something which is too often encouraged by their workplaces, who are only too happy to have the extra hours).
Slowly, more and more Dads are speaking out on social media about their experiences of fathering and how this has impacted on their mental health. The brilliant #FatherFigures campaign led by the Dad Network aims to increase awareness of Dads’ mental health and a new podcast Man Talk from Jamie Day demonstrates that conversations about mental health among men are not only possible but helpful.
But we need to bring it out of our screens and look at the men around us. Ask them how they are. Ask how they feel about fatherhood. Ask them how easy it is for them to be at home with their families, or if they are pressured to work beyond capacity. Ask how they feel about their own fathers and how this is influencing their parenting. What kind of little boys they want to have, how they want to influence their little girls. Let them know where they can go if they are struggling (CALM has some brilliant resources for male mental health problems, Andy’s Man club encourages open conversation about mental health and From Dads to Dads has lots of information for fathers). Even if they’re not struggling, keep asking – to lay the groundwork for the times they will (as we inevitably all do).
In this way we make those conversations feel a little easier, and acknowledge what our children already know – that Dads matter.