It's a fact…. your habits change and your relationships do too. Any healthy habits are hard to keep up because you're balancing work, supporting your partner and let's face it, it's not like parenthood gives you a moment to breathe.
Thinking back to my Post Natal Depression (PND) research and my own battle with depression and anxiety following the birth of our second son, I started thinking about the early pressures of fatherhood. Now, as a father of two young boys I've become acutely aware of how stress, anxiety and the strain of balancing fatherhood, a career and a business can impact my relationship with my wife and my beautiful boys. From my last blog it's clear that the hidden pressures of fatherhood can lead to the symptoms of PND being overlooked.
As with maternal PND, a fathers' experience of PND can be triggered by social, emotional and physical factors and many apply to both genders. These include:
There is always conflict. The demands on your time only increase as you both settle into your new routine. The choice between a healthy snack and a chocolate bar or a prepared meal and a thrown together high carb and high fat meal are dictated by their bedtime and mealtime routine.
You both try your best to stay on top of it all, but with the pressures of managing your job and the new routine, something must give. You're desperate to eat together because you've become accustomed to it, and you know your relationship will benefit from some 'adult' time. At times any meal will do!
With a new baby and a toddler, we managed it well but, in all honesty ,COVID and lockdown played a big part in getting that right. It doesn't always work and with the introduction of school, nursery, and a wife at the peak of her powers in her chosen career, we have at times, muddled through.
Here's what makes it harder:
An unhealthy work life balance contributes to you feeling unhappy and leads to you taking short cuts which ultimately impacts your wellbeing, emotions and not to mention your relationship! Prior to COVID a typical day looked like this:
A daily 3 ½ hour round trip commute. There were days when auto pilot got me home by the seat of my pants! At 7:45pm I barrelled through the door to get that last cuddle before bedtime.
Rushing from meeting to meeting. Hour after hour with no moment to catch my breath. Some of you might be taking that extra overtime to cover the additional costs of having kids. Just remember - that comes with a health warning too!
Polishing off a bag of cookies from Tesco's. That's the giant ones! And I wouldn't even pause to share them out! So, watch out if you're prone to comfort eating! Reaching for that last cookie might just be one too many.
Smashing coffee after coffee or a bottle of Coke just to get through the day. I've seen many a dad smash through 3-4 Monster energy drinks just to stay afloat! What I've found is the sugar crash hits harder than a hangover!
After work beers! The problem is Friday crept into Thursday and then slammed into Wednesday. So, ask yourself, are Saturday beers creeping into Sunday? How's your head on Monday? Is your relationship with alcohol starting to impact you, your relationship and how you interact with the kids on an early weekend morning? If so, think about taking a break.
Hiding from past experiences or painful events and choosing to push on regardless of the longer-term effects on my health and wellbeing.
Fatherhood has taught me that routine and planning help me stay on top of my mental health. But persistence and getting the basics right have been the most important steps!
Everything above has been altered, adjusted, or removed completely. Why? Because I've survived the moment where everything came crashing down around me. I'm not telling you to cut out everything you enjoy. What I'm saying is regulate your intake and if you need the motivation, evaluate the true cost of your current habits and behaviours on you and your young family. I got caught out. I don't want to see you go through what I experienced. I'm grateful for hitting the bottom, but I'm more grateful for my ability to bounce back.
In Daddy Blues, Mark Williams hit the nail on the head when he turned a corner. It wasn't just baby's arrival or his partners PND that caused him to fall. He contributed to the pain. Why? Because before baby arrived, he had not been looking after himself, his behaviour and habits later made it harder for him to cope when his back was against the wall. In my own story, the horse had bolted way before Max was born and I was a shadow of the man I needed to become. When I needed to be a present, emotionally grounded and a connected parent I was lost, overwhelmed, and clinging on.
Fatherhood changes you, but it's failing to prepare for it that will cost you. The challenge we face is simple… there is little out there to educate on the fall of a father. The practicalities of parenting are well documented and let's face it, you learn a lot of the stuff needed to be a successful dad on the frontline, knee deep in dirty nappies and half eaten rusks! That said, when faced with the exhaustion, the pressure and unable to cope where the hell do you turn?
Mentally the enormity of the shift that we experience only hits 3-6months into fatherhood and by that time you're ill equipped to get back on track. It might not be anything to do with fatherhood that trips you up, but when you do fall it comes at life's greatest cost.
The practicalities of parenting are well covered by NCT and companies like Our Baby Club and Dad focused organisations like Mantenatal. However, we need to engage better and start to prepare ourselves mentally and physically before baby's arrival.
Many dads are isolated from day 1 either by choice or because of the lack of support available. Frankly your willingness to engage, to prepare and to talk about the stuff that's sitting heavy on your heart will help you navigate the ups and downs of modern fatherhood.
Your employer plays a big part. They either provide an enhanced paternity package or they don’t but depending on the options available you're either starting off on the front foot or you're against the ropes, clinging on like your life depended on it.
The pressures on mum during and post maternity leave are well documented, and many organisations offer a better than statutory offering. For many though not getting an enhanced package, the drop in salary just isn't viable and that can create a divide early between both employee and employer, and mum and dad.
In the early days a family needs unity and stability. Forcing a father to choose between staying home and returning to work creates unnecessary pressure which in turn can create a conflict that leave him unsure of his position. That lack of support leaves him feeling isolated and that isolation slowly eats away at his confidence. I know that had I not had an enhanced paternity package, I would have thought differently about taking time off. If paternity leave isn't available, the dad is forced to take annual leave. Let's face it, that's a terrible option. It can create further stress and pressure on the family down the line when he's unable to take time off to support because he's burned through his allowance.
Let's consider mum for a moment. She's just given birth, his employer may have granted him paternity leave and even topped up paternity pay but what if there are complications with baby's arrival? What if mum is hospitalised or forced to take a load off in the first few weeks and months to regain her strength? In some cases, he's forced to choose between his family and his career or even job security. Without any backing or support he's isolated and in some instances overwhelmed. He'll shoulder the strain but at some point, he'll crack under the enormity of the pressure. He will of course battle on and do his best to support her whilst trying desperately to wrestle with the guilt he feels for leaving them at home.
Now fast-forward 6-12 months. Mum in some cases is forced to choose between motherhood and her career. Even if she had enhanced maternity, is she really going to get the support she deserves as she returns to work? Or will she be just another returning mum?! We've all seen and heard it "She'll have another baby soon and be back off on maternity in no time" or "She can cover the basic tasks. She's been out for 12 months and will need time to catch up and get up to speed". She'll have worked to create a name for herself and have built a reputation for herself but once she has a baby, she's back to square one. As a father you don't understand this. It's not something you've experienced and at times you'll say the wrong thing whilst trying to find the words to help her feel valued and confident.
There is also the war she wages on the establishment. Fighting alone to be recognised for her contribution to the business. I've seen it first-hand……. there is this misconception that she's happy to give up work or take a shift with a lower number of hours to help her balance her commitment to the family home. Let's face it, it's not the rising cost of living that'll catch her out or force her hand, it's the cost of childcare.
It's destroying her sense of independence and it's stopping her building her own story, the one that for some is just as important as being mummy! Again, as a new father or even experienced pro… this isn't in the manual. Her decision to sacrifice what she's worked her whole life for becomes unattainable. She must drop everything to stay at home because childcare cost is preventing her from returning to work. Now I appreciate some mums are higher earners and will have other challenges but in many cases mum's career is shelved. If she's fortunate to get back into work and not face the early obstacles, I bet she'll face barriers to her progression. Her commitment will be questioned because you are as a family navigating the ever-changing landscape of parenting. This too will play on her mind and create friction if you don't understand it or start to recognise the pressure, she's facing the moment baby arrives.
That lack of engagement from your employer as a dad creates resentment and apathy, with your commitment to the company’s ethos no longer aligned, it'll only be a matter of time before you leave. This lack of awareness and education at a corporate level can also undermine the relationship between mum and dad and contribute to behaviours experienced by many who have suffered with PND.
The harsh truth of it is that companies aren't set up to offer support to New Dads! Companies are happy to promote 'Men's Health' but when it comes to a father’s health there is little support or expertise on offer. In fact, most organisations aren't dedicating resources or wellbeing projects to this critical subject. We're expected to just get on with it. The adjustment a father experiences and the decisions that many fathers must take in the early moments of parenthood are completely ignored.
Many are expected to return to work like nothing ever happened. What do we do when we need to talk to someone? Where do we turn if we're struggling? I can't turn to my employer; they know about as much as me about a dad’s mental health. My GP might know a bit and point me in the right direction, but I'll be on a waiting list or prescribed some drugs to help me. My local community offers me next to nothing and there certainly isn't a group to help me chat this stuff through! So, what do you do?
Work and bad habits become your escape. You throw yourself in because you're not ready to face the reality that it can be a wonderful yet lonely existence.
You have a major role in the survival of your new family and with money tight if your partner isn't on enhanced maternity pay you go all in! You push hard and hope that your hard work pays off. If it doesn't then you'll have to live with the regrets of missing some beautiful moments in baby's life. Guess what? That creates pressure, the resentment builds and the world around you starts to darken! Your relationship suffers and your confidence takes a beating! Your relationship dynamic - the time available for you as a couple diminishes and the added pressure of balancing baby's needs with the needs of your relationship result in you sacrificing the latter and, in some cases, completely.
The pressures on a new father aren't equal to those a mother experiences but they are real and unsupported. Ignored and left to muddle through a father's health (mental and physical) can deteriorate over time resulting in depression or PND.
His pride will see him push on, but employers need to get better at managing and supporting new fathers as they navigate the early weeks and months of parenthood. The early pressures of fatherhood are a melting pot of contributory factors, some within our control and others well outside our control! We must take better care of ourselves and start to do so before baby arrives, but the reality is, many won't.
If you're reading this, did you prepare? I suspect like me you were conditioned to take the biggest step in your stride, and you stepped into the void not knowing what might happen. I chose not to prepare beyond what I believed I needed to prepare for. When it hit the fan, I was ill prepared and ill equipped. Was it having a baby that tipped me over the edge? Yes, but could I have avoided some basic mistakes? Absolutely!
Look if you're reading this, the horse may have bolted! And now you're playing catch up! Managing your health and wellbeing must be part of everyday life. A healthy, confident father understands his role and recognises the impact his decisions can have on the future of his partnership and children. But he also accepts that he cannot do it alone and pushing on through gritted teeth is not a long-term solution. As a society we must get better at protecting mum and dad. Ultimately their partnership is under scrutiny from the moment baby arrives and supporting the family unit from day one must be our priority to ensure both mums and dads are not lost to the battle with PND.
Without better education and advancement in the protection of new families you're facing an uphill battle. That said how you approach the early days will play a pivotal role in how you grow together and how you both thrive in your roles as parents. Empathy and active listening will play a big part. She will want to be heard and you need to be heard!
In 2023 it can't be acceptable for you to face this alone. We must bang the drum of the needs of a father and the importance of his role. Yes, it starts at home, yes, you're responsible for how you adapt to this exciting new challenge but your employer, your community, society in general, legislation and your partner must position themselves to support you as you embrace this new challenge.
I respect everything you do for your family, and I understand the pressure you're under. I'm here to tell you that pushing on with no concern for your health and wellbeing will catch you out. If it does it'll take you at the knees and before you know it your whole world will be spinning out of control. Take it from me, interrupt the cycle and start to make subtle changes that protect your mental health. You will feel the benefits. They will see them.
Aidan, Founder of TMFC
Join the community putting fathers first and become a free member.