Twenty five years ago I began to notice a change in my husband. It was the last trimester of our first pregnancy and, instead of this joyful time bringing us closer as I’d anticipated, my husband started to become withdrawn instead. I was confused. And then distressed to discover that it was distance, and not love, that seemed to be growing between us.
Thankfully, our baby’s birth was a wondrous experience that bonded us like never before. I left the hospital feeling confident that we’d turned a corner – until 10 minutes later when we had our first meltdown as new parents in the parking lot. And it was downhill from there.
So, of course we did what most people do when they’re unhappy after their first baby – we had another one. And then later, a third. Becoming parents again gave us ample opportunities for “do overs”. We were able to heal past hurts and work towards creating the family we’d envisioned for ourselves.
By this time, I’d also studied psychology, qualified as a relationship counsellor and started working intimately with couples. After getting the history of their relationship, one of the first questions a counsellor or therapist asks a couple is this: “when did things start to change between you”? By far most of my clients said it was when they had their first baby.
I was on a mission. I started researching and was shocked to find a whopping 92% of new parents report increased differences and conflict and 67% report a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first few years as a family. I was shocked but also relieved: this meant that my husband and I (and also my clients) were normal.
But here’s the thing: if mothers and fathers don’t know it’s normal and common to have new relationship issues when they become parents, they can each tend to blame their partner for the issues they’re having. Because each partner is usually trying their damned hardest, problems must be the other partner’s fault. Makes sense right? But this is where frustration and resentment can start to creep in and issues can start to escalate.
And we’re not done yet. There’s a reciprocal relationship between relationship quality and mental health. One large study conducted in Norway found that the number one factor in women’s anxiety during pregnancy is poor relationship quality. Relationship concerns are one of the top factors in depression during pregnancy and in the postpartum period for both mothers and fathers.
And yet, despite decades of research and lengthy government recommendations, relationship preparation for parenthood is not yet a part of standard prenatal preparation. Oh, the irony of this.
June 22nd is International Father’s Mental Health Day. Here’s some of what I’ve learned in over 20 years of working with both fathers and mothers:
- Parents are grossly unprepared for the instantaneous and intense changes they’ll have to learn to navigate as individuals and as a couple – and this impacts on both mothers’ and fathers’ mental health and marriages.
- One in six mothers and one in 10 fathers reportedly suffer from Postnatal Depression. One in three mothers and one in five fathers report suffering from anxiety during pregnancy or the postnatal period – and potentially beyond (most studies stop at the 12 month mark).
- Dads who are stressed during pregnancy are at higher risk for Paternal Postnatal Depression after the baby comes. Most dads are stressed about finances, taking time off work, new limits to lifestyles and how their partner is going to cope.
- The lowest point for dads is around 3-6 months postnatally, when they’re suffering from the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation, lack of self-care, reduced outlets for stress relief and socialising and at the same time expecting life to get back to normal – and it doesn’t. Couples need to learn how to create the new normal that’s unique to their family.
- Many men don’t feel that they can burden their partner or share these feelings with friends, aware that they’re not having to change and go through as much as the primary carer. They want to be the “rock”, but this has consequences for their own mental health.
- Paternal Postnatal Depression can be easy to overlook. Signs include men being moody, irritable and withdrawn, which can be true for any sleep deprived parent.
- Fathers becoming moody, irritable, and withdrawn at a time when a new mother needs more practical and emotional support from her partner can have a devastating impact. One study found that where a partner is unable to be supportive, 85% of mothers find little purpose or sense of meaning in their mothering role. This is likely to affect a mothers’ parenting confidence, self-esteem, and her relationship with both her partner and their baby.
- When a mother is suffering from postnatal depression, a father is 50% more at risk and yet we don’t screen fathers. This means that even if the mother gets help, her partner is still suffering. This can undermine her individual recovery and continue to negatively impact the whole family. Partners can get into a negative spiral and keep each other stuck.
- If the couple don’t get help, undiagnosed depression or anxiety in one or both parents is likely to lead to increased conflict, emotional distance, increased mental health issues in both parents – and potentially to the end of their relationship.
This is all hard to think about, I know. But what’s even harder to think about is that most of these problems were identified decades ago and yet little has changed for parents today. Parents need preparation and support now, more than ever before.
For all these reasons and more, we need to start taking a “whole family” approach to parenthood. We need to start preparing both mothers and fathers, both as individuals and as a couple, for the very real life changes and new relationship challenges of parenthood. We need to give parents the awareness, skills, resources and support to cope. We need to link expecting and new mothers and fathers into support systems before families start to flail. We need to start considering the mental, emotional and relationship wellbeing of the whole family, so mothers and fathers are equipped to actually create the family they dreamed about in the first place.