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Dads get postpartum depression, too

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

An exhausted father holds his baby who yawns but won't sleep

You spend months preparing to become a dad. You and your partner eat right, go to birth classes together, shrink-wrap your home for safety, and buy all the things. Then the baby arrives, and you fall instantly in love. Your child smiles and giggles at everything you say, and they sleep through the night surprisingly soon.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? The truth is, reality looks very different for many new dads. They often find themselves feeling confused, left out, and maybe even depressed.

Nate Evans Jr., an author and motivational speaker, knew parenthood wouldn’t be easy—but he wasn’t quite prepared for the degree of difficulty. After the birth of his first child, Evans struggled in silence to bond with the baby in a meaningful way. Then, one night when his son was three months old, Evans couldn’t take the stress anymore. He was rocking his son gently on their living room couch when the baby started to cry…and cry…and cry.

“I tried everything,” says Evans. “I soothed him, tried to feed him, tried to change him, but nothing was working. Then my wife came over, picked him up, and he stopped crying immediately.” Frustrated and defeated, Evans broke down in tears that also wouldn’t stop. “I felt helpless as a man and as a father,” he says.

What paternal perinatal depression looks like

What Evans didn’t realize at the time was that he was experiencing paternal perinatal depression (PPND), a major depressive disorder that affects 10% to 25% of new fathers, usually between the first trimester of pregnancy and the end of the baby’s first year (the rate peaks during three to six months after birth).1

Will Courtenay, PhD, a psychotherapist and author who specializes in working with men and boys across the lifespan, says PPND can be difficult to spot. “When we think of someone who’s depressed, we usually picture someone sad and crying. But depression in men doesn’t always look that way,” says Courtenay. While some men exhibit the classic signs of depression, many don’t. “Depression in men can look like irritability and anger, working constantly, withdrawing from others, or drinking or gambling too much,” he explains.

Evans credits his wife with recognizing the change in his behavior. “I knew I was feeling depressed. I had a lack of energy, I couldn’t focus, and I just felt this disconnect from how I thought I should be or would be feeling,” he says. But the red flag for his wife was the fact that Evans had become withdrawn. “She knows I’m not a quiet type of guy, but I was quiet for months. She knew something was wrong.”

Evans says he’d felt disconnected from the baby from the start, but he tried to push past it. “There were some beautiful moments, and I was super excited to have our son—but I was also sluggish and feeling like I wasn’t myself,” he says. So Evans took to the internet and discovered he was experiencing symptoms of PPND.

PPND can be hard to recognize because sometimes it looks like recklessness. Men with depression might engage in “impulsiveness and risk-taking, like reckless driving, extramarital sex, or increased substance use,” says Courtenay. They may also use avoidant coping strategies, like denial and distraction, in managing their depression. Depression can also be challenging to see because men are conditioned to hide it, Courtenay says.

Evans says he hid his feelings from his wife for months out of concern for her. “I didn’t want to bring that burden,” he says. “Her whole world had changed. She was going through hormonal changes, body changes, and trying to adjust to being a new mom. I was supposed to show up every day for my family and provide.” But when he finally told her how much he was struggling, she was supportive and understanding.

How PPND connects to postpartum depression

When we think about postpartum depression (PPD), we tend to associate it with the person who gives birth. But depression around a new baby can happen to either partner (or both). Courtenay notes that men whose partners have PPD are much more likely to develop PPND themselves.2

PPD and PPND reflect changes happening in the body. We know that a pregnant person’s hormones go through major swings, but so do men’s hormones—both during their partner’s pregnancy and after the baby is born. “It’s a double whammy,” Courtenay explains. “Not only do men’s testosterone levels decrease, but their estrogen levels increase.”

On the same night he couldn’t comfort his son, Evans felt out of sync with himself. “I’m pretty stoic,” he says. “Nothing really bothers me, but I couldn’t control my emotions in that moment. The tears were just coming and wouldn’t stop.”

How to recognize and solve for PPND risk factors

As with other types of depression, there’s no way to know for sure if you’ll develop PPND, but Courtenay’s research has uncovered some risk factors. “Men who’ve experienced the loss of loved ones, either recent or while growing up, are at increased risk,” he says. “These old losses can be stirred up after a new child arrives on the scene.”

Men who feel pushed aside in some way by their partner are also vulnerable. “Many men feel excluded from the intense relationship between the mother and child, and they feel like they’re just on the sidelines,” says Courtenay. “A lot of men feel like, yes, I’ve gained a baby, but I’ve lost a partner who’s got a new job that demands her attention 24/7.”

Evans recalls feeling like he’d failed in some way because his wife was able to calm their son when he wasn’t. It seemed to him like they had a tighter bond.

According to Courtenay, one in three new dads feels shut out from the relationship between his partner and baby, and over half of new dads report that they feel like their spouses or partners don’t love them as much as they did before the baby arrived. Whether they’re actually being pushed to the side or just perceiving a shift in attention, these dads are at greater risk for PPND.

Finally, says Courtenay, the well-documented link between poor sleep and PPD also applies to PPND.3 “When normal, healthy adults are deprived of good sleep for one month, they begin to develop clinical signs of depression,” he says. “A sick, colicky, or premature baby is a risk factor for PPND because of the infant’s impact on parents’ sleep.”

To mitigate this risk, Courtenay explains, one of the best steps you can take to prevent postpartum depression for both partners is to work out a solid sleep schedule. Keep in mind that ensuring you’re as rested as possible may take a bigger support system than just the two of you.

Build a support network

Once Evans understood what he’d been feeling and named it as PPND, he realized not many men were talking about this important issue—so he turned to TikTok. Evans’ videos show him rocking his son softly while he addresses new dads directly, reminding them they’re not alone, urging them to get help, and disclosing his own struggles.

These efforts have been well received. “I get a ton of messages from guys telling me they appreciate the videos and they’re feeling those same things,” Evans says.

Connecting with others is another key way for new parents to protect themselves from postpartum depression, says Courtenay: “If a dad and his partner don’t have a social support system, they should work on building that before the little one arrives.” Group therapy is a great way to meet people who can relate to what you’re going through. There may be a therapist near you who runs group sessions for new dads, and nationwide organizations like City Dads Group also work to bring fathers together for support.

If groups aren’t your thing, you may want to try individual therapy. Meeting regularly with his therapist has helped Evans understand what was happening in the months after his son’s birth, and she continues to support his healing. “I had a session with my therapist just last night,” Evans says during our interview in May. “She helped me name some things and understand where these feelings are coming from.”

To connect with a licensed therapist in your area, visit our directory.

Open up to your partner

One of the most important sources of support available to a dad is his partner. “If there are any relationship or communication issues, you should see a couples therapist before the baby comes,” says Courtenay.

Evans’ state of mind began to change once he and his wife started working together to address what each of them needed. “We sat down and came up with a schedule that worked better for both of us,” he says. They split shifts sleeping, take turns with the baby so the other can have a break, and work as a team to be healthier, well-rested parents. After only a few months of this more balanced approach, Evans has been able to connect with his son in a whole new way.

Release yourself from guilt

Evans has been speaking to first-generation college students and other vulnerable populations for years, and he now includes new dads among his target audiences. His message is simple: Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling—and, most important, don’t feel bad about it.

“Release yourself from the guilt of getting this wrong or doing something wrong or feeling depressed,” Evans says. “Release yourself from that burden and know that you don’t have to be perfect to be a good father. I love my son and I was depressed, and that’s okay.”

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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