Sad Dad: New Interest in Paternal Postpartum Depression and Why It's a Good Thing

06/16/2010 02:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

About a month ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study investigating the incidence of paternal postpartum depression. Although the study describes the data as "emerging" and the literature on paternal postpartum depression "currently inconsistent," interest in today's "sad dad" seems to be growing. Overall, this is a good thing. Interest in paternal postpartum depression speaks to a wider range of experiences that fabricate the modern family. Respectively, getting to know the "sad dad" deepens our understanding of the psychosocial issues parents confront without necessarily minimizing the seriousness of postpartum depression in mothers, as detractors of research like this might suggest.

It's true that since its inception, postpartum depression has always been a hard topic for our culture to digest. As Americans, our gut instinct is to protect the notion of the perfect family, even if we know it is a myth. First identified in the 1950s, postpartum depression, or the so-called "baby blues" was associated with "neurotic" housewives and the psychoanalysts who studied them. The Women's Movement of 1970s brought an increased interest in the study of mothering, and over the next two decades, when public anxiety about the breakdown of the family mounted, research into postpartum depression grew at an unprecedented rate. In 1994, the condition was officially added to the (DSM-IV). The new millennium saw postpartum depression grow into a high profile public concern. From the 2001 Andrea Yates case to the 2005 feud between Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields, postpartum depression drew media attention and became fodder for debate. Over the past five years, as understanding of the modern family is shifting, public sentiment towards postpartum depression may have taken a more empathetic turn. According to the JAMA's recent report, it is "well established that maternal prenatal and postpartum depression is prevalent and has negative personal, family, and child developmental outcomes."

Now, a study at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia suggests that one in ten new fathers will experience a form of postpartum depression after the birth of a child. This rate, 10%, is more than twice the rate of depression in the general male population (4.8%). Higher rates of depression were reported in the three to six month postpartum period, when sleep deprivation, isolation from friends, anxiety over new expenses are competing with the thrills of baby bliss.

Not surprisingly, the highest incidence of postpartum depression in new fathers is found in cases where new mothers also experience postpartum depression. As feminists, it's tempting to let reports like this rub us the wrong way. But we need not take this as an indictment suggesting the sanctity of a family's mental health rests on mom's shoulders. Studies like this one point us in the direction of an inclusive family model - one that recognizes a variety of experiences for each member. Moreover, studies like this can help women and men alike recognize risks and take additional steps to prepare for the mental, emotional, and existential changes that come with the birth of a child.

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