This is the essence of the backlash I got for revealing the suffocating depression I experienced when my first son was born in 1999. I wrote about my emotional plunge last year in a Newsweek essay, as well as in my collection of essays on dadhood, "The 40-Year-Old Version." This week, a major study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) puts a familiar name on my condition -- Post-Partum Depression or, more accurately, Paternal Post-Natal Depression (PPND). I was featured in a Good Morning America segment about it just this morning.
Many men I've spoken to share a similar story of struggling with depression when their children were first born, but they do so secretly, quietly, away from the dinner table. They understand that there's no truly acceptable place or context for men to publicly reveal being challenged -- much less rocked to the core -- by what I call "sudden parenthood."
I think all parenthood is sudden. Watch all the TV, get all the family advice, read all the manuals you want -- there's just no way to prepare for its wrecking-ball effect on life as you knew it. There's also no parental model for dealing with it honestly and openly. In our parent's generation, stoicism was a paternal virtue.
I love my son dearly, but when he was born -- to my eyes, an oozy bundle of constant need -- it felt as if I had traded in my own life in exchange. I expected paternal pride to hit me like a recovered memory, but all I felt was loss. To his parent's eyes, the child never ages, so the loss felt like a permanent condition, eventually mutating into resentment.
My conscious mind knew this to be a very hyperbolic reaction, but most people can't will away depression because depression attacks your will first and ferociously. There's no "manning up"; there's only hanging on.
But hanging on is important, because one of the cures to my depression was time -- time for my body to adjust to the new world order, and time for my children to smile, mature, and begin to exhibit their charming uniqueness.
A psychologist named Dr. Will Courtenay has been researching and treating about PPND for some time; I'm just a guy who got through it. When I reached out to him while writing my essay, he exposed me to an equally comforting and alarming point: I was not alone.
With its report, JAMA is confirming that message. They found prenatal and postpartum depression evident in about 10% of the men they surveyed.
I hope this can be a starting point for discussion of the unique pressures sudden fathers feel. At the end of the day -- and days are never longer than when you're a new parent -- "manning up" should include expressing feelings of vulnerability, depression, and personal need, not just burying them. In my experience, that's the only hope of truly overcoming.
I feel lucky to have children, but with every Father's Day I now feel even more lucky to be a real dad, an authentic-to-me dad. I wish the same for all fathers.
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