Becoming a Father during lock-down and Postnatal Depression
Ever since around 17-years of age I’ve suffered from some form of mental health issue at various stages of becoming a man, mainly anxiety, which I am certain was linked to quite a troubled upbringing in the North East of England.
An aggressive, adulterating father, who worked away most of the time, resulted in my parents divorcing when I was 7. My brother and I were then brought up singlehandedly by a soon-to-become-alcoholic mother. We had no one, apart from our grandparents, who we saw once a month.
A blistering career in aviation commenced in my early 20s and, against all the odds of my upbringing, I have a job and income that I should be immensely proud of, although I am often met with my own thoughts of “imposter syndrome”, which comes and goes as much as confidence ebbs and flows.
I’m 34 now and over the years my anxiety has also come and gone in its various forms, often self-medicated with alcohol, learned from those around me in my youth as a coping mechanism.
I remember being in my 20s and trying to get to the bottom of this monkey on my shoulder, which could distribute the most intense panic attacks at any moment. It was a real stigma back then in the so-called “noughties” and I would have been hugely embarrassed for any of my friends to find out I was suffering.
However, I always thought at various stages of my life that my mental health issues would be cured by a big change — getting on the career ladder, meeting the girl I loved, buying our first house, and most recently, having a baby.
On each occasion, I have applied immense pressure to ensure each event is life-changing, but each time the pleasure has been short-lived and replaced with feelings of not deserving the good things in life.
Anyway, in February 2020 I was excited to find out my partner was pregnant, although was immediately anxious for what lay ahead, knowing my life would never be the same again.
Within 2 weeks we were on holiday in Vienna and we had the time of our lives, enjoying each other’s company and talking about our future with a new human.
I spent my birthday in Vienna and this was also the day the world changed completely. Covid-19 had become very real for Europe and we were informed by the airline that we must return on an earlier flight.
Not a great one for dealing with worldwide disasters, my anxiety was increasing by the day as we were told by the government what was to come.
The pandemic resulted in redundancies at the airline I work for, which fortunately didn’t include me, although everyone would have to accept a salary cut for the foreseeable future. Prams and cots were out of the picture for a while!
This all sent me into a bit of a mental health black hole and by the end of March, I was drinking quite heavily to try and cope with everything that was going on, including knowing our baby was coming into this new, crazy world.
I stopped for a long time after this, although the remainder of the pregnancy was a struggle for both of us, as I was not allowed into any of the baby scans, which was very upsetting for my partner and I.
My partner went into labour in early October 2020 and on the 6th of the month, I took her to the Royal Derby Hospital to be assessed. Again, I wasn’t allowed into the Hospital. This was it, though! This was my baby being born! And I wasn’t even allowed in the building!
I was sent home until the baby was really close and after about 1 hour’s sleep, at 1 am, I received a phone call from my partner to come to the hospital ASAP.
After an unsuccessful water birth attempt, we were taken into an adjacent room where stirrups (a device used to hold up the legs) were successfully applied and Olive was born just after 6 am on 7th October 2020.
Half an hour later my partner became very pale and unwell and, after realising she was losing a lot of blood, the Midwife called for the Emergency Response Team and within less than one minute around twelve doctors and nurses charged into the room and applied some form of an emergency operation to prevent further blood loss.
I remember when it had all calmed down that I was overcome with emotion and went out of the room to call my mother in tears. In all the emotion I had pulled my mask down and was quickly approached by the receptionist to pull my mask back up. Covid-19 never escaped even the most emotional of moments.
Three days in the hospital for my partner and a new baby followed while they were both monitored, and I was allocated a one-hour slot per day to visit.
Getting them home was a relief, but within days the feelings of elation were being replaced with feelings of my life being over, being trapped because now I have a dependent child, worrying about how I can support this person for the rest of my life. What if I don’t love her? What if she doesn’t love me?
Coupled with concerns about the pandemic, these were overlaid with thoughts about my own mortality. When will I die?
What my partner and I soon also realised is that we had very different ideas of how we will bring this baby up. Nearly a year later we still do, she insists on constantly holding the baby and won’t even put her in the cot, which is very frustrating for me but I feel like I don’t have any say in the matter being the Dad.
The intimacy in our relationship immediately ceased after having a baby, which is understandable for many reasons, but it has yet to return a year later.
I am not ashamed to say this but after having Olive my mental health dropped to the lowest it had been for many years and all of a sudden it wasn’t just anxiety about work deadlines or a social situation I was unsure about.
This was depression. This was Postnatal Depression (PND). Something I never thought happened to men. And something I certainly never thought would happen to me, as although my anxiety is always there, I am generally a positive, happy person.
I remember vividly waking up one morning and just feeling like I couldn’t cope with the day ahead. It might seem a stupid idea to some, but I thought reaching out to my friends on our WhatsApp group might lighten me up. This did in fact turn out to be a stupid idea, as I was told in a roundabout way to “man up” and “get yourself on MumsNet”. Interestingly, away from the toxic masculinity of the group, within a few minutes, one or two of them sent me private messages offering support.
My PND affected our relationship, and it was only right that I spoke to my GP about the situation. After speaking with him I was assigned a counsellor for weekly talking therapy sessions, which I must say I did not feel helped very much and while I am aware that many people can be helped by antidepressant medications, I have not wanted to try them myself.
It is also very important for me to note that probably the biggest challenge of this whole period has been trying to juggle managing 18 engineers from a remote work-station in my kitchen diner, with a baby in close proximity. It simply does not go hand in hand and there have been a few times I have had to leave the house for a few hours or even a couple of days to ensure I stay on top of my work.
Now, a year after the birth of Olive, things feel a bit more in control in my life. The ending of lockdown has allowed my partner and I to get out together on the odd occasion, to see live music or have a meal and that has improved our relationship.
I have also increased my exercising, the most natural anti-depressant in my opinion, and this culminated in completing a 26-mile hike for Macmillan Cancer Support, as well as the Great North Run for Mind, raising money for some very important charities in my life.
My salary has also finally returned to normal, and we are returning to Vienna in December to complete the holiday that was cut short at the start of this entire whirlwind of an era in all our lives.
I do feel there should be a lot more support available for new dads and I know there are a number of organisations putting steps in place to make this happen, which I am trying to be involved in as much as possible.
Mental health issues, particularly in men, are no longer the stigma they were. Back in my youth, it was as if they had a similar reputation as AIDS had many years ago. Whether it is anxiety or postnatal depression you suffer from, it is important to remember it’s ok to not be ok and seek help from your GP or another medical professional.
If you have enjoyed this blog, do not miss the full 10-part series that will explore aspects of modern-day fatherhood, men’s mental health, and the science behind it — running through to the 19th of November — which is also International Men’s Day UK.
As part of this series, please find our already published blogs including:
A blog written by Arran Williams where he discusses the emotional impact his partner’s two traumatic birth experiences had on him.
A blog written by Clinical Psychologist, Jane Iles, in response to Arran’s blog, where Jane explores the impact traumatic births can have on fathers’ mental health from a clinical point of view.
Every Wednesday we will publish a lived-experience piece from one of the fathers who have contributed to the recently published book DAD or the Music. Football. Fatherhood. (MFF) online platform, an online community of Fathers. This will be followed on the Thursday by a scientific piece from one of our contributing scientists exploring the associated mental health aspects. Tomorrow, Dr Vaheshta Sethna, will publish her blog which follows on from Joe’s blog where she will discuss her research looking at postnatal depression in men.
We hope you enjoy this ITM special series as we shine a spotlight on men’s mental health and fatherhood.