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Lazy Dad Syndrome or Not? The science of postpartum depression in men

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It recently made headlines that dads can suffer from postpartum depression. Up to 25 percent of new fathers experience symptoms of the disorder, and they are significantly more common when Mom is depressed as well. It’s no news to researchers – the existence of male depression after childbirth has been well documented for years. So why is it so surprising to the rest of us?

The meta-analysis (a review of previous research) looked at 43 studies, pooling 28,004 dads with babies anywhere from the first trimester through the first year of life. Overall, depression struck 10 percent of these dads – more than double the average incidence of depression in men. But the most vulnerable time for fathers was found to be between three and six months after the birth of the child, when one quarter of them met criteria for the disorder.

The attention received by the findings was a relief to some – namely dads who have been suffering in silence or confusion – but the studies were met with some raised eyebrows as well. A man’s body doesn’t go through the physical transformations of pregnancy, the Olympic challenge of childbirth, or the pain and struggle of early breastfeeding. Could it really be that a man falls into depression after his wife gives birth – is that some kind of psychosomatic disorder?

I answered a phone call from a friend while working on this column, and, when I mentioned the topic, she said, “Seriously, is that a real thing? It’s not just lazy dad syndrome?”

It’s a common sentiment, and it points to some misconceptions we have about postpartum depression as a whole. We usually think about the biology of the illness: an off-balance mix of chemicals in the woman’s body. And it’s true: Hormone levels do drop after delivery, and mood changes are so common (80 percent of women are sad and tearful in the first few weeks) that there is no question chemistry plays a role.

But post partum depression is more than just a biological mishap. New motherhood can feel isolating, confusing, and scary – all intensified by chronic sleep deprivation. Having a newborn (and all the life changes that ensue) is by all measures a shock to the mind, not just the body.

So why would we think dads would be immune? Their psychological states hang in the balance too. And fathers often feel their own special blend of angst; many spend the early months in a panic that life is unrecognizable. It can be lonely, especially if mom is exclusively breastfeeding, because dad sometimes doesn’t know where he fits in. And depending on the family arrangement, some feel a lot of financial pressure and responsibility to provide.

In the midst of all this change, if dad has a propensity to cover up his feelings instead of asking for help, or if he has a biological predisposition towards depression or anxiety then, just as for mom, a mental health diagnosis could follow. It’s also possible that dad’s chemistry naturally changes after baby arrives as well – scientists have found that men’s testosterone decreases in the postnatal period (which evolution could favor because it would make Dad less aggressive and more likely to bond).

I asked my husband about his mental state after the birth of our son and was actually surprised at how much he had to say. “It took time to get used to being number three,” he told me. “The two of you were so focused on each other in the beginning that I felt like an outsider.”

But he also talked about feeling like he was watching his old life leave – and mourning its loss. There was a mix of sadness in with the joy and excitement of our new chapter together. According to him, he didn’t want to bring it up at the time because he always felt his experience paled in comparison to what I was going through as a mom. Not wanting to add to the stress, he instead stayed focused on taking care of us as a family.

And, truthfully, had he vocalized what he was feeling at the time, I might not have been the most sympathetic listener. He was right – my son and I were in a bubble in those early months. I still remember the feeling of never-ending responsibility and hard work as a new mom – breastfeeding my son while dripping sweat in the dead of summer or in the middle of the night with my husband fast asleep, never able to feed myself properly, shower, or wear anything but a yoga outfit spotted with baby vomit. All the while I wondered if I’d ever have anything in life that would just be mine again. And I still believe that he, and all men, could never quite understand that experience.

Nonetheless, as much as moms have to deal with, we don’t have an exclusive claim on the ordeals of new parenthood. It could be that dads are less likely to seem sad or burst into tears (the way I did on day 7 of my son’s life when a re-run episode of Friends triggered inexplicable waterworks), but they certainly do struggle in their own way. The more we’re aware of that, the more likely we are to pay attention to and care for the happiness of the family unit – and the couple who got it started.

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