The irony of a room full of men who hadn’t had sex in months surrounded by women whose boobs had never been bigger was not lost on me. However, something happened in that first ante natal session which was a source of amusement at the time but has shaped my experience of early fatherhood.
The staggeringly attractive midwife (by this time lamp posts were starting to look attractive) began the session by suggesting we ‘go round the room’ so everyone could introduce themselves. With that in mind I rehearsed my answer. The ladies introduced themselves and talked about birth plans, worries and hopes for the future. The men weren’t asked to contribute.
According to a recent study more than two men in ten suffer from post natal depression. The study, conducted by Eastern Virginia Medical School, looked at research from 43 countries and concluded that it can affect up to 25 percent of men. Most at risk are those first time dads or those whose wives are suffering.
The media would have us believe that men are succumbing to the combination of tiredness, extra responsibility and a lap full of sick. I think the reason is much simpler than that. Modern man is required to operate in an environment for which he is unprepared, technically or emotionally. As are new mums I hear you cry! But crucially the world of the new parent is still just as unprepared for the intrusion of men.
A friend of mine is a fire fighter, whose wife has a full time job. Due to the nature of his shift pattern and his wife’s working arrangements he spends his four days off with his baby daughter. Where does he take her to spend that quality daddy daughter time? Does he attend the local church playgroup with all the other dads? Does he catch up with his stay at home dad friends over a vanilla latte? No he doesn’t because, whilst nobody says dads can’t go to playgroup, and many do, it just doesn’t really sit right does it? I went once. I’m not sure who felt more uncomfortable me, the regular mums or the toddlers.
There is a chance that the lack of support for new dads is an urban myth, like water retention or Ed Milliband. There is the possibility that my experience was unique and that all the other new dads in my area were practically swimming in organised, professional and informal support which really helped to get them through that first unforgettable, magical time the whole house had stomach flu.
A quick internet search for “support for new dads” reveals a number of articles about post natal depression in men and some self help guides. They all suggest that if men feel a tad grumpy, or want to launch the baby out of a moving car, they should definitely seek help. They don’t suggest where to look.
Unfortunately, we all know men won’t seek any help. We don’t ask for directions, we don’t look at instructions and we certainly don’t go to the doctor, not until we are at least 85 or we can’t sit comfortably to watch antiques road show because we have a prostate the size of a basketball.
And herein lays the real irony. Men are the least likely to seek help or support and yet they have to work hardest to find it. Women are presented with countless opportunities to develop those real, personal support networks that help them through the early years from the moment they are peeing all over their hand in the toilets of a 24hr Tesco whilst reading the instructions on the box.
So how have the early years affected me? Well, I’m a man so clearly I don’t suffer from depression and I don’t know any man that does. It appears however that I have at some point exhibited all the symptoms. I have had moments when I can’t sleep at all or have slept 15 hours. I’ve gone days without really talking to anyone. My children have had to deal with the sharp end of a short temper and a complete lack of joy in any activity involving them. Friends, family and work colleagues have voiced concerns. The manager of my local off licence pokes me on facebook.
In the absence of ready-made support my coping strategies have been many and varied. I exercise, alot! I’ve also been lucky enough to occasionally discuss the stresses and strains with female friends, colleagues and family. I even once tried to talk to a mate. We’d been in the pub all day, I told him I was a crap father, he cried, we’ve never mentioned it since.
I am not suggesting the early years are harder for men than women, far from it. The stress affects everyone. It can ruin lives and destroy families. The key is to have a support network, whether professional or informal, to help you through those difficult times. It won’t guarantee you get through things unscathed but your chances are much better. Women are able to tap into this vital resource, men, on the whole, are not. This distinction was evident right from that first ante natal meeting.
A generation ago my response to the stresses of a baby would be to let my wife deal with it while I spent many hours in the shed with a gallon of home brew some well thumbed pornography and radio 2. The noughties man has to do so much more, to be so much more. To do that, and avoid the destructive power of depression, our support network needs to start keeping pace with us.