For Chris, now 47, perinatal depression became a reality after his partner Suzi discovered she was pregnant with their first child. Here, he shares his story of what it feels like to suffer from perinatal depression and post-natal depression as a father.
I never thought I’d be a parent, and I’d spent a long time by myself prior to meeting my partner, so Oscar was a surprise. My partner didn’t think she was able to get pregnant. She’d done IVF with a previous partner and had multiple attempts that were unsuccessful.
We’d been together a year when we found out that Suz was pregnant. It was such a shock. I really thought that ship had sailed, and she did too. As soon as I knew she was pregnant I was shitting myself!
I can find it difficult to make the simplest decisions, I can be pretty wishy-washy – but there was just no question in my mind. I was going to step up and be a dad, be as supportive as I could, especially knowing how important this was to her.
To be honest, I never really wanted to be a parent. Probably because of my own parents, my own upbringing. It was just never on the cards for me.
I wasn’t a happy kid, didn’t grow up in a happy family, but I had daydreams of ‘When I get older, I’m gonna have this little nuclear family and everyone will be happy’. I think that daydream was, without realising it at the time, ‘This is how I’d do it’.
As my life went on, it didn’t seem like it was going to be reality and I didn’t believe it was something I wanted so… I got a dog. I became a furbaby parent, and the dog changed my life in a way I didn’t think was possible. Pure unconditional love, I felt happiness with the dog and a connection that I hadn’t felt before.
But then with Oscar? There’s a new sense of purpose when you become a parent, it broadens your scope. It’s such deep, deep love. Even though it was something I never thought I wanted, I now don’t know what I would have done without Oscar, and without my partner – just the way they have changed my life.
The cycle of life
My Dad was diagnosed with brain cancer in January 2018, he had Stage 4 Glioblastoma with a prognosis of less than 12 months to live. Then in April I found out that we were pregnant.
Dealing with dad dying and the fact we were about to have a baby was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I didn’t cope well with the situation, but I did the best I could with the tools I had at the time.
What my partner had looked forward to her whole life was happening – but not in the way that she wanted, and definitely not in the way that I wanted. It was an extremely difficult time that I’m not sure I’ll ever come to terms with.
I hadn’t always had the best relationship with my dad, throughout my life. But he’s still my dad and no-one wants to get that kind of news.
I felt that I had more than I could deal with, Dad’s diagnosis and then pregnancy on top. It was absolutely traumatic – but it’s amazing what people can go through and come out on the other side. It was not a happy time though.
Because of the glioblastoma my dad had an acquired brain injury, and he changed. Parts of his personality were intensified and he struggled with emotional regulation, but he was still my Dad.
We told him that we were pregnant and I could see the joy in his face. I’ll forever cherish that memory.
He was the only person we shared our baby’s name with. I knew we were having a boy, and Dad was the only person that knew that we were going to call him Oscar – even though he forgot that we told him.
There was something special about visiting Dad with Suz – this beautiful, glowing pregnant woman, full of new life, her presence in this space of someone dying.
There are the ways that you want things to be, and then there’s the reality. Dad passed away in September and then Oscar was born at the end of November, so bub never got to meet Dad. I can’t do anything about that, and there will always be that sadness.
My little boy can put a smile on anyone’s face, and granddad would have loved him.
You’d better not faint
I was still grieving my Dad when we had Oscar, still in that acute phase of grief. There was so much to organise with the funeral, Dad’s estate, trying to support others… and then having our baby as well.
Even though it’s mum giving birth, both of our lives changed forever in that moment that he came out.
When we first arrived at hospital, one of the staff said to me “You’d better not faint on me.” That’s such a challenging thing to say to men: You can rephrase it as “If you feel unwell, sit on the floor.” You’re in a heightened state during the birth and so intensely aware of what people are saying to you. Language is so key.
These medical professionals did a wonderful job, they were great – but my core memory of Oscar’s birth was feeling excluded and frustrated.
When bub was born, it was two and a half hours before I even touched him. I still feel traumatised by that. I was watching this student midwife holding Oscar up and going “Ohhh, aren’t you beautiful?” She got to cuddle and play with my kid before I did, and she didn’t even think to include me.
As a nurse I knew what was happening wasn’t all clinical, but my only focus during the birth was making sure Suz and Oscar were okay.
I still wonder how long it would have taken for them to include me if I didn’t say something? I was patient, but I was also scared. I’m a nurse, but I know nothing about birth.
I’ve never wanted to take my top off in front of a room of people but I wish I could go back, have those first moments of skin-to-skin contact with my baby.
A team effort
When Suz became pregnant and when Dad got sick, that strengthened our relationship. Going into it Suz and I both had a history of mental health issues. We received great mental health support all the way through pregnancy and after the birth because our care team knew about it. We even got an extended stay in hospital after the birth, but I know that’s not possible for everyone.
Just the fact you recognise it and you’re talking about it. Being able to check in with each other, just ask simple questions like “Are you okay?” Allowing that to be part of the conversation, instead of thinking ‘I’ve gotta suck it up and keep going’. You can’t look after someone else if you’re not okay.
When I was daydreaming of happy families as a kid, I didn’t yet know that my mum had died by suicide when I was little. I knew she’d died but only found out the rest when I was a teenager. Because that was part of my story, it was on my radar. Going into the perinatal period knowing that suicide was part of the landscape, terrified I might lose Suzi too – that gave me more tools and awareness.
We had pre-emptive conversations. We had our toolkit, based on how we’d each managed our mental health up until that point. It felt reassuring to know that if this or that happens, we’ve got a bit of a plan.
You also need to keep track of your own relationship with each other, because when bub comes you think, ‘This is our responsibility now. This is our number one job’. It’s important to maintain your relationship as partners, lovers and friends, even if it’s an hour here and there together. Just recognising each other as individuals rather than mum and dad, keeping exploring and building your relationship with one another.
I’ve focused more on addressing my mental health issues since Oscar has come along. It’s such a positive, I’m doing things with him in mind now, to be the best sort of role model, and dad, and friend that I can be.
I haven’t always done the best job of looking after myself. In the early stages I would drink, but that was absolutely not helpful.
Looking back, I feel like that was actually quite selfish. Everyone needs a release and drinking a few beers was like a reward, thinking my partner would be fine looking after bub.
It’s not just the time you spend drinking though. It’s also the way you pull up in the morning, needing time to recover. You have impaired judgement as soon as you’ve consumed alcohol, so that puts extra stress on your partner too, even if they don’t say anything about it.
It wasn’t the best way to manage, and I wish I hadn’t done it. If I could change something, it would be that. I just needed to find different ways to have a release.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
I play music, so taking time to myself is important. It does take some organising and negotiation. You’ve got to take it in turns with that kind of thing. Especially in that early stage when looking after a baby is a constant thing, a 24/7 job.
It’s saying “I’m gonna take some time now, for myself.” Even if that’s taking the dog for a walk for half an hour, or just having a nap when you need it.
Time away, quiet time to allow yourself to think and reflect. But self-care is also enjoying your new baby, having time with your family, for me it was also just watching my partner be such an awesome parent. No-one tells you how to do it, but she seemed to have a natural thing with bub.
Finding my way as a father
When Oscar was born I was lucky enough to be able to take my long service leave, so I got to spend the first three months with him. I never regret taking that time.
I made the decision as a dad that in the early years, I wanted to be around him as much as possible. Not every day is great, kids can be tricky. There are days that I don’t enjoy and I think ‘Why aren’t I at work?’ But I made the decision, work less and be at home with Oscar as much as I could. Get as much of the early years as possible, probably because of my own experience growing up.
It’s not all work – seeing this new life and being able to interact. The first smile, the first laugh… the bond is there, but for dads I think the bond strengthens once they start to show a bit of personality.
In the early days I was still in support mode. I trusted my partner’s decision-making, and I saw my job as supporting her while she cared for Oscar. I had so many worries, not knowing what the future was like.
The first few months were absolutely terrifying, I was in protective mode. But then came tentative steps of family life.
I wanted to do it differently. That’s the best thing that I’ve done, been here for those early years. People like care providers and friends from work have said it makes a huge difference later on, but the fact I can be present for as much time as I can now? I know it will make an impact on our relationship later.
We make other sacrifices financially, because I’m not earning a full-time wage. But I love being able to work part-time and spend as much time as I can with my kid.
You’ve got to make the time to spend with your baby. You can’t force magical things to happen in a half hour period. Parenthood can be quite boring, the monotony of the routine, but in the middle of all that something magical happens.
All you need to do is be present, and then unexpected magical things can happen. I was lucky enough to get the first laugh – I’d never felt like that. I can’t explain what that feels like. You’ve just got to be present for those moments to show themselves. You’ve got to be vulnerable, let go of the masculine stuff, and redefine fatherhood for yourself.
Being able to play, to use your imagination and enter your baby’s world, see it from their perspective. It takes work to be present, but it’s totally worth it.
Having dad and son bath time when Oscar was little was great. We were terrified at first of getting him in, thinking we might drop him, or not holding his neck. I’ve always loved to bathe and play in the water with him. Until babies can communicate it’s that skin contact that connects you.
I’d also sing to him, so he could feel the vibrations of my voice. I’d hum and I could see from his little facial expressions that he enjoyed it. Music has always been a great love of mine. I’ve tried to plant those seeds early with Oscar to get him interested in music, just dancing around the kitchen with a little bub in your arms.
When Oscar started on solid foods, the fact that I cooked the first meal that he ate? That felt amazing. Every passing day, your confidence grows a bit. You just need to put one foot in front of the other, keep on practicing until you feel it’s something that you’ve got under your belt.
I just feel that I’ve been blessed with such a beautiful human that surprises me every day. Oscar is so loving, so intelligent. He’s got a wicked sense of humor. And I’m a proud dad.
In the first year we rang Parent Helpline lots of times just for reassurance. That was a great resource to have, really practical. You get to know your child health nurse, they’ll always offer advice.
In terms of other clinical support that we had, there was one night when I was working in emergency at the hospital. Suz rang up and said, “There’s something wrong, I can’t settle him”.
I could feel that something was really wrong, and my first instinct was to go to the boss and say “I’ve gotta go home, I need to go”. Then the boss reminded me that I worked in acute care, said “I think it’s probably a better idea to bring the baby into the emergency department.”
When your bub is unwell you can try to reason, but it’s really overwhelming when it happens. You don’t know how worried you can get until your bub gets sick or has a spew beyond the usual, like bringing up a bit of milk. That’s when support from your partner and your network brings you through it. Over time you develop a different sort of confidence and perspective as a dad, and your capacity to deal with things increases.
A place at the table
After talking to other dads, I think there could be a lot of work done to involve men in the process of having a baby. Thinking back to the mental health support we received during our pregnancy, the guy wasn’t talking to me, it was about Suz. I try to rationalise that by thinking ‘Well, she’s the one giving birth, and it’s my job to support her’. But I really needed support too, I needed someone to ask me how I was doing.
I wrote a letter to the hospital just to give them feedback. I would encourage everyone to do this.
I included positives as well; we were so thankful for their care. When Suz was actually giving birth, there were probably five midwives in the room, and I love that! There’s is a birth happening, let’s just jump in and see if we can help and see what we can do.
But I did express my feelings around not being included, and having to ask to be included. That’s something that I’ve heard from so many of my male friends. I think there’s possibly a belief that men don’t want to be involved, or that it’s just women’s business, but it’s not. We’re involved and interested dads that really want to be included.
It’s so scary being a new parent – but it’s great being able to talk to people that have been through it, like family and friends. To hear that you’re doing okay, being able to bounce your ideas, worries and fears off people. I loved having that reassurance and hearing stories of what other parents went through.
Asking for help
I think maybe it’s a male pride thing, but you just can’t solve all your problems by yourself. You’ve got to reach out, especially when you feel like you’re both struggling.
You need to ask for help, and you need to trust others.
Even if reaching out means asking someone to come and look after the baby for an hour or so, just so you can have a break either with your partner or someone else. You need to be able to lean on people.
If someone offers to cook a meal for you, take them up on it. If someone offers to babysit for an hour, even if you don’t feel like you need it, time out is essential. It gives you a chance to talk about stuff with your partner without a screaming baby.
Know who and what you can rely on, just so you don’t have to think. Your brains are mush because of sleep deprivation, and you’re on the clock 24/7 in those early days. It’s good to get ahead of it, have a support plan and stop things from reaching crisis point.
There’s overwhelmed like ‘This is wild, how are we actually doing this?’ And then there’s overwhelmed, ‘I feel like I can’t do this’. I felt overwhelmed so many times, but the best thing to come out of the worst situation that I could have imagined was having this beautiful little boy that has changed my life. I don’t have words for the joy that Oscar has brought me. He’s taught me to be more patient. He’s taught me to be more loving, more honest, more open, more present.
I can’t imagine life without Oscar. Whereas before, I couldn’t imagine life with a kid. It’s changed me as a person. It’s been healing, and it’s given me perspective on some of the difficult times in my own childhood. Parenthood gives you a new lease on life, but also a different understanding them support, and then we put tasks in place for ourselves to focus on and distract us from worries.
PANDA offers Australia’s only free Perinatal Mental Health Helpline, community and health professionals learning hub and helpful resources translated into 40 languages. Contact the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 Mon to Sat, 9am – 7.30pm AEST/AEDT, including public holidays