Men and their postpartum depressions

January 7, 2010

In an article last month in the New York Times (http://tiny.cc/oq6vn) Richard Friedman, M.D. wrote about male post partum depression.  While up to 80% of women experience post-baby blues, with 10% becoming clinically depressed at this developmental juncture, it turns out that this too affects men. 

Research is scant, suggesting that maybe four percent of men become clinically depressed (to a level that could even include suicidal feelings of despair), and yet most men beset by post-baby blues have never heard about them (at least for men).  Friedman speculates that there could be a biological underpinning (or is it over-pining?) to male post-partum melancholy, since testosterone levels may drop in men during their partners’ pregnancies to help them be less aggressive and bond with the baby when it arrives; yet low testosterone has also been linked with depression in middle-aged men.

From a more purely psychological perspective, few men tend to stop and ponder where they were when they were newly born and how this might affect their emotions when a child shows up and unconsciously takes dad back to where he can’t consciously remember.  For example, if a man was given up for adoption at birth, but stays to parent his own child (particularly if it is a son), he is asked to give what he did not get from day one of his kids life—and that while coping with sleep deprivation and a partner who is only twenty percent likely to not be feeling at least a little blue.

Finally, when most of us think of depression we think sadness, but in males it often shows up as irritability and anger.  Any light bulbs going off here?  And if you tell an irritable and angry guy that he’s depressed, needs therapy or some meds, he’s often going to only get more angry (because he feels ashamed, and feels that you’re saying everything is his fault).  It’s probably easier to walk on hot coals than eggshells when it comes to the ginger issue of helping depressed men heal, however, greater consciousness can be a first step toward enhanced compassion, trust, communication and healing.

While a baby can bring about depression, so can the ending of anything big.  It’s classic for people to feel empty and depressed when they finish their dissertation, or a big project.  It is particularly unsettling for us to anticipate feelings of freedom and completion, only to be plunged into confusing despair.  And for any artists reading this, the maturation of an artist includes coming into greater comfort with the birth-like cycle of creation:  lying fallow, conception, gestation, labor and delivery… and the emptiness of lying fallow once again.  It’s the mature artist that learns to trust that the fallow period is natural and quietly melancholic, not pathologically stuck or a mark of everything being over forever.

I imagine that parents who have a lot of children are not only more seasoned in soothing newborns, but in navigating the mournful waters of post-partum experience.  Unconscious parents might be more at risk, say like Tiger Woods, of taking all their feelings of hurt and confusion and trying to drink, screw or spend them into oblivion; this is never a good plan if one’s goal is good feelings that last.

Children challenge any couple to rethink life as a family and not just a dyad.  Sometimes the best way to help our partners heal is to heal ourselves first (i.e. it’s that Tom Sawyer approach to behavioral change—if you want the gang to paint the fence, you better make it look pretty damned fun).

So, let’s dedicate today to getting happier (or at least more compassionately cognizant of our sadness—from mild to deep), but in the service of our partners, our kids and all our collective children (as in the end our partners, parents, bosses and random strangers all turn out to be our collective kids and our kindred spirits).

Namaste, Bruce

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ambrosia January 7, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I can see this. Research also suggests that a man’s sexual drive may decrease after the birth.

What I gleaned from this was the importance in recognizing the father’s role and emotions in the aftermath of a newborn baby. The mother is not the only player because it requires sacrifice from both partners.

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