I don’t want to be writing this.
Even now, sitting here happy, relaxed and contented, I don’t want to be writing about this.
With distance, clarity and healing, I don’t want to be writing about this.
Which is exactly why I need to be writing about this.
Because there are thousands upon thousands of fellow dads out there who, just like me, suffered, or are suffering, from post-natal depression, silencing themselves with a gag of shame, confusion and emasculation, feeling that they are alone, feeling that there are no answers, feeling that they are abnormal.
When my son was born, I was absolutely elated. Like every child, he was a beautiful gift, a beautiful gift that gave me a sense of fullness, happiness and completeness that is impossible to put into words.
The first time I looked into his piercing little midnight-blue eyes, I wept with joy. I couldn’t wait to bring our daughter to meet him, to show him off to friends and family, to do all the daddy duties for him that I’d done for our daughter when she was a newborn infant. Being away from him, having to stop holding him, was an emotional wrench every time I left the hospital.
However, within a couple of weeks of him coming home, everything turned upside down.
The elation, happiness and euphoria of just a few days ago began to have a shadow cast over them. That shadow grew and grew, getting thicker and murkier, until it hung its cloak over everything I could see, clouding my perception like cataracts.
An unheralded sorrow, deep and unyielding, settled within me; I developed an inability to be happy.
It came from nowhere. I hadn’t felt overwhelmed, irritated nor had I felt any more tired than a new dad would expect to feel. I didn’t go through a graduated process of misery; there was no exponential snowballing of my negative emotions, no seed from which my dissatisfaction germinated. It was just there. A bleak and unwelcome stranger that stood on the threshold of our happy life.
It started out bad and then got worse and worse.
‘It’s just a phase…'
'It’ll soon go away…'
'Pull yourself together…'
'Just wait for things to settle...'
'It’s just because of…’
These were the cognitive pep talks I was having with myself. I tried over and over again in my head to rationalise my sadness, to beat it down with logic and denial, but it was impervious to my reasoning.
Logic and rationality soon became supplanted by a nagging voice of disdain.
‘How can you be sad when you’ve got all this love in your life? Who the hell are you to feel down when you’ve got a son you love with all your heart? What would people say if they knew that you’re collapsing in on yourself when there’s nothing wrong with your life? You’re weak. You’re pathetic. You can’t cope.’
I felt ashamed that I couldn’t be happy even though I loved my son and would have done anything for him. What had our sweet little boy done to deserve a broken father incapable of happiness? Why didn’t I feel happy? What was wrong with me? Why can’t my love pull me from this quagmire of grief? The guilt of feeling this way was a weight that threatened to crush me. I didn’t want to speak to anyone about it. I didn’t want to admit that I was depressed. That I felt alone. That I felt anxious. That I felt that I was failing my wife and children. Man up. Man up. Man up.
That expression was the single most dangerous one that stalked the corridors of my mind.
Being a man means bottling up your feelings. Being a man means you internalise your grief. Being a man means you don’t talk about your emotions. At least that was the social law that the world had convinced me of.
But bottling things up meant I was pushing myself to a breaking point, alienating myself and convincing myself that I was not just a terrible father, but a terrible person. Internalising my grief only mutated it into anger, anxiety and frustration. Not talking about my emotions was making me feel like my decline was irreversible and that nobody could help, or even cared.
At this point, to any dad anywhere, I would say that you have to know that it is okay not to be okay, that masculinity is a social construct that acts as a straitjacket on a man’s mental health, and that there is always help, there is always understanding, and you are absolutely not alone.
One evening I got wound up to the point that I wanted to scream. I left the flat without telling my wife and walked and walked and walked until I found myself in the middle of the desert.
I sat in the sand and cried alone in the darkness. I resolved then and there that I would tell my wife everything because it couldn’t possibly be worse than what I was already going through.
We stayed up late, talked, cried, hugged, cried some more, and contrary to the perception that I’d be viewed as an ungrateful, immoral wretch, my wife listened and understood. It took more balls to talk to my wife and ‘confess’ than it did to bottle all of that bile up. It made me more of a man, a better husband, a better father, not less of one, that I opened up and confronted my problems. But I didn’t realise that until this moment. Because I had been conditioned to believe the opposite, by a world that can be cruel and unforgiving when pre-packaging its notions of masculinity.
Again, know that it is okay not to be okay. Know that not only is it okay, but that the statistical likelihood of suffering depression in your first year as a father doubles. Know that not only are you more prone to mental health issues but that there are genuine biological reasons for you feeling like this, due to hormonal inconsistencies that occur in fathers when their children are born.
Know that whilst you might feel abnormal, confused and alienated, between 10-20% of your fellow dads are going through exactly what you are going through (and that is only representative of those who report depression because men frequently ignore and dismiss depression due to the stigmatising of male mental health).
You are not alone. Know that the biggest killer of men under 40 in the UK is suicide, and the root cause of this is often undiagnosed mental health problems such as depression because men don’t feel they can talk or find help.
But they can. Know that depression is not only detectable but in many cases easily treatable, especially if you empower yourself to recognise the warning signs rather than entering into the trap of deluding yourself that you are ‘manning up’ by ignoring them.
If I had tried to carry on conforming to an out-dated, stereotyped notion of what a man should be, I don’t know where I would be now. If I had carried on performing a masquerade of strength by internalising my emotions, I’d have weakened myself to the point of psychological destruction.
If I’d have carried on listening to the voices of reproach and self-loathing that were a product of what I thought a dad should feel like rather than talking and listening to my wife and GP, I’d have driven myself mad.
I became a real man and a real dad the moment that I decided to take control of my life back, which just so happened to be the very same moment that I decided to take a course of action that contradicted so many widely accepted social norms about masculinity. I became a man when I had the balls to be honest, to talk, to be real because what I had been before that was a pale imitation of a man, a pale imitation of a father, a pale imitation of me.
For me, all it took was talking, opening up to my parents and sister, more exercise and my wife and I making a conscious effort to make time for each other. Everyone I spoke to understood me, supported me and got me back on my feet. My energy returned; my positivity came back; my ability to see life’s joys and beauties returned. I was able to be the kind of dad for my son and daughter that they deserve. My depression was ultimately short-lived, but its intensity made it feel like it had stretched over years rather than a few weeks.
With this article, I am breaking my final taboo. I have never spoken to friends and colleagues about the things I have discussed here for fear of judgement or being stigmatised as unstable. But this just highlights how ridiculous it is for society to condition dads to feel this paralysis of expression; in the 36 years of my life I have suffered mental health problems for 0.16% of it, and yet I was still worried about being typecast due to ignorant attitudes towards mental health and my own conditioned sense of what it was and was not okay for men/dads to talk about.
That, and not you, or me, is the real problem.
I know that shaking off post-natal depression might take more than exercise and talking to your family and that every dad’s battle will be different, so I’ve posted some links below that I hope will help anyone who ever feels like they need it.
Richard Malpass is a British dad of two living in the Middle East. He’s an English teacher by profession and in his spare time writes about football, movies and parenting for NewsHub and Daddy’s Digest, as well as taking and selling travel photographs. Twitter: @richymalpass