By David Levine, as told to Jennifer Clopton
When my first child, our son Zachary, was born in 2013, I was as in the dark about postpartum depression in men as anyone else.
As a pediatrician, I had been trained to look for signs of postpartum depression in moms – not dads. Like most people (including most of my colleagues), I didn’t realize that men could experience postpartum depression, too.
Until I experienced it myself.
On the first day of his life, Zachary was crying so much and seemed so uncomfortable and unhappy, I said to my son’s doctor, “I think something is wrong with him.” I remember her smiling kindly at me and saying, “David, there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just one day old.”
My struggles really started showing themselves the 2nd week of my son’s life, when I was home for two weeks of parental leave. Truthfully, that is when I started to not like my baby. He cried….a lot. And I just couldn’t calm him down. I felt like he cried more with me than he did with my wife and then I started getting the thought that there was something wrong with him.
Then I worried there was something wrong with me. One time I got so frustrated I laid him down on his back on a play mat and I felt that I might have put him down too hard. His head moved in a particular way and I thought, “Oh my God. Did I just shake him?” I hadn’t, but I wasn’t seeing things clearly.
When I went back to work, I started making snide comments about how difficult he was. When I would come home and hold him, he would start crying and I would hand him right back to my wife and say mean things like, “He’s going to screw up our lives.” It sounds so harsh to say now, but at the time, I didn’t want anything to do with him.
It never crossed my mind that I needed help, even when I started to have occasional homicidal and suicidal thoughts. More than once, my mind would play out a graphic story about something happening to Zachary while I was in charge of him and then because of that, I had to do something to myself.
I was terribly sleep deprived too because I was taking a large part of the overnight shift at home so my wife could get some sleep. Then I’d get up early and head to work for a long day taking care of other people’s children, comparing them to my own and becoming more convinced that something was wrong with my child. I’d come home and the more he cried around me, the more I thought he hated me and the more flustered and aggressive I would get, both verbally and physically – like trying to shove a bottle into his mouth when he wouldn’t take it.
Finally, one day I just couldn’t keep it to myself anymore and I blurted out to my wife how sad and mad I was. She had known I wasn’t happy but had no idea how tangled my thoughts had become. But she never once got mad at me. I just remember her saying, “We need to get you help. You need to talk with someone.”
I searched online for postpartum depression in dads, and I found an article or two. But there wasn’t much about it at the time. Still, when I went looking for a counselor to talk with, I chose one that specialized in postpartum depression. When I met her I said, “I feel like this is what I have. Is that possible?” And much to my surprise, she said yes.
My internist started me on an antidepressant, which I took for a short time and I started cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). That involved three months of counseling, writing down my thoughts, and talking through my feelings to alleviate my fears. At the same time, my wife and I got a temporary night nurse to help us sleep train our boy and allow us to catch up on our sleep.
Then Zachary hit the 3-month-mark, when babies just naturally start to sleep better and become more playful and smiley - around the time I was scheduled to take another month off of work. That combination of events no doubt deepened my connection with my boy and calmed my concerns. I’m not going to say I was perfect after that – I would still sometimes flare up with anger or frustration – but I no longer thought anything was wrong with him.
I wasn’t fully better and back to feeling like myself until about 6 months later. Eventually, I became a more confident father and the remnants of fear, anxiety and depression slowly disappeared. When he turned 2, I remember feeling so blessed by this incredible kid I loved so much and wondering how I had felt so miserable for so long.
Then, we had our second child in 2017, and it happened again.
We got a night nurse from the start so I wasn’t as sleep deprived when my daughter was born. Even so, after a few weeks, I started to get angry again. And this time, it wasn’t just at my daughter, but at my wife. I started to act really cruel to her - not talking to her, pulling away if she tried to touch me. I knew it was the depression talking but I still couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t wait so long to reach out to tell my wife that I needed help the second time. I sought out the help of a counselor much quicker too, and I pulled out of the depression faster the second time around.
Today my daughter is 18 months old and my son is 5.5, and I no longer suffer from any sort of depression. I have two great kids, and I have wonderful relationships with both of them. I’m now the father I want to be, and I believe this experience has made me a better pediatrician too.
Now I screen every single parent that comes into my office with a newborn, no matter their gender or how they became parents. I also screen using an official depression scale now, and I’m on a mission to get more pediatricians to do the same. We’re the only doctors who see both parents during this critical post-delivery time, and while we can’t medically manage adults, we can certainly refer them to professionals who can give them the help they so desperately need.
In fact, in the last 18 months or so, in addition to identifying postpartum depression in some of my female patients, my screenings have turned up 3 fathers going through it too. One told me, "I didn’t give birth to this baby. I haven’t earned this feeling." We got that father into counseling right away, and today he’s doing better.
It is so hard and brave to speak up and say you don’t feel worthy of your feelings. I feel very strongly that when it comes to mental health, sometimes you need someone in a power position to say to you, “It’s okay to feel this way. There’s no shame in this and there shouldn’t be a stigma.” So now, I look at every new parent and say – you may have postpartum depression and it’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad parent and men – it doesn’t make you any less of a man or a father.
I’ve come to see that postpartum depression isn’t just about hormones. It’s a reaction to a huge life change, a major transition in your identity, life, family, environment, schedule and sleep patterns – that’s a great deal of stress for anyone. So today I’m committed to getting the word out that postpartum depression in men is a real thing. New fathers and mothers don’t need to be ashamed if it happens to them or their partner. It’s only a problem if you don’t speak up and if you don’t get help.
And yet, so many times people have asked me, “Aren’t you worried how your children will feel if they hear this story someday?” My wife and I have thought about this a lot and we have decided we hope our children feel proud. We will work hard to make sure they realize the power their story has had on the world. I will tell my amazing children that I got sick when they were babies because I wasn’t prepared for all that is involved with becoming a parent – and that I worked really hard to take care of myself so I could take care of them. And I will make sure they know they have been my inspiration, every step of the way.
David Levine, MD, has been a practicing pediatrician for 13 years. He is currently with the Summit Medical Group in Westfield, NJ. He also sits on the board of Postpartum Support International, a non-profit focused on promoting awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental health issues related to childbearing. The group says paternal postpartum depression affects 10% of new dads (and 50% of dads in families where the mothers are depressed).