Helping new dads to cope when baby makes three
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
The birth of a new baby is usually thought of as a time of happiness and excitement.
Most couples look forward to becoming parents, and think that a new baby will bring them closer. This does happen for a lucky few couples, but most find having a new baby challenges them in ways they never knew it would.
Looking after a new baby is demanding. There is a lot of uncertainty and many sleepless nights. It’s a physically and emotionally draining time, and many couples argue more than they ever have before. It’s a tough time that’s made even tougher when one half of the couple works away.
Recently I’ve spoken with a few new dads who work away, and I’ve been reminded how hard being a new dad is, especially when you work FIFO.
Pressures during pregnancy
I actually think FIFO dads start doing it tough during their partner’s pregnancy.
Obviously, dads don’t go through all of the physical changes of pregnancy, and it’s very common for dads to feel a bit disconnected from the whole pregnancy process. This is made worse when they work away and miss out on the day-to-day changes that pregnancy brings, and on the various appointments along the way.
For many couples, pregnancy is the first time that they really experience the FIFO lifestyle as being tricky. Many men say they feel torn between wanting to be there for their partner every step of the way, and wanting to bring in the money for the family.
Pressure on the dad to bring in the money for the family often starts in pregnancy, and then increases over the first few years of having children.
Before children, women often contribute to the household finances at similar rates to men, and men contribute to the household chores at similar rates to women. But all this changes around the birth of the first child, when most couples in Australia shift to more ‘traditional’ roles for at least a few months.
And baby makes ... financial stress
This means that women tend to stay home and do more of the household tasks (as well as most of the child care) and men tend to take on responsibility for earning the money. Most men I’ve spoken to feel pressure to earn a good income very strongly at this time of their life. It’s a source of major stress for many men, especially if they don’t particularly like their job.
Added to the financial stress is the pressure on dads to be heavily involved with household tasks and raising children. This too is relatively new, and many dads today can remember their own fathers (who might never have changed a nappy and almost certainly didn’t cook family meals). While I definitely agree that men should help out with these tasks, I also think that’s it’s tough on new dads who feel the squeeze between the demands of work and home.
Men are often confused about what their role ‘should be’ and they often feel like they’re not getting it quite right either at work or home.
It’s probably not surprising then, that more and more men are being diagnosed with postnatal depression. This might seem a bit strange, because obviously men don’t experience the physical and hormonal changes of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
But having a baby is a big adjustment and it’s estimated that about 10 per cent of men experience significant levels of anxiety and depression as they struggle with their new role.
As well as the usual signs of depression and anxiety, here is some of what I’d expect to see in men who are struggling with early parenthood:
- Frequently wondering if you should have had kids.
- Not enjoying time with the family.
- Not wanting to help out at all with the baby (and feeling quite annoyed at being expected to).
- Dreading going home to your family, either after a day at work, or a swing away if you work away.
- Thinking a lot about 'how life used to be' and sadness about what you’ve 'lost'.
- A 'heavy body' with lack of energy.
- A sense of anger or resentment that’s present most days.
- A short fuse.
- Sleeping difficulties (and not just because of the baby waking).
- Drinking more alcohol than usual.
- Feeling lonely and isolated, and not necessarily just when you’re alone.
- Feeling disconnected or detached from your partner.
What you can do
- Get a handle on your thinking and STOP dwelling on how things used to be. Things won’t ever be the same, that’s true, but life will return to some kind of normality.
- When you’re home, spend time with the baby even if you don’t’ feel like it. It’s not unusual for dads (and mums) to take time to start to love, or even like, their baby. Forcing yourself to spend time just being with the baby, and looking at him or her, will help you feel more connected in time.
- Talk to other dads. You’ll find that many have been through what you’re going through. Their words of wisdom might help, and you’ll probably feel less alone.
- Tell your partner that you’re finding things tough. Chances are, she is too. Having a conversation about what you’re finding toughest won’t make everything better, but it’s better than just snapping at each other without knowing why.
- Remember that you and your partner are in this together and you’re both want the same things (a happy, healthy family). You’re a team, and both of you have an important role to play.
- To counteract resentment, give your partner the benefit of the doubt. It’s likely that she is doing the very best she can.
- COOL DOWN YOUR CONFLICTS. Work hard to let go of the small issues and keep working on the loving connection with your partner. You’re both stressed and tired, and this is not the time to deal with the big issues.
- Think about the sort of family you’d like to have, and create new family rituals. Some of these can revolve around you working away, for example, having a particular family dinner on the first night you’re home.
- Enlist practical help around the house. If possible, pay someone to do some of the jobs that create stress for you and your partner, like the cleaning or mowing the lawn. Some FIFO families I know enlist the help of family (or even a 'night nanny') for a night here and there so you and your partner can both catch up on sleep.
- While you’re away, don’t disconnect. Keep in touch with your partner, friends and other family with phone and Skype, even if you don’t feel like it. Keeping connected will help you feel better over time.
- Find time to have some fun with your partner when you’re home. Get out of the house and do something active.
- Look after yourself physically. Exercise when you can, eat healthily, drink plenty of water and take a multivitamin.
Many men will find that they start to feel like their old self by the time baby is a few months old with these few simple tips. However, some don’t. If you continue to feel stressed and unhappy, or unusually grumpy and tired, please consider having a chat with your GP. It’s possible that you’ll benefit from some medication and or/counselling.
For more information on postnatal depression in men, have a look at:
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.