Overview for New Dads
Stress generally manifests in our lives in the form of fight, flight, or freeze. This is especially true for new dads/partners, and especially right now during a pandemic. (See also Justin's video 3 Surprising Signs of Depression in New Dads.)
Fight. Sometimes the stress of pregnancy, uncertainty, and new parenthood can come out in expressions of anger (either verbal or physical). When this happens, you may think to yourself, “This is not me; this is not who I am,” but stress is powerful and can bring out a side of you that is not comfortable or constructive.
Anger is oftentimes a manifestation of more vulnerable feelings like fear and sadness. In our society, men are typically taught not to show these harder-to-communicate emotions, and may end up concealing them with anger or even rage.
Finding ways to healthily redirect this is important.
Flight. Dealing with the stress of parenthood can also cause you to turn to flight mechanisms, such as escaping into video games, binging TV shows, or overworking and finding reasons to stay late. Distraction is fine, and can sometimes be healing—but if you’re doing it to the point that people are telling you to engage more, you may have an issue with emotionally “flying.”
Freeze. Freezing can just feel like you are zoning out—for instance, when you’re reading the same paragraph over and over again and just feeling unable to function.
How to Help
Breathing, meditation, and relaxation. The fight, flight, and freeze reactions can all be toned down through meditation, muscle relaxing, and breathing. It helps if you can find even five minutes a day to focus on each of your different muscle groups. On the physical level, you can also coax your body into relaxing by taking longer exhales than inhales: breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of eight. For something a little more advanced, deep diaphragmatic breathing can help refocus your attention to the present moment.
Sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene is also extremely important in mitigating stress. That means things like avoiding screens one to two hours before bed and getting enough uninterrupted sleep. The latter can be difficult with a newborn, so taking turns with your partner can help make sure both people stay emotionally hydrated.
Steering clear of perfectionism. It’s easy to let the myth of perfectionism dominate our psyches, but understanding that you will sometimes fall short—as a parent and as a human—is crucial. It’s also important to teach our kids that they aren’t perfect. This latter bit can be especially challenging for dads who may not have had role models for self-compassion growing up and are now having to learn a brand-new skill without their own childhood to build on.
Understanding shame and how you react to it. According to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Parenting can bring about feelings of inadequacy, which can in turn trigger shame. To help avoid a shame spiral and fight off irrational feelings that you are not competent as a parent, take care to counter shame with self-compassion. This is especially true if you’re a new parent and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
Overview for New Moms (and sometimes Dads too)
Baby blues vs. PMADS. The “baby blues” are a common postpartum experience, but if negative feelings are affecting you for more than a few weeks, it may be time for a mental health and hygiene check-up. Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) can start during pregnancy (as often as 50 percent of the time, in fact). They’re not just about being sad, and they don’t only affect mothers. While about one in five moms experience PMADs, the pandemic has led to increased levels of these disorders in new moms as well as dads.
PMADs can affect your mood, behavior, decision-making, and self-esteem. More specifically, that might mean feeling hopeless/helpless, being unable to make decisions, catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, changes in appetite, wanting to disappear, losing your identity, and/or feeling like “you’ve made a mistake.” In turn, this anxiety can lead to physical manifestations such as being afraid to hold your baby. Fortunately, there’s plenty of support out there to help you combat the symptoms of PMADs and get back on your feet.
NOTE: Among other programs, The Motherhood Center has a daily program for moms to come and get help. This includes partner support groups for folks helping their partners navigate PMADs.
PSP also has a number of articles about PMADs to help you through the complexity of parenthood and mental health.
When new mothers need mothering. New moms might be experiencing a shift between what Paige calls “the Pregnant Princess and Postpartum Pauper.” While pregnant, expectant moms tend to be the center of attention, and comments such as, “Wow, you’re showing,” “You must be carrying a boy,” etc., can make moms-to-be feel “seen.” Postpartum, though, that attention gets swiftly diverted to the new baby. Because of this, new parents may feel “less than.” This dynamic is less relevant during the pandemic, since there are fewer occasions for expectant moms (and dads) to interact with people and talk about the pregnancy. However, this can also feel like a different kind of loss to a mom whose whole pregnancy has been experienced through Zoom, where friends, family, and coworkers likely didn’t even have a view of her growing belly.
Groundhog Day. A new baby might bring about a feeling of “groundhog day,”—as in the 1993 movie when Bill Murray wakes up to the exact same day over and over again. The first six weeks or so can create a recurring, monotonous cycle of “feed, change, nap, feed, change, nap,” leaving parents feeling emotionally spent and irritable.
Supporting Your Partner for Dads/Partners
What might dads/partners be feeling? You may feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells, worried that what you say may lead to miscommunication or a spiral of negativity. You might be overwhelmed by the added pressure or feel that every conversation contains minefields that you’re trying to avoid.
Furthermore, you may be feeling overwhelmed or that this new “parent” life is not what you signed up for. You may be irritated, exhausted, and lost. You may have been expecting a joyful time and thinking that your partner was excited to be a mother, and now be thrown off by seeing them realize the difficulties and realities of that role.
If you’re feeling lost as a dad/partner or don’t know how to support your other half, consider calling the Motherhood Center for support. They can walk you through what you might say to help your partner.
The Motherhood Center
P (212) 335-0034
F (212) 202-4369
Dealing with resistance. You may be concerned about recommending a support group to your partner in case they fire back with “I don’t have time for that” or “That is just not something I can do now.”
Know that shame and the glamorization of parenthood makes many mothers unwilling to seek help. They’ve been spoon-fed a perception through images and videos of what parenthood should be—and those portrayals often tell us that a “good mother” doesn’t need help. Struggling moms may be thinking “I’m a failure, everyone is doing this better than I am, I’m embarrassed, I wonder if I made a mistake”—and this tape going through her head is repeating over and over.
Convincing your partner to confront their need for help is a delicate conversation. You can start by stating how hard it is at this time with a new baby, how the pandemic increases stress levels, and how not being able to see friends and family is really tough. You can add that they’re not alone, that you can both get support right now, and that working toward better mental health is a gift to the baby. Consider asking questions that help reduce the shame and guilt your partner might be feeling, like “Wouldn't it be nice to not feel so alone?” and “Wouldn’t it be great to feel better?”
Be careful, though, as men are sometimes socialized to try to “fix it.” With mental health in the picture, that strategy may just make things worse.
You can also model vulnerability for your partner by saying things like “I’m struggling too—this is hard for me.” It’s a matter of meeting someone where they are, validating their vulnerabilities, and finding points of connection.
Understand the idea of “both/and.” You can be and feel more than just one thing at once. For example, you can be excited about your new baby at the same time as you’re mourning the loss of your old life. Establishing the reality and validity of “both/and” can lay the groundwork for a new mom to feel heard.
By the way, “maternal instinct” has been disproven. Just because someone becomes a mother doesn’t mean that their special motherly instincts will magically appear. Those feelings and abilities may take weeks and months to develop. While books and media will tell you that new mothers are supposed to be blissfully happy, knowing that that’s not a given can help normalize negative emotions your partner may be having.
Point out the little things. Sharing praise like “You’re doing a great job—look at how well you can [change a diaper, figure out what’s making the baby cry, get all the snaps lined up on that onesie]” can be a much-needed self-esteem booster for a frazzled new mom.
Supporting Yourself as a Dad/Partner
Share with others. Acknowledge feelings like “I miss being more important” or “I miss my old life,” and allow yourself to ask “How do I get time for me?” It’s also important to be able to bring up any shame you’re experiencing around those feelings.This may mean seeking out other dads and support people who may not be your partner, especially if you are walking on eggshells already.
In particular, as a dad, you may be feeling stereotypical “man of the house” pressures. Thinking through life insurance, saving for college, car payments, and work security (especially if your partner is taking unpaid family leave), can all make dads/partners feel heaps of extra pressure above and beyond general baby care. Sharing those feelings and pressures by connecting with others can make them feel less scary.
Understand “both/and” for yourself. You can be happy about a new baby while also being sad that you’re selling your motorcycle. You can be excited about the next stage of your journey but still be mourning the loss of “the two of us” that was your former life. There’s no right way to feel about becoming a dad; it’s got its challenging moments and its blissful ones (and everything in between), and accepting that will help you roll with the ups and downs of parenthood.
Consider discussing love languages with your partner. Love languages refer to what types of things you most value from your partner: Maybe receiving flowers is important to one person, while spending quality time together is more important to the other. Once the baby arrives, what you need from your partner—and what your partner needs from you—may change. You or your partner may need more acts of service (do the dishes, take care of dinner, etc.) than other types of things (gifts, physical touch) than before. Since a new mom is constantly in contact with the baby, they might not have as much of a need for physical touch as before, but that might be replaced with a desire for words of affirmation.
QUESTION: “Can you share some techniques to help reduce a mother's mental load? I'm finding it difficult to do this consistently and successfully. We've tried shared task lists, but that only lasts about a week every time.”
ANSWER: It may help to understand maternal gatekeeping: Some moms may have an attitude of “I’m happy to have you do it as long as you do it MY way.” It can be tough for a new mom to give up control to her partner, and she may think “It’s just easier to do this myself.” Try validating your partner’s feelings while reminding your partner that your way works for you and won’t hurt anything—in fact, you can become an expert at your own way of doing things, and that can make your parenting teamwork all the better.
Radical acceptance—the idea that you can accept things as they are without resistance, instead of fighting for them to be different—can also help here. Rather than either partner feeling “less than” because you are not perfect, radical acceptance is about controlling what you can and letting go of what you can’t.
QUESTION: “My wife encourages me to share how I'm feeling, but I don't feel comfortable complaining about my issues, because from my perspective, they pale in comparison to what she's dealing with. How can I approach this better?”
ANSWER: Just because you have issues related to being a dad as opposed to being a mom doesn’t mean that your issues are not important. Dads typically come in with different experiences than moms do, as moms are more likely to have had experience with kids for the bulk of their life. Because of how we're socialized, the learning curve is very different for men vs. women—for instance, many guys hold a baby for the first time when it’s theirs. The fact is that most fathers of young children today are NOT fathering the same way their parents did. Having compassion (which literally means “to suffer with”) is helpful for both parents to connect with each other, and if you hide or suppress your feelings, that will only lessen your relationship with your partner. Also remember that this is not a competition about whose complaints are most valid.
Being a parent comes with plenty of new responsibilities, emotions, and changes. The PSP Dads group is a great support network to help you navigate the ups and downs of this journey. The monthly Dad 411 meetings are a perfect setting to share your joys, fears, and challenges (check the PSP Calendar for the next meeting!). Knowing you’re not alone goes a long way in building the resilience needed to tackle all that life has to offer. Knowing when to ask for help is also important. The Motherhood Center is available as well as Justin Lioi to help lighten the load.
In response to the question, “What is the one thing you’d like to get out of this event,” one person said, “A sense that I am not alone in the way that I am feeling.” By the end of the PSP Mental Health Check-In for Dads/Partners, a participant said: “It’s so nice to hear that other people are going through similar situations. This really spoke to me. Thank you!” You’re welcome—and we’re always here for you.
The Postpartum Husband: Practical Solutions for living with Postpartum Depression
This book walks you through what to be on the lookout for when it comes to PMADs.
Postpartum Support International
HelpLine: As always, the HelpLine is open, and available for calls from moms, dads, and families, or anyone who may be looking for resources to help a loved one.
Call 1-800-944-4773 (4PPD), English and Español
Text a Message: 800-944-4773 (English) or 971-420-0294 ( Español)
It’s Not About the Nail
A video to remind you that it’s not always about fixing things.
Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)
This book lays out a strategy for dividing up tasks between a household.
About The Motherhood Center
The Motherhood Center provides supportive services for new and expecting moms, including a range of treatment options for women experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), often referred to as postpartum depression (PPD).
Whether you are looking for a support group for new mothers, individual therapy, or a day program for moderate to severe PMADs, The Motherhood Center offers something to every woman making the transition to parenthood.