Today alone, over 11,000 children will be born in the United States, and more than half of these infants will be to first-time parents. For the fathers, co-parents, and partners, a new infant will invariably provide challenges and adjustments to their roles, but most won’t have to struggle with the above questions and see the mother of their infant fall into a significant depression or other mood and anxiety disorder. However, each day, for over 2,000 new families, the fathers and partners will struggle with the above questions—that’s because Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADS) are very common, impacting about 1 in 5 mothers.
I’ve heard some variation of the above questions from hundreds of fathers and partners that I’ve worked with, individually and in groups. These fathers and partners have themselves struggled and experienced significant pain, and feelings of hopelessness as they try and understand their partners’ illness and how to best support them. Below are a few tips distilled from research and my clinical experiences to help partners support moms suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Choose Showing Love Over Tough Love
One of the most common things I hear from fathers and partners is that they feel the need or pressure to “fix” their wives by pushing them into more direct childcare, breastfeeding, work, social activities, or intimacy so that their “lives can start to go back to “normal.” Alternatively, many fathers also wind up trying to help their wives “see the positives,” “relax,” or “be happy” in hopes it will help lift them from their depression or anxiety. A few of the men I work with call this the “tough love” approach — they know it’s pushy and uncomfortable for their wives, but they think it’s “good for them.” Rarely does this approach work to achieve anything aside from increasing the mom’s self-criticism, anxiety, and pain.
A much more fruitful way to help your partner when she struggles with her PMAD, is to cut out the ‘tough’ part and just show love. How do you show love to your wife at this time when she has very little love or affection for herself? The first step is realizing you can’t fix her feelings — they are the result of a complex biochemical and psychological disorder that requires expert help and support. Once you have freed yourself from that unrealistic responsibility, you can start to see her feelings as indicators of what she needs. If your wife is constantly talking or thinking about how bad a mom or partner she is, how she is unlovable,how she’s ruining this baby’s life, and/or how much the baby doesn’t love her, she is telling you she needs more encouragement and love. Tell her you love her. Tell her the baby loves her. Tell her you will get through this together. Tell her how happy and confident you feel about her as a mother and co-parent when she is able to play, laugh, sing, or engage with your child, even when she knows she is having a hard time. The more love and positive recognition you give her, the harder it will be for her to maintain her negative views of herself.
Get Your Own Therapy and Support
A lot of partners I work with want me to lie to them. They want me to tell them that though the traumatic pregnancy, difficult delivery, new routine/roles, biochemical changes, relationship conflicts, sleep deprivation, and pressure to be a good parent resulted in anxiety and depression for their wives, they are somehow immune. This is the lie of Patriarchy and traditional manhood beliefs — that men, and fathers, are somehow tougher, more stoic, and invulnerable to emotional pain. The reality is that fathers and partners are humans too and that they struggle with their own PMADS. Up to 25% of new fathers report experiencing symptoms that meet a clinical diagnosis for depression in the first year of fatherhood. Among fathers whose wives are struggling with postpartum depression, 50% will develop a depressive disorder. Among parents struggling with anxious and obsessional thoughts, 45% of fathers reported intrusive thoughts about their babies suffocating or dying of SIDS and 25% reported fears that they would intentionally harm their baby. Sadly only a handful of these men and fathers will seek any sort of diagnosis or treatment.
Many fathers I work with have no idea that multiple biochemical, emotional, developmental, and situational risk factors for depression and anxiety are introduced when the baby arrives. (For more details about these changes and risk factors check out my article here). They also tend to underestimate how much they have relied on their spouses for emotional needs and support — and how confused, angry, and guilty they feel now that it is clear that their wives cannot provide that support. There is no way a father or partner who cares about their wife and child, who is shouldering all of these new responsibilities and pressures, who is sleep-deprived and trying to help a person struggling with a PMAD, will not need some form of expert, professional help. Trying to muscle through all of this alone, and becoming more angry, demoralized, distanced, resentful, sad, fatigued, or worried will only cause more pain and harm to your partner, child, family, and yourself. The strongest action a father or partner can take to help their wife/partner and children is to reach out for support and care for themselves by starting individual or group counseling and/or therapy. Stop believing the lie and start helping yourself and your family.
Resist Personalizing Irritability and Criticism
When your wife or partner is in the thick of her depression or anxiety she is being bombarded with really mean, critical thoughts about herself. Here’s a sample of the loud, intrusive, painful music often playing constantly in the minds of folks struggling with a PMAD: “I’m incompetent. I’m not good or fit to be a parent. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to screw up this kid and family. I’m a horrible partner and wife and a horrible mother.” Not the catchiest songs, eh? However, these negative self-thoughts and fantasies are very powerful and persistent and when they become too overwhelming to a new mom they can start to leak out. If you have ever experienced your wife explode in anger or frustration, hurling variations of these thoughts at you (e.g. “You’re incompetent. Why do you always ask me for help and not know what you’re doing? You’re a horrible partner…”), then you have witnessed what it’s often like when these thoughts leak out.
The technical term for this is called “projection” — under stress, we all throw out what we can’t tolerate about our own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors onto someone else. The problem occurs when the target of our projections believes they are a true reflection of reality. Too many fathers I have worked with discuss how they have gotten into knock-down, drag-out fights with their wives or partners because they took these projections as realistic, unfair criticisms. They personalized their wives’ irritability, anger, and criticism.
Want to help your wife when she’s going through this? Keep in mind that irritability is common with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety, and that she’s likely very overwhelmed and projecting those emotions onto you so that you can understand how she feels. Reflecting back how angry and upset she is can be helpful. Telling her that you want to understand her and support her but that you are unable to do that while being yelled at or told hurtful things is even better. There’s a good chance she doesn’t understand how she is coming across because she is so overwhelmed — it might also be helpful to slow things down when you first start to detect irritability and hostility and ask her how she thinks she is coming across and then share your experience respectfully.
While no one can “fix” your wife or partner, there’s a lot of things you can take care of in her environment that will bring immediate relief and likely increase the speed at which she recovers. Want to know something you can do tonight to reduce her anxiety or depression? Take the night shift for childcare. Consistent research shows that new moms who have a minimum of 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep recover more quickly from anxiety and depressive disorders than others. That’s because 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep is the minimum requirement to complete a full sleep cycle and restore homeostasis and optimal functioning to our bodies and minds.
If you have the night shifts covered consider also increasing your direct childcare or household cleaning/upkeep activities whether on your own or with the help of a nanny, doula, housekeeper, night nurse, etc. to take more pressure off of her. There’s a 99% chance that your wife is worrying or feeling guilty/demoralized about everything she can’t seem to do or accomplish already. You can help her worry less by letting her know that all she has to worry about is getting better and attending therapy. You can assure her that you can keep the home and family environment safe, secure, clean, and organized.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful to you as you search for ways to support your wife and family. However, many fathers and partners may notice that they are drinking much more, working endless hours, very irritable, withdrawn, angry, resentful of their wives or babies, numb, persistently fatigued, nauseous, and/or constantly thinking or worrying about their baby’s or partners’ well-being, which are all signs of a depression or anxiety disorder – and require clinical intervention from a professional. If you think this sounds like you, don’t hesitate to reach out for help so you can help your wife and family.
Dr. Chuck Schaeffer is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 10 years of experience helping parents, professionals, and couples to overcome reproductive challenges including insomnia, miscarriage & loss, postpartum anxiety and depression.
Dr. Schaeffer is a published author and clinical faculty at New York University, whose clinical expertise in anxiety, fatherhood, and strength focused psychology has been featured in Psychology Today, Postpartum Support International, Huffington Post, Deloitte, Vice News, and Mom.me. He has empowered hundreds of clients in his private practice in the East and West Village, NY and around the world, gaining a reputation for drawing out the best potential in people and organizations through his warm, genuine, insightful, solution focused style. Dr. Schaeffer trained and served as a clinician at Mount Sinai Medical School, NYU, William Alanson White Institute, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs while completing his Ph.D. at New York University. He currently serves as a clinical consultant to various reproductive health organizations including the Seleni Institute, Huddle, and the Motherhood Center of NY.
To learn more about Dr. Schaefer visit: https://www.drchuckschaeffer.com/
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to find out if it is in fact PPD. Women can feel better with therapy, medication, and -- in more acute situations – participating is a partial hospitalization program. To schedule an evaluation with one of our clinicians at The Motherhood Center today to find out – call 212-335-0034. We are here to help!