How's Your Mental Health?
Dale Kiefer

It’s a common complaint: she has a healthy baby, a loving husband, comfort, security and everything she ever wanted, yet the new mother can’t seem to control her weeping.  Some days she can’t even face getting out of bed.  Feeling guilty, she wonders how she can be so blue when everything is finally going so well.  She should be feeling happier than ever, but she’s tired, listless and emotionally fragile.  She may be anxious, or unable to sleep normally, or even plagued by panic attacks.  Secretly ashamed, she begins to question her fitness for motherhood.

She’s not alone.  And her condition, though alarming, is nothing new.  She is suffering from a distressing but common and generally transient condition known as postpartum depression.  It’s been estimated that as many as 50 to 90 percent of all first time mothers will succumb to this form of depression to some degree.  For most, these “baby blues” mean little more than crying jags, mood swings, or mild lethargy.  Symptoms usually appear during the first week or so after delivery and improve within a few days, although they may recur for up to six weeks.

In a smaller percentage of cases major depression, possibly requiring intervention by a physician, may occur.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, major depression with postpartum onset occurs in eight to 12 percent of women within the first nine weeks postpartum.  Symptoms ranging from insomnia and abnormal eating patterns to suicidal thoughts characterize this less common, more severe form of postpartum depression.  If your spouse experiences this illness, it's nothing to be ashamed of, but it is vital that you consult with her physician.  Drug therapy and/or psychotherapy may be required to return her to health.
Many explanations for the baby blues and true major depression with postpartum onset have been offered.  One theory holds that the wild hormone fluctuations precipitated by pregnancy and delivery play havoc with a woman’s psychological health.  And weaning, which also alters hormone levels, is known to trigger the blues.

As a brand new father, you may also experience similar symptoms of anxiety or the blues.  And adoptive fathers and mothers have also reported experiencing depression on occasion, so it’s likely that there is more to the phenomenon than can be fully explained by hormonal changes in the mother.

Many other possible causes of these blues have been proposed.  Here are just a few:

* A feeling of anticlimax.
After all that preparation, excitement and planning, the big day is now come and gone.

* A shift from the spotlight to the background.
As attention is refocused from the expectant parents to the newborn, you’re no longer the center of attention.

* Exhaustion.
Mothers are unlikely to have a monopoly on this one.  Both parents have been keyed up for days if not weeks.  Likewise, they’re now losing sleep on a regular basis as the newborn demands to be fed at all hours.  Colic, if it occurs, only makes matters worse.

* Feelings of inadequacy.
Most first-time parents worry, at least a little, that they aren’t properly qualified. They worry that they’ll make mistakes, or won’t know what to do.

What can you do to improve your wife’s mood and boost your own?  Let her know that she’s still important to you.  She may feel a little neglected, so go out of your way to show her you care.  Bring her flowers, ask her what you can do to lighten her load, or plan a night away from the baby for just the two of you.

Offer to wake for your fair share of wee-hours feedings.  If your wife is breast-feeding, have her pump and store breast milk for this purpose.  This will only work, of course, with your wife’s cooperation.  She may resist introducing the baby to the bottle too soon.  Don’t force the issue, just be ready to be flexible—good advice in general once you become a dad.

And understand that no new parent feels fully qualified for the job.  The fact that you’re concerned about your parenting skills probably means you’re on the right track and will do fine.  Babies are incredibly resilient and forgiving.  As long as you’re able to provide plenty of love, the rest is details.  Relax.

Then there’s your own mental health.  Men suffer from postpartum blues, too. Worries ranging from the financial to the sexual can inspire anxiety and depression in new and expectant fathers.  Some men feel displaced by the newborn, and consequently feel guilty about resenting their own offspring.  Don’t berate yourself.  You’re not alone.  You’ve got a lot of adjusting to do.  As with any major change, this one will require some time.

Your best bet for avoiding feelings of jealousy or resentment, is to pitch in and get involved in every aspect of your infant’s care from the get-go.  Change those diapers.  Give that baby bath.  Burp her and rock her and help with her clothing changes.  When appropriate, wake up in the middle of the night to share feeding duties.  And remember that in spite of your feelings that things will never be the same, you will all eventually accommodate to the new family dynamic.  Your sex life will eventually return to normal.  One fine day you’ll get to sleep through the night again.

And before you know it, you’ll be losing sleep all over again worrying when he’ll have the car home, or whether or not she’ll be all right at college.

Enjoy your tiny baby while you have the chance.  As painful as this time can be, one day you’ll look back and wonder how it all flew by so fast.

Dale Kiefer is a free-lance writer living in Indianapolis with his wife and two young sons. Born in New Jersey some 40 years ago, Dale was raised in Kentucky, where he spent most of his life, graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Biological Sciences.  He has been a reporter and free-lance journalist, writing for numerous publications, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and national magazines such as Writer's Digest. He has lived and worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Greater New York area in the recent past, but hopes to settle for a while in central Indiana.
Dale finds that the adventure of raising two sons is both profoundly rewarding and intensely challenging. Becoming a father and a journalist forever changed and enriched Dale's life, and he looks forward to sharing his insights with others.  In his spare time, Dale enjoys skiing, in-line skating, soccer, travel, fiction writing, exploring New York City, singing and photography. Most of all, he enjoys sharing as much time as possible with his wife and sons.


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