When it comes to supporting new fathers, we remain in the Dark Ages. Support for the changes and challenges new fathers face is largely absent from discussions of perinatal and postpartum health. For many men, this means the entry into fatherhood is confusing, painful, and stressful. Some estimates reveal that more than 25 percent of new fathers experience depression in the first year – which is almost always undiagnosed and untreated.
Our lack of support for new dads is a glaring gap in our efforts to improve mental health in families and children. Psychologically, men face some of the toughest developmental challenges they have ever faced as they enter fatherhood. According to Bruce Linton, PhD, founder of Father's Forum, a national organization of support groups for new fathers, the transition to fatherhood involves a series of very difficult psychological tasks.
A man is required to resolve his own conflicts concerning his father, negotiate emotional uncertainty, learn to be dependent on others and let others be dependent on him. None of these tasks is possible without some level of support and understanding.
New fathers also face challenges and changes in the relationship with their partner that few fully anticipate. Suddenly the need to argue, negotiate, and resolve conflicts about parenting takes center stage in their relationship. Many men who have relied on their partners for emotional support and intimacy are now left feeling guilty, resentful, and confused as they try to figure out how to support their partners while sacrificing their own support and need for intimacy.
With help and attention from their spouses, fatherhood groups, and therapy (when necessary), new fathers who are struggling can find enhanced meaning, pride, and contentment in tending to their families while learning ways to cope with their own anxieties and doubts.
Supported and involved dads benefit the whole family. With support and understanding, many men can thrive during the challenges of new fatherhood.
For the sake of our families and our fathers, it's time to stop pretending that men's experiences and roles don't matter as much as women's do in the first years of a child's life. Let's refocus the clinical lens and pay attention to the whole family.