Considering that the entire experience of parenthood is just as new to the father as it is to the mother, Jasleen says it shouldn’t be surprising that new fathers have challenges with mental health. Her initial research showed that while some risk factors for depression and anxiety were similar to the mothers’, others were unique.
For example, it’s harder for the father to connect with their baby compared to the mother. “Mothers experience the child in the womb, and they can feel the child moving inside them. Fathers don’t get this experience,” Jasleen says. “They can only experience how the child is interacting through the mother, not themselves. So, it can be hard for them to form that instant connection, which is expected of them as soon as the baby is born.”
The biggest unique risk factor for stress, anxiety and depression during the perinatal period, however, was gender roles.
“Gender roles are something that really do come into play. There are certain expectations from society that are very gender-specific, which definitely impacts mental health,” Jasleen says. “Fathers have expectations where they think life will be a certain way once the baby is born, and then it’s completely different.”
"Fathers have expectations where they think life will be a certain way once the baby is born, and then it's completely different."
JCU PhD Candidate Dr Jasleen Chhabra
Feeling the stress of providing financially for the family, in cases where the father is the sole breadwinner or the mother has to take unpaid maternity leave, is one example.
“The burden of providing for the family causes fathers quite a lot of stress. Men and women won’t display the symptoms of depression and anxiety the same,” says Jasleen. “Men tend to externalise symptoms. They can express their feelings by becoming really angry, violent, disconnecting from the family or abusing substances.”
Another factor in the mental health of new fathers is the lack of paternity leave, and the pressure to return to work sooner. At the moment, most fathers in Australia receive two weeks of paid paternity leave from the government.
“All of the fathers who got paternity leave said that 2 weeks is not enough. The first week is spent transitioning the mother and baby into the home, and then the second week it feels like all you’re doing is changing diapers,” Jasleen says.
Jasleen hopes that her findings will raise awareness of the risk factors that are unique to new fathers and improve the services available to them. Moving forward, her biggest recommendation is that fathers are given one month of paid paternity leave, to help them gain confidence in caring for their child and supporting their partner.
“Paternity leave impacts the fathers’ mental health and positively impacts their bonding. They get to learn on the job with the mum, and you can’t expect them to know everything instinctively, in just two weeks. They need to learn as well,” she says.
If you are navigating the highs and lows of new parenthood, know that you’re not alone. Reach out to other parenting friends, or contact PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia)’s free helpline service for men and women affected by perinatal mental illness.