February 19, 2010

THAT'S MEN: New arrival puts pressure on relationships, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

POST-NATAL depression in women is accepted without argument. But fathers can also become depressed following the birth of a child and this fact needs more recognition than it gets.

As with depression in mothers, depression in fathers can have an adverse effect on children’s emotional and psychological development. That’s why mothers and fathers should be willing to seek help if they are depressed.

Such research as there has been into paternal depression suggests that anything from

1 per cent to 25 per cent of fathers may become depressed. The variations in these figures highlight how little research has taken place, according to Prof James F Paulson of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, writing in Psychiatric Times.

This might be due to the belief that post-natal depression in women is caused by hormonal changes and such changes don’t occur in the fathers. Prof Paulson is unimpressed by the quality of the research behind this theory. If other factors – stress, previous depression, a poor relationship with the other parent for instance – are behind depression in mothers, then the same factors could explain depression in fathers.

Key to the presence of post-natal depression in fathers is the quality of the relationship between the parents. If this relationship is poor, the chances of depression in the father (and, I imagine, in the mother, rise).

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the experience of love and intimacy between parents is less satisfactory in the three years after the beginning of parenthood than before. Conflict increases as does ambivalence about the relationship.

The fall in the quality of the relationship is especially high in first-time parents. Many marriage counsellors regard the birth of the first child as a crisis point in the marriage. If the mother is depressed, the father may also be more likely to be depressed.

Depression in a parent means less cuddling and interaction for the baby. Babies need intense interaction to get through their developmental stages and the absence of that makes it harder for them.

What all this means is that new parents need to pay plenty of attention to their relationship as a couple and not to let that relationship get lost in the intensity of minding baby.

If one parent is depressed, the other should take care not to get drawn into that mood. And family, doctors, nurses and others in the vicinity of the couple need to be aware that depression can affect the new father as well as the new mother.

In last week’s column I wrote about the huge sacrifices in their personal lives made by men who became Catholic priests. I referred to the social stigma attached to dropping out of the seminary before ordination. Joseph F Foyle, who “sampled and desisted from seminary training in the 1950s” writes in an e-mail:

“The fact is nearly all of us who went to seminaries did so because recruiters said we risked being square pegs in round holes if we had vocations and didn’t try them out by entering seminaries. Consistently at that time, about one-third left after they and their spiritual directors were satisfied that they hadn’t vocations. The main inconvenience about leaving was economic – many leaving hadn’t jobs to go and that annoyed some parents . . .”

He wonders if some men who might have gone into the priesthood in the past are “square pegs in round holes” in the secular world in the modern era.

Many Catholics used to avoid sinning so as not to face the fires of hell or purgatory in the next life. All of that is played down in the church nowadays. With Catholics no longer feeling the need for priests to help them to avoid damnation, “their [the priests’] central purpose in life has thereby disappeared”, he suggests. The effect of this on these men, “is devastating”, he writes.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@ireland.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for

Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free on request by e-mail