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New fathers can have postpartum depression, too

By Bob LaMendola, Sun-Sentinel, South Florida - 9/10/2000

When it strikes new mothers, it has a name. The anxiety and irritability that take hold after childbirth are well known as postpartum depression.

But there's no name for the tense feelings that tarnish the first weeks of fatherhood.

"It's real," says Ilyene Barsky, a Coral Springs, FL., counselor who specializes in post-birth problems. "Dads go through a pattern of symptoms just like the mothers do."

Biology is not the cause. Men do not experience the swings in hormone levels that are at least partly the cause of depression in new mothers.

In fathers, the culprit is the favorite villain of our times, stress, which can cause mental and physical symptoms.

Combine sleep deprivation, the uncertainty of a new child, a wife coping with hormones, and a drastic reorganization in the household power structure, and that's a formula for stress, Barsky says.

"Even though they have gained a new family member, it's still a change and still an adjustment," she says. "The ways he used to cope are no longer effective. He can't just go running. There's no time and you can't take your baby with you. You can't take your baby into a bar with you."

Ira Kaplan of Coral Springs felt more stress than he ever knew after his wife, Ellen, delivered twin girls in October 1999. Ellen had bouts of depression severe enough to require medication.

"I'm gone 10, 12 hours a day and she would call me up at work with panic attacks. Not mad but sad. It got so she couldn't handle anything," says Kaplan, 37.

"I tried to be supportive. I started taking over more chores (including night feedings) and it puts more pressure on you. There's more tension and more fighting. No matter how cool and collected you are, you still have to go through it, you can't stop it."

Time helped heal the Kaplans, but their experience is not unusual.

As many as 80 percent of women have a mild depression called "baby blues" that lasts a week or two before fading. Postpartum depression is more serious, touching about 15 percent of mothers.

They get cranky, weep easily, take no joy in motherhood, can't sleep and then feel guilty about all those feelings. The difference between blues and depression? A blue mother given time away from her baby will sleep; a depressed mother will fret and grow worse.

Day after day of such problems become mentally taxing to the fathers. Some get physical aches or even "sympathy pains" that mirror those of their wives.

"If Mom is having depression, Dad is likely to feel distant and maybe even resentful after a while," says Ricky Siegel, a family educator for Planned Parenthood of South Palm Beach and Broward Counties in Florida.

The demanding and helpless baby upsets the couple's relationship and daily priorities more radically and for a longer period than parents anticipate.

"I was feeling more of a loss of a partner," Kaplan says. "This woman is changing on me. We were not the same people we had been."

Siegel says some men start viewing their wives as a mother instead of a lover, and use that as a justification to cheat.

But wait. Childbirth instructors talk about these issues at length. Shouldn't parents know all this in advance and be ready for it? Yes, Barsky says, but some don't get it until it's too late.

"They want their life to go back to normal," she says.

It never does.