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Riding Out The Change

By Harald Breiding-Buss

A major adjustment at the best of times, having a new baby lets some new parents slip into the dull world of depression.

While “postnatal depression” has become a household term, researchers and practitioners are only beginning to understand, and trying to tackle, the effects of it on the family as a whole.

Motherhood. That mystical bond between a mother and her new baby, the climax of every woman’s life, or so we are told. Prepared for this from kindergarten age, when dolls and prams are found in every home where there are little girls, some young women strive to make this ideal come true as early as possible.

While even for those naturally mother-type women the arrival of a baby is usually a bit of an eye opener just how different reality is from the myth, postnatal depression is most common in women, who have plenty of other things going on in life.

A new baby marks the beginning of changes – scores of them. But change is a well-known risk factor for depression of any kind, and we don’t even need to add the change in women’s hormonal makeup to understand why a whopping 10-15% spend the first few months in a rather bleak frame.

What is perhaps less well-known is how postnatal depression in women can send their partners into a downwards spin as well, rendering the whole family barely functional. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to determine who actually went down first.

According to some studies postnatal depression is as common in men as in women, and a new father does not necessarily need a depressed partner to get affected badly by all its symptoms.

Where the public perception of a mother having to feel full of joy about a new baby aggravates the depression in women, guilt about not functioning well enough as a father does the same to men, once they’re on the way down.

This can happen to men and women, who have never had any similar bouts of feeling down in their lives.

The support of your loved one is often a major factor in the recovery of a depressed parent.

Where some programmes merely provide a platform for women to moan about their perceivedly unsupportive partners, a Plunket-run programme in Christchurch acknowledges that a partner may not necessarily be in the shape himself to be of much help; or he may think he provides support, but it actually is of a kind that women don’t really need at that time.

No, I am not talking about horizontal activities, which are about as common as a solar eclipse in thus affected new parents anyway. The reality of postnatal depression is that a partner gets scolded for whatever he does.

Do the dishes, and mum believes he thinks she is an inadequate homemaker (why else would he do it himself after a hard day’s work if not because he is annoyed by the mess in the house?). Don’t do them and be prepared to find out from her how unsupportive you are, leaving mum alone with all the housework.

The depressed mind does not work in ways that are anywhere near logical, and it sure doesn’t take lightly to quick fix attempts us guys are often so good at.

Normally, the partner of a postnatally depressed woman does best to listen much – but not to try and run her life. And it is amazing how much that achieves.

But if you feel frustrated about having to hold yourself back from running the show and more often than not being the emotional rubbish bin of your partner without any outlet yourself, burn it out on the Squash court, regularly. Or, if that’s more you, go for a walk alone.

Plunket’s programme works on the well-tested concept of support from others in the same situation, and the facilitators help the women in eight weekly sessions to work through some of the ballast society puts on new mums.

What’s really new is to pull in the partners after a few weeks in a session that separates mums and dads at first in single-sex groups and then brings them back together to talk about problems the depression puts on the family as a whole.

The men, when alone, do bounce around ideas of what works and what doesn’t in helping their partners, but perhaps more importantly they develop strategies for their own coping with the situation.

The Father&Child concept – bringing men together on the theme of their kids – is at work, and working.

Plunket and the Father&Child Trust have now taken this one step further. The Plunket programme for women has always consisted of the option of an eight-week group, but also one-on-one home-based support for those women who are not too comfortable with going in a group. In fact the home option is the one chosen more often.

With funding from the District Health Board for what might be the first father-specific health service in New Zealand, the Trust is now able to give home support to some dads also, who either show symptoms of depression themselves or who find themselves in a very difficult situation otherwise.

“Home support” means the Trust provides what every dad should have – another one or more dads to network with, a mate basically who knows a bit about kids and the tribulations of becoming a father.

With fulltime work, a partner who can’t “pull her weight” just yet, a changing existing relationship (with the partner) and a new one to build (with baby) it’s easy for a guy to get burnt out and to totally neglect looking after himself.

And how can you think about joining your mates on the footy patch Saturday morning when your partner as yet has hardly found the energy to lift herself out of bed, has had two crying fits already, and baby is still hungry.

And yet, regenerating is essential for a new dad in a difficult situation like this to keep him going and to be a good support to his family.

The partner evening of Plunket’s Postnatal Adjustment Programme is very often the first time those guys get together in a group with other men and, even though apprehension often rules at first, everyone miraculously feels quite a little bit better afterwards.

Part of the Trust’s involvement in this group is to also try to get these guys together again, with their babies, to keep supporting each other in whichever way they deem suitable. And bringing the babies along to the next meeting will give mum a break that she might quite desperately need by that time.

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