• The mental toll of parenting can break anyone, it almost broke me at different times. (The Image Bank RF)Source: The Image Bank RF
As a community, we don’t acknowledge the emotional toll of fatherhood.
By
Rob Sturrock

23 Jul 2020 - 7:05 AM  UPDATED 23 Jul 2020 - 7:13 AM

The labour that my wife, Julia, endured to give birth to our little boy was complicated and traumatic. She passed out on the bed in her maternity suite because the epidural was incorrectly administered. She had to be revived by nurses and given injections to stabilise her blood pressure. That was stressful on its own. But she also couldn’t move for the entire labour. Hours after the birth of our boy, she complained to me about lingering excruciating pain. I went to get a midwife to check on her. Within moments the midwife had pushed the red emergency button on the wall. 

Two minutes later our suite was filled with doctors from various wards all rushing around Julia, bright hot lights beaming down. All the while I was pinned against the wall, incredibly distressed for her, trying to glimpse what was happening and assess how much danger she was in. All the nightmare scenarios were rushing through my mind. A good friend of mine had watched his wife almost bleed to death during labour. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Even though it was about 1am they called our obstetrician, who was asleep at home, back into the hospital. During this whole emergency I was told nothing by all the medical professionals in the room. When I asked a nurse what was going on, she only replied with “Sir, we are handling the situation”. But what the hell was the situation?? I didn’t know and nobody had time to talk to me. So I stood anxiously at the back of the room, hoping for the best.

When I asked a nurse what was going on, she only replied with “Sir, we are handling the situation”.

Turned out Julia had a blood clot requiring urgent removal. Once the procedure was done and Julia could sleep, I curled up into a ball on a rubber mattress on the floor and cried. That’s one of the less scary labour stories a father could tell you. I’ve heard much, much worse from other dads.

Four days after we had that horrible labour, our little boy, Luke, collapsed blue in my arms on the couch at home and stopped breathing. A sunny and serene Sunday was turned instantly into our worst nightmare, as I handed our son to Julia and rushed outside to call emergency. Julia and Luke were rushed back in an ambulance, where he had every test possible to work out the problem. For 36 hours, we had no idea what was wrong with him, and whether it would be a permanent debilitation or something he’d recover from. It remains the lowest point in my life to date. We barely knew our little man, and he was fighting for survival, in agony, with tubes sticking out of him everywhere, and with a mask stuck to his face for breathing. Turned out he had viral meningitis, which to a toddler is a nasty bug, but to a newborn can be near fatal.

When I recently learned about International Father’s Mental Health Day I was probably one of the few people in the country who actually paid attention. Above I’ve listed two traumatic incidents that are permanently lodged in my core, but I’ve got many more anecdotes about dealing with my own anxiety as a parent, drawn from mundane, everyday events. So do fathers right across the country.

When I recently learned about International Father’s Mental Health Day I was probably one of the few people in the country who actually paid attention.

But as a community, we don’t acknowledge the emotional toll of fatherhood. Our health system rarely pays attention to dads’ mental health. Mums are screened for postnatal depression, and walk out of the maternity ward and into an early childhood service in their local neighbourhood. I’m forever grateful for the help Julia received for her depression. But nothing remotely comparable exists for fathers. 

Champions of paternal mental health are sparse. Thank god for people like Associate Professor Richard Fletcher from the University of Newcastle, and Dr Bronwyn Leigh, Director at the Perinatal Psychology and Personal Training Centre. They have shown that fathers suffer mental health problems too, and need the same screening and support as mums. According to Richard’s work, about 80 dads every day will fall into postnatal depression in this country, and those men are at a higher risk of suicide as a result. 

Too many dads suffer in silence, reticent to seek help to digest their trauma, to speak up and say they’re struggling to juggle everything.

Too many dads suffer in silence, reticent to seek help to digest their trauma, to speak up and say they’re struggling to juggle everything. They may feel too much pressure at work, may worry they’re failing expectations at home, stress that they don’t see their family enough, and wonder whether they’ll end up being a good father. And who is there helping them? 

The mental toll of parenting can break anyone, it almost broke me at different times. Fathers don’t deserve to suffer in silence, lest some family member, friend, colleague or boss question their manhood and their ability to just ‘get on with it’. If you are a dad, know a dad, or still have a dad, talk to them, and tell them that getting help to deal with their vulnerabilities will make the journey more enjoyable, rewarding and manageable.

Rob Sturrock is a freelance writer.

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