‘For anyone else looking in, it would have appeared a typical, touching scene. Returning home from work, my husband Peter strolled into the lounge where our three-month-old baby son was kicking away happily on his play mat.
He paused, then crouched down and gently stroked Zach’s head. The moment lasted seconds, but for me, watching spellbound on the other side of the room, the significance was absolutely enormous. It meant Peter was finally finding his way back from the depths of a crippling depression, which had almost destroyed our marriage and the family we adored.
Peter, a civil servant, had been suffering from post-natal depression – a condition that everyone, quite naturally, assumes only affects women.
Only it doesn’t. As we discovered, 10 per cent of new fathers are affected by it – not due to fluctuating hormones, but because of stress, exhaustion and the pressure of responsibility of a new baby. And its effects can be just as devastating.
Something wasn’t right
There was nothing to suggest that Zach’s birth in August 2011 should be any different from the birth of his older sister Ellen in November 2009. Peter adored his daughter and she loved her daddy.
However looking back, I’d started to see some changes in him. Like when I told him I was pregnant with our son as we lay in bed one night. I was so excited, but he just grunted in response before rolling over and going to sleep.
He attended the scans, but I wondered if he was just going through the motions, as he didn’t seem very interested. When I challenged him he said he just didn’t know how we’d cope with two. Then there was the time when I was five months pregnant and tried to put his hand on my tummy to feel the baby kick. To my horror he snatched it away in irritation, snapping that he’d already “felt what it was like with Ellen”. I fled upstairs in tears.
On 26 August 2011, I gave birth to Zach at Ipswich Hospital with Peter at my side. Looking at our newborn son, I immediately felt a rush of love, but as I passed him to Peter, it was like handing him to a stranger. When he looked at Zach his eyes were dead. There was no love, no affection, nothing. And he immediately handed him back.
At home he ignored his son’s cries, and rarely changed his nappies or wanted to hold him. He was so different from how he’d been with Ellen that I knew something was seriously wrong.
Three days after Zach’s birth, I confided in Peter’s twin brother Danny, who had a word with him, and Peter agreed to see his GP. I felt so relieved that he had acknowledged he needed help, but sad that he couldn’t confide in me about how he felt.
Peter came home from the doctor and told me he’d been diagnosed with post-natal depression (PND). ‘Apparently blokes can get it too,’ he said. I wasn’t surprised he was depressed, but I was shocked it was linked to our baby’s birth.
He was prescribed antidepressants, and placed on reduced duties at work. He was also referred to a counsellor, who he saw regularly, but he never told me what they discussed. I knew he wouldn’t be cured instantly, but what I didn’t realise was what a hard journey back it would be.
A long road
Being sympathetic to Peter was important but so hard. I loved him and I didn’t want to see him unhappy. But I was effectively a single parent, dealing with a new baby and a toddler on my own. There were times when I wanted to walk out the door and never return. Sometimes I would curl up on my bed and cry. I wanted – and needed – my husband back.
Peter would spend hours in bed, as he withdrew further into his distant, uncommunicative world. When I tried to get him to just hold Zach for a little while and bond with him, the baby would wriggle and howl, desperate to get away from this cold stranger.
By this stage, Peter had even started taking his feelings out on Ellen, flying off the handle at her over the silliest things, like her touching the television. She didn’t understand and would get upset.
A couple of times, when things were at rock bottom between us, I told Peter that if things didn’t improve, I didn’t think our marriage could survive. ‘It won’t come to that,’ he said and refused to discuss it with me. I was just glad he was still seeing his counsellor so at least he had someone he felt he could talk to.
Then, about three months after that first doctor’s appointment, came the breakthrough, the day he walked in from work and stroked his son’s head, completely unprompted. It was the moment I knew the Peter I love so much was coming back to us.
In April this year, after seven months, he was feeling well enough to be weaned off the antidepressants and, thank goodness, he hasn’t relapsed since.
Now, when he walks into the living room after work, Zach squeals with delight and Peter hugs him tightly. I don’t like to dwell on those dark days of the past, but they have definitely taken their toll on us as a family. It has certainly put both of us off having any more children. We’re very happy now with two, and grateful for every moment together.”
Peter says: “Looking back, I feel so sad about the time I missed out on with Zach when he was tiny. I wasn’t really there emotionally in his first few weeks.
When he was born, I felt the same joy inside as I did for Ellen, but I was also feeling huge anxiety. I worried how I’d share my time equally between the children. How could I love them both the same? I was convinced I wasn’t going to be a good enough father to Zach or Ellen.
It’s taken a long time, but I’m getting a sense of normality back. We had a shaky start, but now I feel as though we’ve got the perfect family.”
Worried your man has PND?
Post-natal depression expert Dr Sandra Wheatley gives her advice on how to help
* If your partner is acting out of character (for example he is sleeping too much or too little, is very emotional or seeming anxious) explain you’re worried about him.
* You need to seek professional help. Your midwife has a duty of care to the whole family, so speak to them, your health visitor or GP.
* Some men will be in denial or will be reluctant to ask for help, so you’ll have to be patient. He might feel happier seeking help anonymously, either through finding information in books or via internet forums or telephone helplines.