In early 2017, my husband and I sat in the OB-GYN’s office to confirm that we were pregnant with our first child. The room was littered with literature for new moms on birthing and breastfeeding classes, hospital tours and registration, and pamphlets on how to recognize postpartum depression. As we sat waiting for our ultrasound, my husband pointed out the lack of resources for men transitioning to life as new dads.
Even before I became pregnant, we had gotten a taste of just how infrequently dads and dads-to-be are welcomed into conversations about parenthood.
Prior to conception, bloodwork showed that my Anti-Müllerian hormone was too low for a 26-year-old like me ― my ovarian reserve was depleted and trying to conceive without medications or in vitro fertilization could be difficult. With referral in hand, I sat down to discuss next steps with a reproductive endocrinologist.
“My husband couldn’t make it to this appointment because he is on his way to work,” I told the doctor. “Can we call him? He wants to understand what is going on.” I was already stressed and overwhelmed sitting in the beige office. When my response was met with bewilderment, my stomach tensed up.
Taken aback, the doctor echoed, “You want to call your husband?” I was frustrated — I wanted to include my husband because we were trying to start a family, and I wanted people to start treating him like he mattered.
As we move away from the constraints and cliches of heteronormative relationships in society, men like my husband deserve more support as they become new parents, too.
My husband attended every appointment during the first and second trimester. During one visit, a nurse told him, “You don’t really have to keep coming to these appointments.” I could feel his mood shifting and see the mixture of emotions on his face — frustration, hurt, resignation. His role as a new dad had already been defined even before the baby was born — it was his “job” to work and financially take care of our family. My role as a new mother was to carry our son and bear the emotional labor of pregnancy.
I was so upset about being stereotyped by outsiders. I intended to work full time and maintain an equal partnership while raising our child with my husband because we are a family. We wanted people to understand that he wanted so much more than to just bring home the money — he wanted to be an active participant in our son’s life, whether it was doctor’s appointments, changing diapers, late-night feedings or touring day cares.
Professor Claire Hughes and her research team from the University of Cambridge found that if first-time parents had postnatal relationship problems, children were more likely to be worried, unhappy, or tearful, scared easily, or clingy in new situations. As a result of the University of Cambridge study published in August 2019, the researchers determined that support and resources need to be extended to new dads and focus on the well-being of both parents.
“For too long, the experiences of first-time dads has either been side-lined or treated in isolation from that of mums,” Hughes noted. “This needs to change because difficulties in children’s early relationships with both mothers and fathers can have long-term effects.”
As I laid there in labor four days shy of our scheduled cesarean section, the Labor & Triage nurse explained to my husband that after some drugs and a saline drip, they were able to slow, but not stop, my contractions and they were sending me home.
“We are not leaving this hospital,” I remember my husband saying just as another contraction hit me like a wave. The Labor & Triage nurse looked surprised by my husband’s firm tone as he explained why we had planned our C-section due to an organic spinal fusion in my lower back.
“I spoke with the doctor on call,” the nurse said when she returned to the room. “She is finishing up with her patients and then she’ll be down. We’ll start preparing you for surgery and the anesthesiologist will be in to go over everything with you.” My husband and I were a team ― we were having our child together and he was an active part of everything that entailed.
In the first few months after giving birth, my husband and I would take our son to his checkups with the pediatrician. I was required to complete a checklist for the doctor about my physical and mental well-being. These types of forms help doctors determine if new moms are experiencing postpartum depression and/or anxiety. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women get screened for depression before and after giving birth. Currently, there is no assessment to screen new dads for PPD.
In 2019, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, published a study in the Journal of Family Issues. The researchers, led by Couple and Family Therapy professor Brandon Eddy, explored issues that new dads experience, such as PPD. About 4% to 25% of new dads experience PPD according to the National Institutes of Health, but there are no common diagnostic criteria for paternal PPD. It’s well-known that new moms experience hormone fluctuations during the first six months, but dads can too. Studies show that dads can experience dips in testosterone and cortisol while oxytocin, estrogen and prolactin surge. A new dad is also more at risk if his partner is experiencing PPD.
“Half of all men whose partners have postpartum depression are depressed themselves,” said Will Courtenay, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker and founder of PostpartumMen.com. “Depression in both parents can result in devastating consequences for their relationship and especially for their children.”
UNLV’s research team reported that the surveyed new dads lacked needed resources to help recognize PPD, repressed their feelings, felt overwhelmed or resented the baby, and felt neglected by their wives, medical professionals and society.
And nowhere did this manifest more than public restrooms. We were dining out as a family when our oldest son was just a few months old, and it was apparent he needed a diaper change. My husband offered to take him so I could enjoy my hot meal. Shortly after leaving, my husband huffed back with our infant and complained about the lack of changing tables in the restroom. He ended up having to change our son in the trunk of our car.
My husband is not alone ― Donte Palmer, a dad in Jacksonville, Florida, posted a picture of himself squatting against a wall in the restroom to change his 1-year-old son across his lap in 2018. His picture went viral with the hashtag #SquatForChange. Palmer’s picture brought to light the lack of support for families and, as a result, Pampers pledged to install 5,000 changing tables in men’s restrooms by 2021.
We welcomed our second son in February 2021. After we were discharged from the hospital, we received resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics on how new dads can take care of mom and baby, but there were no tips on self-care for dads. It’s been four years since my husband became a parent and nothing has changed.
Dear society, it’s 2022 and now is the time to make postpartum support more inclusive and give parents the tools they need to communicate. Let’s stop relaying the ideology that a man must financially care for his family while the wife stays home. My husband and I both work full time, care for our son full time and maintain our household equally.
“Dads don’t matter ― our only job is to make money to support the family. That’s how people in society see dads,” my husband says. From picking out car seats to decorating the nursery, doctor’s appointments to birth classes, my husband was there every step of the way, helping me carry the emotional load of our pregnancies.
We both understand that society is always going to criticize our roles as parents, both individually and collectively. As our sons get older, we will tell them about our experience from pregnancy onward. We want them to live their best lives — no preconceived notions from outsiders or limited narratives. My husband and I hope that, one day, our sons can break down the barriers to gender equality and write their own narrative. Who knows? They could make a statement like Donte Palmer and truly make a difference.
Gillan Ritchie is a full-time mom, full-time senior digital marketing coordinator, and freelance content and social media producer. Her writing has appeared in The Free Lance-Star, Richmond-Times Dispatch, The Times, Richmond Magazine, and HOME Magazine. You can find her work at gillanritchie.com.