As with many things related to pregnancy and childbirth, dads may often feel helpless when it comes to postpartum depression (PPD).
Dads, worry no more. The women of the FemCatholic Forum want to empower and equip you with practical tools to transform your concern into actionable support.
So, how can you help a partner struggling with PPD?
1. Acknowledge it.
Please don't assume the mother of your child(ren) has it all together simply because everything seems fine and PPD hasn't come up in conversation. Be aware. Ask her about it. If she brings up concerns about PPD, believe her. This is a common experience and topic of conversation among Catholic moms.
Understand that prenatal and postpartum depression are biological responses caused by dramatic hormonal changes in a woman’s body. Resist the temptation to try to solve the issue, “fix” her, or convince her that everything is okay if she tells you it isn’t.
It is vital to recognize that PPD is not a spiritual state that simply necessitates more prayer or better spiritual direction. The Holy See’s representative to the United Nations, Archbishop Jurkovich, addressed this concern at a meeting of the Human Rights Council in 2017: “Spiritual care should not be confused with, or mistaken by, so-called ‘faith healing’ to the exclusion of medical, psychological, and social assistance.” The Catholic Church supports a comprehensive approach - spiritual, medical, psychological, and social - when it comes to addressing mental health.
PPD is not a spiritual state that simply necessitates more prayer or better spiritual direction.
2. Empower her to access medical care.
If she’s hesitant to seek medical assistance, assure her that you will support her whenever she’s ready. Offer to schedule an appointment with her OB/GYN. Watch the children and take care of transportation concerns so she can easily see a doctor.
Avoid mentioning the cost of treatment or how it could hurt the family budget. You may intend to say, "This is more expensive than it should be, but your health is worth it." However, she might hear, "Your health is not worth this investment."
Healthcare access and affordability in our country are overwhelming for too many families. Please don’t let this be a reason why your wife doesn’t receive necessary care. Your assistance in researching healthcare options will communicate tremendous support to her. Many counselors offer an income-based payment plan or sliding fee scale. Some options that make PPD medication significantly more affordable are free discount prescription programs, coupons, and generic drug options.
Make a point of knowing her treatment plan. Then, help make it happen: refill her prescriptions, stock the kitchen with special nutritional needs, schedule follow-up appointments, etc. Moms often manage a baby’s medical and nutritional needs at the expense of their own. Your help is crucial in making sure she stays healthy, too.
Make a point of knowing her treatment plan. Then, help make it happen.
3. Support her decision to breastfeed or not.
Sometimes breastfeeding helps alleviate PPD. Other times, breastfeeding exacerbates it. Medication needed to help a woman cope with PPD may be incompatible with breastfeeding. Support her and her decision, recognizing that both breastfed and formula-fed babies turn out just fine - as did Pope Francis who was fed donkey’s milk as a baby. A mom whose mental and physical needs go unmet may not turn out just fine.
Recognize that, no matter how your child is fed, you can participate in the process:
- If your child is bottle fed, know how to prep a bottle and feed it to your baby (including for overnight feedings).
- If your child is breastfed, create a calm, comfortable space for that to happen, and bring your wife a glass of water to help her milk production. If you’re in public, support her right to breastfeed anywhere (including the Sistine Chapel).
- If your wife uses a breast pump, wash and sanitize the pump parts. Remember that this act of service constitutes a concrete demonstration of support for both your child and your wife.
4. Understand what sex means to your wife right now (and don’t take it personally).
If your wife is hesitant to engage in intimacy, it's not because she doesn’t like you as a person or love you as a spouse. Withdrawal from friends and reduced pleasure in activities are symptoms of PPD.
Withdrawal from friends and reduced pleasure in activities are symptoms of PPD.
Furthermore, her body just gave birth, which takes an incredible physical toll on the body and leaves an internal, open wound the size of a dinner plate; all of this is in addition to having fluctuating hormones, getting terrible sleep, and facing a daily to-do list that just tripled (at least).
So, when you start massaging her shoulders or nibbling her ear, she doesn’t hear, “I love you. We made a beautiful baby. Let’s celebrate our awesome love.” She hears, "Would you like to give up two more years of sleep and add two more loads of laundry to our week?"
Dads: it’s not you, it’s the situation (I promise). There is good news, though: you can help the situation.
5. Create a support system.
Research from the Mayo Clinic indicates that a poor support system contributes to postpartum depression. America Magazine also offered their thoughts on how the Church can do more to recognize and support mothers’ postpartum needs.
You are your wife’s primary support system. Yes, you can pull support from nearby family or friends. If you have the financial means, yes, you can hire doulas, housekeepers, night nurses, and meal delivery services. But, ultimately, it’s you who are her support. Be her best advocate in postpartum care.
ultimately, it’s you [dads] who are her support
Practically speaking, this means making sure that your wife has time to eat, shower, and rest. Fortunately, most dads are rightfully annoyed by any cultural tripe that undermines their care-taking competence as fathers. It’s less and less common to find a man unwilling to change, calm, or bathe his child or participate in all the little household tasks that keep a family going: meal preparation, morning and bedtime routines with other kids, laundry, dishes, etc. I encourage you to continue being present and involved.
Congratulations! Your family created a beautiful, new, vulnerable life. Remember that this is a vulnerable time for your wife, as well, and that ignoring the signs of postpartum depression can delay life change and help. One of the most important ways you can live out your vocation as a husband and father is to believe, empower, understand, and support your wife through postpartum care.