Father and Son
Viren Swami felt disconnected from his newborn son and struggled to fulfil expectations of a father and husband. He shares his story with Lisa Millard
The arrival of a new baby is usually accompanied by joy and wonder. If feelings of love and happiness don’t follow there is support for postnatal depression to help mothers bond with their child. But what if it’s the dad who feels sad?
Viren Swami is Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and is using his experience of paternal postnatal depression to heighten awareness among health professionals and policy makers and encourage men to seek support for depression rather than just dismissing symptoms as normal.
Feelings of estrangement from his wife started to grow during pregnancy, which happened very quickly after Viren and Christa’s marriage in 2015. “We thought it would be a much longer process but we fell pregnant in the first week of trying. My wife was excited but I felt thrown in the deep end. Even with nine months of pregnancy I was trying to catch up to understand what was happening,” says Viren.
The couple attended NCT classes but they didn’t help Viren’s burgeoning feeling of disconnect: “The focus on everything being positive and lovely sort of made what actually happened a bit more troublesome for me. Especially the birth – I think it left me wondering what I’d done wrong.”
An unplanned home birth was a stressful start to family life. “Everybody was passing me the baby, and I didn’t feel ready,” recalls Viren. “Christa was struggling with feeding and I just felt helpless. There wasn’t anything I could do to fix things.”
Viren began pushing his wife away. “I didn’t want to be around something and someone who stressed me out. It was very selfish and I don’t think I recognised I was doing it until much later because I was lost in my own head. Christa was, quite rightly, focussed on our son.
“I struggled to do basic things. We slept in shifts and I would be so stressed at having to be with our baby. I was frozen with fear and didn’t know how to be with him. It felt like every time I picked him up or touched him he cried. It was the ultimate rejection – he didn’t need me here.”
Viren isolated himself from friends and distracted himself with work, which gave him a reason not to be with his son. “Looking back on the first six months it was all very dark,” says Viren, who experienced depression as a young man. “I didn’t recognise my depression in the first year after the baby was born. I thought what I was feeling was the same for every dad.”
Viren flipped from pretending everything was fine by working maniacally to feeling so anxious he could not leave the house spending days in bed sleeping and crying as his body burned out.
“Christa knew something was wrong but did not push me to get help because I had distanced myself and she had the pressing need of caring for our son who was not sleeping or feeding well. When she needed help she couldn’t rely on me.”
During a routine visit to a health visitor Viren mentioned he might have a problem. Dads just get on with things, was the response. Crack on.
Viren’s cycles of working through the night and crashing during the day continued until Christa insisted he saw his GP late last year. Still convinced there was nothing awry, Viren explained everything that had been happening. The doctor confirmed he had postnatal depression.
“It was the first time someone had said the those words to me. I was fast-tracked to an NHS counselling facility for new parents where I saw a family-centred therapist and started to take anti depressants.
“I wanted to show Christa that I was taking getting better seriously. And I didn’t want to lose my relationship with my son.”
He didn’t. Counselling supported recovery and offered strategies to help bond with his son. “I’ve recently started parenting classes and love them,” says Viren, currently the only man attending. “I’m learning how to be a better parent. I wish I had known some of these things before now – it’s so wonderful to learn something and to see it work.”
As an academic Viren has researched depression and access to health care but more recently turned his attention to paternal postnatal depression. An online article for The British Psychological Society attracted media attention and Viren has written about his experience in two national newspapers. He’s also talked to different audiences to raise awareness – I heard him speak at a Sunday Papers Live event in Cambridge in March this year; he hopes by sharing his own story other men will feel able to talk about their emotions and recognise when they need help.
That said, response to Viren’s story has been mixed. The articles attracted messages of support as well as calls for him to ‘man up’ (from women as well as men), pull himself together, stop whining and get over his narcissism. Paternal postnatal depression is a bit of a Marmite subject it seems.“There’s a big gap in understanding that this can happen to men,” says Viren. “It has made me think about what needs to be done in terms of practical policy.”
On the home front things are getting better all the time. “My relationship with my son is brilliant. I now look forward to my time with him and miss him terribly when he’s not with me.”