By Elliott Rae
Trigger warning: this piece contains graphic details of an allergic reaction and Elliott’s experience of PTSD. Please take care when reading. If you‘ve experienced a traumatic event and need support, please refer to our Urgent Warning, or you can read this article from Dr Emma Svanberg about how to move on from birth trauma. The views that Elliott expresses in this article are his own, based on his experience.
When my daughter was eight months old she had a severe allergic reaction; it was a scary experience. She was fine after we rushed her to A&E, but I wasn’t prepared for was what was going to happen to me in the days and weeks after. I couldn’t sleep properly for a while. I kept reliving what had happened and thinking about how much worse it could have been. I had flashbacks, picturing my daughter’s face as the swelling got worse, her eyes shrivelling. I couldn’t stop myself from googling ‘allergic reactions in babies’ and reading horror stories that ended much worse than ours. I couldn’t focus at work and would feel very emotional for no reason at all. While I had put my emotions to one side during the actual incident, the realisation of what happened to our beautiful little girl were being played out over and over again in the days and weeks after.
After a while I realised I had post traumatic stress, albeit a mild version. What really helped was being able to talk to my wife about what was happening. I learned that you need to talk about your thoughts. Life is full of ups and downs and what’s important isn’t only how you deal with things in the moment, but also how you take care of yourself afterwards. Thoughts and emotions can manifest some time after stressful and disturbing events and it’s important to look after yourself, talk to someone you love and trust, and practice some self-care. And of course, reach out to your GP if you feel that you need professional support.
After writing about this online, the positivity I received was amazing. One thing that people said to me was that they would never have been able to guess what I was going through. I’m a pretty bubbly and positive person and like some other men, I’m not what you would call an open book. Luckily I have a fantastic wife who I can speak to about anything, so I do have a source of release. The problem is when people don’t have anyone they can speak to; issues can build up and spiral out of control. It’s so important to talk.
‘I’ve learned a valuable lesson here as life is full of ups and downs and it’s not only how you deal with things in the thick of the moment, but also how you take care of yourself afterwards.’
Research from NCT shows that more than one in three new fathers (38%) are concerned about their mental health. Having your first baby turns your world upside down. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the most amazing thing in the world, but it also comes with its challenges. The first nine months or so are a roller coaster and until you settle into some kind of routine and your baby starts to sleep for longer than three hours in a row, your whole life might seem like one very long day. But I believe there are some things dads can do to look after their mental health during this time of transition.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Like I said, talk about how you’re feeling. There may be some nights when you are literally too tired to move, but you are a team now and if you haven’t communicated how you are feeling, how’s your partner to know that maybe she needs to let you have a little bit of rest? This works both ways, so you’ll need to help each other out and cover each other’s duties from time to time. Most misunderstandings and disagreements stem from a lack of communication. If there’s an issue you need help resolving, your partner may be able to help you find further support.
Attend a baby preparation session
Before the baby arrives, talk about roles, responsibilities and expectations. Who’s doing what? What do you expect from each other? These plans will inevitably change, but it helps to start with a mutual understanding. Talk about the small things, like who’s doing the night feeds, as well the big stuff, like how money will be managed if you have a reduced income. Continue to communicate as your circumstances change. We were lucky enough to spend some time with our church vicar, but there may be other sessions you can attend (eg NCT or free local antenatal sessions) in your area. If not, ask a trusted family member to sit you both down and help you consider some of the things that you’ll need to be thinking about.
Adapt to your new life ASAP
It’s so important to accept that life has changed and you need to make the relevant changes to your lifestyle ASAP. Don’t get me wrong – life is by no means over! I’m a big believer in balance, but you have to accept that you can’t do all the things you used to do in the way you used to do them. Think about what your priorities are and find a way to fit them in, while still being the kind of father that you want to be. The sooner you learn to embrace and love your new life, the better.
Try and make time for your friends
Time with the mandem is a must! This applies to your partner too. It’s important to have at least one trip out with your mates within the first couple of months, even if only for a short time. It will make you appreciate what you have at home and help with that all-important balance. Encourage your partner to spend time with her friends too; it will make her happier and give you some nice one-to-one time with the baby. (Note from Editor: this piece was written in 2019, so please follow the current government guidance regarding COVID-19.)
Don’t be too hard on yourself
There are lots of books telling us what babies should be doing and when they should be doing it, and what you should be doing and when you should be doing it. Take from it what works for you. Don’t get caught up in it – as long as the baby is happy and healthy and your family is happy and healthy, then everything else will take care of itself.
Take an active role in parenting
Early on, Mum is usually the main focus of the baby’s attention and if you aren’t a natural with babies, it’s easy to feel a bit out of place and unsure about your role. It’s important to establish this early. Make an effort to get involved in everything straight away. This will help with your confidence and help you build a bond with your new baby.
It’s a nice feeling when your baby can come to you for comfort. Really and truly, it’s only breastfeeding that a father can’t do. Everything else is completely possible – so get stuck in! You’ll make mistakes along the way but I highly recommend throwing yourself whole-heartedly into the parenting experience from the beginning. It makes everything easier in the long run.
Exercise when you can
Exercise is always a great way of relieving stress. Staying active will also help give you the energy you’ll need to keep up with the demands of your baby. So make sure you make time to work out, even if it’s just a quick run on the weekends.
Seek professional help
If you’re feeling low or experiencing any other mental health problems, you’re not alone. There are loads of different organisations that can help, and of course you can always visit your GP. MIND is a great mental health charity, but there many others out there.
Becoming a dad is by no means easy, but it’s definitely rewarding. I hope these tips will help you (whether you’re a dad right now or a dad-to-be) enjoy the experience even more.
Elliott is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of musicfootballfatherhood.com (‘the dad’s version of mumsnet’).