"I didn't know I was depressed": A father’s experience of depression
Aidan O'Driscoll tells his personal story.
1 in 10 dads get depression after childbirth but it's rarely discussed or written about by dad's themselves. In this blog, Aidan explains what happened when he finally shared how low and depressed he was feeling with his wife.
Did I know I had depression? Not thinking straight
At first I didn’t. I just knew there was something not right. Our youngest child was born the week COVID-19 hit in the UK and I’d been having a hard time with my mental health for a while.
I’d suffered from burnout before but I had ever experienced anything like I had been feeling in the run up to our son's arrival. In basic terms, I didn’t want to be alive and the thought of ending everything had become something I went over in my mind day-in and day-out for the weeks leading up to my son’s birth. I genuinely thought that they were better off without me! The best way to describe it is: for the longest time I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t make basic decisions and I threw myself into work. I retreated into myself, stopped smiling, made excuses not to socialise and I had this constant nagging feeling that I was failing both as a parent but also as me.
Did I see a doctor? No. Have I seen a doctor since? Yes. Would I have seen a doctor when I was feeling like that? Probably not. Why? I was too busy with work and far too busy making sure my partner and eldest were ready for the baby's arrival. I had put myself low on my list of priorities.
How did depression affect family life?
It almost cost me everything. My behaviour deteriorated. I was up early, not eating, drinking lots of coffee, going from meeting to meeting and then jumping back in the car to commute 1 ½ hours back home. I stayed up late, got up early and my diet went out of the window.
At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t happy. I was consumed with trying to hide it. I was angry, quiet, frustrated and exhausted.
Difficulties bonding with baby
Worst of all I just couldn’t feel any bond with the baby and I couldn’t understand why. One night my wife called me out on my behaviour. Lockdown had hit us hard and my eldest wasn’t adjusting well to the new addition in the family. In the middle of the night only a few days after our youngest was born I had to take our eldest out for a drive to get him to sleep. Once he’d drifted off I returned home. My wife knew there was something off and this was supposed to be the time where we as a family bonded. It must have been etched on my face as I sat down on the sofa. I felt like I’d totally lost control of my thoughts and the pressure was building. Here I was supposed to be helping her and the new baby acclimatize to our home when in reality I was falling apart. I felt guilt like I’d never experienced and that made me more frustrated and angry.
My partner wanted to know what was going on
That night she rightly wanted to know what was wrong.
My pride was getting in the way and silence was not the answer she was looking for. She clearly had become tired of my behaviour. I just wanted to tell her I wanted to give up and I was hoping she'd let it go. As a couple we’ve been together for over 20 years, so this is a person who knew me inside out and I was aware of that. I felt like I was a disappointment to her and so I thought that staying silent was my only option for keeping her and my boys safe and happy. As the silence filled the room, I was praying she’d let it go. I was clinging on and without considering the consequence or the power of the words I was about to use. But then I blurted out “I can’t cope, I don’t want to be alive anymore!”
In hindsight, I don’t think my behaviour impacted my eldest. Why? Partly because I was always at work. My job coupled with the commute created distance between us. I’d been working at the end of a long commute for the year leading up to my youngest’s arrival so my eldest wasn’t seeing me that often. That set of circumstances allowed me to hide the pressure I felt. Being at home due to COVID combined with paternity leave took that distance away. However, I admitted to the struggle early into paternity leave, and then I was working from home (I still am) and I think that enabled me to make the changes that were necessary for my mental health at the time. I believe that conversation stopped the world around me getting out of control.
The biggest impact to our family was to my partner. When I told her how I was feeling, the force of the language I used hit her full on. Utter shock was etched across her face. I remember vividly, that the disbelief quickly turned to anger as the tears rolled down her cheeks. I remember watching as her breath quickened and I could see she was panicking as the words I had used ripped through her. In an instant I had destroyed everything we’d built (or that’s how I felt). Our son was only 9 days old and here I was admitting how worthless I felt.
After sharing the news
I consoled her. But it was like I’d already been lost. I could see the pain in her eyes as she sobbed. I could see her mind racing and looking to me for more answers. I could see her looking through me, planning a life where I wasn’t there, raising our children everyday to the memory of the man she loved. Apart from the distress I’d caused, I felt lighter. I’d carried this burden around for a long time and frankly it had nothing to do with having a new baby or lockdown. I did feel guilt like I’d never experienced it before, but I recall thinking that whilst my admission was selfish, it had shown her that I wasn’t ready to pack it all in.
I comforted her and made a promise and to do this day I keep that promise. The thing I notice and still notice from time to time is that I’ll catch her looking at me. In the early days that look was filled with fear and anger. But now that look is different. Whilst that moment is still very raw for her it’s brought us closer together and we’re more open with one another. I don’t think that look would have changed had I not made real changes.
What helped me get through it?
I didn’t seek professional help and at the time I didn’t believe it was necessary. However, I recognise the importance of getting help but I also understand that admitting you are struggling with anything is hard, especially for a man. That night I admitted I was struggling and didn’t want to be alive, allowing me to focus on what is important to me. The very act of admitting the pain I was experiencing helped me to move forward. But frankly, telling someone you love (the mother of your children) that you’re ready to tap out and then watch her react to the words you use will snap you out of most things. I didn’t seek professional help but I did make changes and here’s what I started doing:
Changes to my life that helped with my depression
I stopped drinking alcohol. Like most men I like a beer on a Friday and Saturday but I found that Friday was creeping into Thursday and Wednesday and Saturday was creeping into Sunday. So, I stopped completely for 9 months. In 2021 I started for 6 months. I’ve found circuit breakers help me and I know it’s benefited my relationship with my kids on a weekend morning.
I got up early and went for a walk (Every morning at 5:30) for 12 months. The fresh air first thing in the morning and a brisk walk just allowed me to clear my head.
I exercise every day (20-30 minutes) and have done since April 2020. A lung burning HIIT workout every morning!
I learned a series of breathing exercises that help me decompress. I do this every day without fail
I write a list of 5 things I’m grateful for every single day. I write every day whether it be personal notes or notes I share with others.
I learned to communicate better with my partner.
I ate less rubbish food.
I started reading about men’s mental health and how to build habits that helped me stay on top of it all.
I invested in a series of courses that helped me work on my confidence and helped me stay focused on what’s really important to me.
Most importantly I understand what it costs my kids and my partner if I’m not on top of my health and wellbeing. I still enjoy a beer and the odd takeaway but I now limit my intake and have built in circuit breakers. In all honesty, exercising daily, writing stuff down and learning a set of breathing exercises are all my non-negotiables.
Where am I now?
Okay, I had to make a lot of sacrifices and change a lot but look I’m a working parent, my partner works full time too and the pressures of fatherhood are often ignored. As far as I’m concerned, making a few sacrifices here and there have helped me to recover. It takes hard work, patience and persistence but I now know how to deal with a lot of the stuff that comes up and I have an appreciation for the things that really matter in life.
Aidan is a father of two and founder of Revolution You, a company focused on supporting modern fathers during the early stages of fatherhood. He founded Revolution You following a massive personal setback after the birth of his second son and is now focused on raising the awareness of the mental health challenges that many modern fathers are choosing to ignore as they adapt to their new role as dad.
He’s passionate about getting the balance right early on. He also believes that more has to be done to support and educate both employers and dads on the impact early fatherhood can have on a new dad.