We really shouldn’t be surprised that a dad’s mental health also matters for a child’s development. Older mothers everywhere have been smugly nodding to themselves with the recent news that it’s not only a mom’s eggs that are more likely to be genetically damaged with aging.
It’s been well-known that a mother’s mental health can have dramatic effects on her child’s emotional health and development. But now in the largest study of its kind there’s evidence to show that depressed and anxious dads-to-be and new fathers can affect both a child and the mother.
When I was doing research for my thesis on my transition to first-time motherhood, I originally figured it was going to be about new negotiations in the couple’s relationship and about changes in the identity of the mother. Of course, my study was small, since it was only an undergraduate honors thesis. But I was so taken aback by the depth of the emotions in these women. All of them were professional, thirtysomething, and when I interviewed them with their husbands before their babies were born, most thought they would continue working, were ecstatic about pregnancy and parenthood, and looked forward to co-parenting with their spouses. My twentysomething self was shocked when I came back months later, when the babies were a few months old. Most of the women seemed like they had been hit by trucks and were shells of their former selves. Several of them cried during the interviews, and all expressed a combination of fierce joy and misery that I could not have possibly understood until my son was born.
But what I also couldn’t have truly understood until my son was born how much the family as a dynamic system is altered by parenthood. It’s not just the mom, but of course it’s her body, her breasts, and her career that are usually being most directly affected. It’s also the dad, whose moods, parenting style, and personal reactions to parenthood also impact the mother and baby. A supportive spouse — as the happiest mothers in my study had — can mean everything to a new mother as her hormones and emotions go haywire. (And, yes, even the pets are affected. My Boston Terrier, an easygoing and mellow dog, dealt with my son’s colic by attempting to run away several times.)
It’s common practice for ob-gyns and pediatricians to be concerned about how a mother is faring mentally. Maybe we should also be asking how Dad is feeling too. And maybe the vet could also ask the dogs and cats.