On a recent trip to California, I was encouraged by the commitment and dedication some of my male friends exhibited towards parenting. This was not just because it reinforced my personal status as hands-on parent, but because it revealed to me that we, as fathers, are discovering an enduring sense of purpose and satisfaction in fatherhood. I shared time with at least three of my friends who are full-time fathers (meaning they are the primary caregiver to their young children) and fully engaged in the responsibility of parenting. This is a radical shift from when we were kids in the 70s and 80s, when most of our fathers were marginally involved in the day-to-day of parenting, along with the emotional care and involvement required to raise a well-adjusted child. But with greater involvement comes greater responsibility and more of an emotional toll.
Volumes have been written about postpartum depression in women, as the latest statistics suggest somewhere between 12 percent to 20 percent of new mothers contend with moderate to severe feeling of depression within the first year of parenting. But now comes research from the University of Michigan strongly suggesting far more fathers than previously thought are suffering from a similar form of post partum depression, and these fathers are three times as likely to spank their 1-year-old children as fathers who aren’t depressed. In addition, research suggests that these same fathers, beyond the depression and the prospect for abuse, are far less likely to spend time reading to their young children. Out of more than 1,700 fathers surveyed in the study, 15 percent said they’d spanked their kids in the past month. Stemming from a report last year in The Journal of the AMA, about 10 percent of new fathers were actually depressed (considerably less than the percentage of new mothers reporting depression, but considerable nonetheless).
Now some of these findings, while certainly troubling, may bring up questions and concerns about the acceptability of hitting or disciplining your child (even though most medical and psychological studies reveal any form of corporal punishment should be avoided). It is fair to say that hitting or spanking a baby will never yield a positive result, and will certainly not help the very young child unlearn bad behavior through physical discipline. That said, the University of Michigan study does open up the conversation about some of the pitfalls of fatherhood and lends some focus to the welfare of hand-on fathers, as well as their young children.
Is it enough to just talk about depressed fathers (or “Sad Dads” as they have been somewhat humorously and dismissively dubbed) or, like the efforts to help postpartum mothers, should something more concrete be done? Some reports say that doctors and pediatricians should be advised to deal with cries for help and pay close attention to both parents mental state in the first year of parenthood. But fathers, while this may be a generalization, may not be so willing to ask for, or even get, the sort of support offered to many new moms struggling with depression. Some fathers may emphasize self-sufficiency and personal fortitude over the dire need for support. Reaching out to many of these fathers may be more difficult than some have anticipated.