Maternal mental health has been the subject of intense and understandable scrutiny in the wake of the death of three Duxbury children, allegedly at the hands of their mother, Lindsay Clancy. But there is much less information about partners, what they endure, how they can help, and even how to recognize when they, too, are in distress.
Robert Everly wished he knew more about perinatal mood disorders before his wife struggled with one.
“I feel that people don’t discuss them enough to identify them,” he said. “She had to experience psychosis for us to learn what it was.”
In 2015, Sarah Everly underwent an emergency caesarean section without anesthesia during the birth of the couple’s first child. Her husband said he didn’t fully recognize the gravity of that traumatic ordeal until much later. And after she had another C-section during the birth of the couple’s third child, her mental health rapidly deteriorated.
She started to complain about a malicious spirit in their home that was jinxing her and the baby. She would slip into dissociative states, seemingly detached from the world around her. It escalated to the point where Robert would take their knives and medication to work, for fear that she might hurt herself.
Eventually, Sarah Everly was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, and was treated with a combination of medication, emotional support, and counseling that helped stabilize her and let her process the trauma of that first birth. On difficult days, her husband said he would sit with her on the floor, holding and rocking her until she felt calmer.
Krista Maltais, an advanced postpartum doula and owner of Relief Parenting Respite and Resource Center in New Hampshire, suggests expectant parents seek out childbirth or parenting classes that include information on both the pregnancy and postpartum periods, as well as tips on how to spot when something is wrong.
“What I find is a common challenge is that many of the dad boot camps are very short and focused on birth,” she said. “There’s very little or sometimes no discussion about mental health.”
Warning signs of a postpartum mood disorder can include extreme fear or guilt, struggles connecting with the baby, and loss of sleep or appetite. Partners who may suspect their spouse is struggling with postpartum depression can refer to an online screening questionnaire.
The best thing to do is listen and create a safe space, said Daniel Singley, a San Diego-based psychologist researching men’s mental health during the transition to fatherhood. Many people are tempted to “fix” their partner, he noted. But stopping first to listen, ask questions, and validate their fears and experiences will go a long way to helping them feel safe.
“Don’t minimize,” Singley said. “Minimizing might sound like, ‘You’ll be fine. You’re just tired. You’ll get over it.’ ”
Many women may not even recognize what they’re going through or could harbor fear or shame over their thoughts and feelings. Partners should always encourage them to seek help. Mental health professionals, doctors, doulas, and midwives can screen for conditions, provide referrals, and provide educational resources.
Mari-Elena Leckel, founder of Boston Birth Associates, which hosts support groups for new parents, encourages partners to notify everyone involved in the birth parent’s care of any mental health symptoms.
For birth parents who are resistant to speaking with a professional, it can be helpful for partners to model the behavior they want to see, Singley said. He suggests joining a support group or seeing a therapist and then inviting the birth parent to join in.
Many new parents feel a loss of personal identity as their lives begin to revolve around the baby and they stop making time for their interests and relationships, which can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation. For these reasons, Singley encourages partners to keep working on the aspects of their relationships beyond the new role of caring for a baby and also help each other find time to be alone.
“What were the things you were doing while you were dating?” he said. “How do you do a revised version of those even when it takes effort?”
Support from friends and family is also extremely important to reduce the stress on parents during the postpartum period. A lack of social support is one risk factor for perinatal mood disorders, so parents who have people in their lives who are willing to help or who can afford supportive services should make use of them, said Maltais.
As the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, Kyle and Abby Davidenko had twins under the age of 2 who were both born prematurely and received physical therapy and autistic assistance at home. He said the support of professionals and their families helped maintain a routine for the couple and allowed his wife to manage her depressive symptoms.
Soon afterward, he lost his job, the country went into a lockdown, and the Worcester couple found themselves isolated from their support network. That’s when Abby Davidenko’s postpartum depression amplified, her husband said.
“We put so much of the responsibility on the nuclear family and that’s not healthy,” said Kyle Davidenko, who feels parents shoulder too much of the pressure to cope without the help of a proverbial village. “Healthy kids require healthy parents.”
While hormonal and physical changes put pregnant parents at a greater risk for perinatal mood disorders, their partners can also face similar challenges. Studies show that one in ten new fathers experience postpartum depression and nearly 18 percent develop anxiety disorders during the pregnancy or within the first year postpartum.
For partners struggling with mood disorders themselves or navigating their partners’ condition, Postpartum Support International offers several free resources, including a support hot line, free monthly call-in forums for fathers, and support groups.
“A new baby can have a big impact on a family and the more support you have, the more successful you’ll be in that postpartum period,” said Leckel of Boston Birth Associates.
If you currently have, or have ever had, a partner who struggled with their mental health after giving birth, tell us about your experience in the form below.
Zeina Mohammed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_ZeinaMohammed.