Rob Sandler likes to feel that he's in charge of his life. He likes to make plans, set goals for himself, and achieve them. And, for the most part, he was able to do that—until his son was born.
"You suddenly have no control over what you do," says Sandler, 38, a medical device sales rep in Houston. "You are totally dependent on what the baby needs, and when he needs it. Before, you are very in control of your life and time and calendar—all that changes so dramatically when you have a child."
By the time his son was 2 weeks old, this abrupt change and the feelings of "entrapment" it brought had made Sandler a wreck. He went from being excited and happy to overwhelmed, anxious, and sad. His appetite waned. He suffered from insomnia. He lost control of his emotions.
Sandler started to feel that he was failing his son, and after another two weeks, the guilt led him to consult a psychologist. But even then, it took months—and an initial diagnosis of acute depression—for him to realize that what he was suffering from was postpartum depression.
Postpartum (or postnatal) depression is loosely defined as an episode of depressed mood that occurs in the weeks and months following the birth of a child, and, unlike the fleeting and more common "baby blues," persists for at least two weeks.
For obvious reasons, postpartum depression has traditionally been seen as a condition that affects women. Mounting research shows that the experience is not restricted to moms, however. Studies in recent years have found that roughly 10% of men become depressed when their partner is expecting or after bringing a baby home—not much lower than the rate of 13% to 14% seen in new mothers.
Although the causes and symptoms of postpartum depression differ slightly in men and women (hormones may play a bigger role in women, for instance), the complications it can cause are similar regardless of sex and are no less serious a concern for dads. In addition to creating problems at work and with partners, postpartum depression can affect father-child bonding and can have consequences for a child's long-term development.
What male postpartum depression looks like
Postpartum depression appears to develop more slowly in men than it does in women. It has been shown to be most prevalent in men between three and six months postpartum, whereas women may experience its onset in a matter of weeks after birth.
The signs may be difficult to recognize at first. Men often display the textbook symptoms of depression (such as sadness, fatigue, appetite changes, feelings of worthlessness, and a loss of interest in things they used to find pleasurable). However, depression in men, more so than in women, sometimes manifests itself in unconventional ways.
Men may grow angry and irritable, or they may become impulsive and drink or gamble too much, overwork, or even pursue an affair, says Will Courtenay, PhD, a psychotherapist in Berkeley, Calif., who specializes in men's health and is the author of Dying to Be Men: Psychosocial, Environmental, and Biobehavioral Directions in Promoting the Health of Men and Boys.
For Joel Schwartzberg, the telltale sign was his doughnut fixation.
"When I brought my son home from the hospital, the reality of that situation hit me like a wrecking ball," says Schwartzberg, 42, who has written about postpartum depression for magazines, websites, and in his book, The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad. "I felt like in exchange for this wonderful little child, I had given up my life—and, at the time, it didn't seem like a fair exchange."
Although he didn't yet know that he was dealing with postpartum depression, he felt that his child was usurping the things he enjoyed (freedom, TV, sex), and he turned to food for solace. Specifically, to a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts, where he would drive with his sleeping son late at night to give his wife a chance to rest.