Depression & the Stay-At-Home Dad
So you probably get a lot of email titled “I don’t know what to do” but I’m lacking the brain power to be more creative right now.
Here’s the background. My husband and I are 38. We’ve known each other for nearly 13 years, we dated for 2 1/2 years, and have been married for 2 1/2. We took our time getting to know each other, our families, and making sure we were ready before taking the “big plunge” so we didn’t end up like so many people we knew who were divorced. I knew him well, very well. I knew his family, very well. And I knew that with him I got a crazy MIL and a family history of quick and heavy tempers. We were lucky enough after fertility issues and a miscarriage to have an amazing son (he’s 15 month old), let’s call him Wiggles.
My husband, let’s call him Hashbrown, was from another state. After graduating from college 3 years ago, he moved to my city (where he has some relatives). He looked for a job but was unable to find anything. We made the decision while I was pregnant that Hashbrown would stay home with Wiggles, at least for a couple of years or until the job market opened up in his field because I have a great, steady job, with awesome benefits. This was not the ideal situation but he seemed eager to do it and who was I to say no? We don’t have to fork out tons of cash for daycare, deal with a constantly sick child, and who can take better care of my baby than his co-creator?
Last year, shortly after I went back to work (after 13 months of paid maternity leave (woot woot)) my husband had his first “episode”. It starts with a migraine and a sick child. My mild mannered, loving, compassionate, sweet husband turns into….something else. He flies off the handle. He’s easily set off. He yells, a lot. He punches holes in walls or breaks things. He feels trapped, stuck, isolated.
He’s mad at my parents because they are bogged down with caring for my sister’s (single mom) 3 young boys and he feels like he can’t ask them for help (which he could). He’s mad at his mother because she: lives out of state, won’t answer phone calls most of the time, won’t come visit and take some of the load off unless it’s convenient for her. He’s mad because he doesn’t feel like he can ask the few relatives of his in town to help because they are busy. He’s mad at me because I go to work. He’s mad at Wiggles for not sleeping, being sick, not eating well, whatever it is. It lasts for a few days, got better, came back a few weeks later, got better, and with only minor hiccups we’ve had pretty smooth sailing for several months (as smooth as marriage and toddler-raising can be).
Now we’re back in an episode similar to last year’s. Same problems, same behavior. I understand, or I think I do, what he’s going through. He feels and is isolated, trapped, stuck at home with only sweet Wiggles to keep him company. I try to be as empathetic as someone can be who hasn’t walked a mile in his shoes. I offer to pay for Wiggles to go once (or more) a week to a “Parent’s Day Out” at a local church. No, we should save that money for an emergency. Or No, he would feel guilty about sending Wiggles away for the day just so he could get some sanity back. I offer to ask my parents (or his cousins or niece) to take Wiggles. No, they have enough burden, we can’t add to that. I offer to take Wiggles and go spend an evening, day, whatever with my family. No, then they will know something is wrong and judge him. I ask him to talk to the Doctor. This usually happens in the winter, maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder. No, he doesn’t want a bunch of prescription meds and he doesn’t like our Doctor anyway.
Keep in mind, I do not believe for one minute that either my son or I am in harm’s way. As upset as he gets, he manages to maintain control of what and how he’s expressing his emotions. I also don’t think he will do anything crazy to himself.
The first time this happened, we had a big blow-out. He said some really hurtful things, I cried…a lot. He told me that sometimes he just needs to go away but he can’t ask us to do that. So I offer, or just tell him, that Wiggles and I are going out for a bit, and he gets angry because the only places I have to go to do that involve the people close to us that he doesn’t want involved.
I stay calm, I try not to yell back or cry. I quietly take care of our son, cook, do whatever else needs to be done to help take the load off of him. I tell him I love him. He says “I don’t know why”, “You should be sorry you married me”. I say, “I’m not sorry”, “Everyone has times like these”, “How many reasons (why I love you) do you want? I can think of 32 off the top of my head”, “Please tell me what I can do to help.”
So I wait for the episode to end. I try to take the burden off where I can. I dread getting up in the morning. I feel terrible about Wiggles going through this with his dad (my mom did something similar when I was young and she was a SAHM). I dread coming home because I don’t know what I’m coming home to. Was it a decent day or will there by a hole in my wall or a broken piece of furniture laying on the floor. I am hesitant to share this with those I’m close to because he’s close to those same people. I don’t want them deeply involved and I don’t want them to judge him either. So far, I’ve been unable to find the right thing to say or do. I wait, patiently, for the episode to end, for my sweet, loving, funny Hashbrown to come back to me and Wiggles. I tell myself that this too shall pass. But in the meantime, I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I want to cry ALL of the time (and I’m not a crier). My head pounds from the stress. My stomach feels like it’s taking a job interview on a roller coaster at a funeral.
I, quite honestly, don’t know what to do. I know married life is not all rainbows and kittens. We knew adding a tiny human to the mix was going to create conflict and stress. I love and adore my husband, despite all of this. I accept him for who he is. The other 50 weeks of the year that he isn’t like this are wonderful, truly wonderful. And if I could go back, knowing what I know about this behavior, I would still marry him and I would still have a baby with him. So I don’t know what to do.
The Patient Wife
Oh honey, I’m so sorry. Getting through your email without my chest tightening and my eyes tearing was hard enough — I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have that be your reality every day.
Your husband is DEPRESSED. Like seriously, majorly depressed. I’m not a doctor, obviously, but the signs and symptoms you’re describing are shooting off so loud and clear they might as well be fireworks. So let’s drop the language like “episodes” or “seasonal” or “we just need to grin and bear this and pretend everything is fine until eventually everything WILL be fine, thanks to the power of magical thinking.” Your husband is depressed.
Your husband is also not alone, or unusual, or a bad person, husband or father. Depression among stay-at-home parents (moms AND dads) is very, very common. There’s an acute loss of identity, of “value” — and not to mention some pretty terrible isolation when it’s just you and a small, needy child stuck in the house, in a new city.
His depression is the reason he can’t/won’t accept the solutions you’re offering. If you’ve never experienced depression, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with a depressed person, because they won’t deal, period. “Why don’t you go to a parents’ group? Why don’t you let my parents take the baby today? Why don’t you at least try to leave the house every day?” It’s just not that simple for the person currently stuck under a soul-crushing cloud, where every little detail of life can be spun into an out-of-control crisis. “Because I don’t want to talk to other people because I’m miserable and they’ll see that I’m miserable and therefore failing my child and failing my family and failing at life.”
His depression is the reason he can’t/won’t accept the love and patience you’re offering, either. Because he is very ill and needs more than a night off, a day in bed and 32 reasons why you love him. And he definitely needs more than you skulking around quietly, tiptoeing around his emotional minefields, clenching your teeth and waiting for the “episode” to end once the weather gets nicer. Real talk: Without professional intervention, things are going to get worse. Not better. Think about all those holes in your wall and try to imagine what the inside of your husband’s brain and emotional state must look like right now, because I guarantee you that he’s beating himself up inside far worse and far more often. He needs help before his thoughts turn suicidal, if they haven’t already.
He is wary of prescription medication. That’s fine. Understandable. I once encountered a terrible doctor who over-medicated me to the point that my original diagnosis (anxiety) was swallowed up in a sea of side effects that my doctor then treated with more drugs that essentially left me with the mental state of a plate of scrambled eggs. So I feel him on that. But I’m also not gonna let him off the hook for that, either. He needs to find a therapist, a psychologist, a licensed social worker — SOMEONE. Even a someone who can’t prescribe medication. In fact, he might be more comfortable starting there, at least. Then after he establishes some trust, that person could recommend that he supplement his treatment with a prescription. And if you need to make the appointment for him, do it.
That professional should also be there for you — or recommend a support group or other resources for you — and be the one to give you any additional advice re: your childcare situation. It’s tempting to simply say “find other arrangements or daycare and let your husband rejoin the workforce ahead of schedule,” but he’s really in no shape for the inevitable ups and downs (and rejection) of a job search right now, and even if the depression SEEMED to dissipate, it would eventually come raging back. That’s just how clinical depression tends to work, and it can return without provocation. Even when things are “fine” and the patient feels like he “should” be happy, but isn’t, the spiral can begin all over again.
I also worry that taking your son away from him during the day would leave him with nothing to ground him or keep him from self-harming during his hours alone. (Or self-medicating with alcohol.) But obviously you don’t want to leave your child in a situation where he isn’t being cared for properly or being yelled at all day for simply existing and needing things. (Isabel of Alphamom: I suggest you read some of the comments below that are expressing much concern about your son in your husband’s care right now. I personally agree with them.) So again I would HIGHLY recommend you talk with a mental health professional ASAP about your situation. Here are some articles on dealing with a depressed spouse to get started — as usual I’m hoping the commenters will also leave other resource recommendations for you (books, blogs, support networks, etc.).
But every article will likely say the same thing: GET HELP. You cannot (and should not) face this alone. You cannot cure him, or fix him. There is no magical thinking that will simply make everything “go back to how it was before.” He is sick and needs a doctor.
That said, you CAN get back to how it was before. Oh, you CAN. So can he. Depression is treatable, curable. It is not a personal failing or a reflection on who he is as a husband or father. There IS light at the end of this tunnel. Pick up the phone (and your healthcare provider directory from those awesome benefits) and start moving towards that light.
Editor: please consider contacting Postpartum Support International as they have specialized coordinators for dads and recognize that a percentage of new fathers also develop mood issues (though technically PPD shows up within the first year post birth). They have volunteers organized by region and will contact you within 24 hours. If you need more immediate help, they can help you find emergency services.
UPDATE: please scroll down to the bottom of the comments to get an update from “The Patient Wife.” Thank you all for your smarts, insights, thoughtfulness and care.Published February 18, 2013. Last updated April 13, 2017.