Mind your head, dads: Fathers need to take better care of their mental health

Becoming a dad is hard — here Pat Fitzpatrick shares what helped him take the edge off

Getting out and meeting people proved a boon for Pat, as did taking up a new hobby that was just for him.

OCTOBER 10 is World Mental Health Day.

We’ve come a long way from the nervous breakdown. That was the name given to the entire spectrum of mental illness when I was growing up. People used to say that
so-and-so had a nervous breakdown, in a whisper, in case they caught it themselves.

Now, there is no shortage of famous people coming out to talk about their struggles with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and various other conditions. Sometimes it can feel like you need one, just to get on TV.

We still don’t hear much from fathers in public. Women are encouraged to discuss aspects of post-natal depression and seek help if they need it. You don’t hear the same public support for Dad. It’s almost like we couldn’t be affected because we didn’t have to push out a child. And anyway, our job is to say nothing and plough on, like our fathers did.

This doesn’t tally with what dads tell me in private. A friend of mine said being dad to small kids was up there with the Leaving Cert, as one of the most traumatic and stressful periods of his life. Others have said something similar, in hushed tones, because we’re not supposed to find it tough.

Guess what? It’s tough. The world as you know it falls apart once there’s a new baby in the house. Sleep is a goner for a while, you see too little of your friends, too much of your partner and don’t worry, she feels the same way about you.

This doesn’t mean every man is bound for a breakdown. But if you don’t
actively look after your mental health when the kids are under four, I think there is a chance you could end up overwhelmed.

I’m no expert. If you feel it’s all too much, tell your partner and go seek some help. All I know is that these are some of the things that help me to forget baby rice and Calpol for a while, and blow off some steam.

Date a dad

You need to get out and meet the people. It was five-a-side soccer for, before my ankles staged an intervention and said you’re probably not going to play for Manchester United now, what with being 45 and useless. I felt it was a bit harsh, but there is no point in ignoring your joints once you hit middle-age.

So now I play squash. It’s a once a week affair, with another dad. We talk about our kids on the drive to the squash club, he always wins because he’s younger than me and probably trains on the sly. The next day, he Vibers me a graph of his heartrate to show much energy we used. (He’s a bit nerdy that way.) We agree we must do it again the following week and we do.

This has nothing to do with getting good at squash. (Trust me on that one.) It’s just something vaguely competitive we can do, in all weather, to blow away the minor irks and cobwebs that build up when there are kids in your life.

It’s better than a gym session, because neither of us feel we can back out at the last minute, in case we let the other guy down.

That matters when the couch is pretty much saying, “Why don’t you just sit down here with a sharing pack of Maltesers and binge watch Breaking Bad?” (If your couch does actually start talking to you, that would be a good time to seek help.)

Date your partner

My wife has put an embargo on discussing our private life, and who could blame her? That said, I have a friend who swears by a bit of sex. He says it changes the mood at home and takes the edge off his stress levels.

He said you can’t expect your partner to just get ‘em off
as a tonic for your mental well- being, and you both need to get out on a date more often, so you can reconnect as a couple.

This is important because women find it hard to have sex when there is a distance between them and their partner, according to my friend. So it might be a good idea to go on a few dates with her indoors. As long as you don’t keep checking your watch to see how long before you can go home and have sex. That can be a bit off-putting, apparently.

Face the music

It started as an assignment from a newspaper. They wanted me to try something out of my comfort zone for six weeks and write about it. Someone suggested joining an African drumming class.

That was so far outside my comfort zone, I reckoned I’d be lucky to last a fortnight. Let’s just say I had no interest in getting in touch with my inner African.

Two years later, and I’m still doing it once a week. It’s not just that I love the drums. What worked for me was that I took on something completely new when the kids came along, something that was just for me. What worked for my wife is this doesn’t involve hang-gliding or climbing Everest, so she won’t be left to raise the kids by herself.

We play rhythms in the class which are used to drive out evil spirits and bad juju in West Africa. I don’t want to put anyone off having kids, but you are pretty much guaranteed
bad juju in a house where nobody is getting any sleep.

I never thought I’d admit this in public, but I think banging a goat skin for 90 minutes a week, with some strangers, helps clear the air around me. My friend has taken up guitar and says the same. So pick an instrument and give it ago.

Stick with the booze

I don’t want to be flippant about alcohol, given the link between substance abuse and self-harm or suicide. But I love a drink. There was a time when I loved it too well, and was probably drinking too much. Now, I genuinely think I might be drinking too little.

This happens to a lot of casual drinkers when the kids come along. You stick with the bottle of wine for a few Friday nights, until you notice that Saturdays seem to last for 37 hours and you’re fit to cry at 10am.

It’s just not worth the hangover.

Worse again, if your partner is pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re down a drinking buddy. (It’s great she’s pregnant obviously, but you’d miss her all the same.) As a result, I pretty much stopped drinking altogether and ended up a shambles whenever I escaped for a few pints with my friends.

I replaced booze with tea. The problem there is it isn’t really Friday night if you’re sitting down with a mug of camomile. There was nothing to mark the end of the week, and it felt like I was stuck in a rut.

That’s when I discovered the top shelf in my supermarket off-licence, with decent wines for about 15 quid. Two glasses of red on a Friday night, with a posh packet of crisps, won’t give me a hangover.

But it’s enough to feel like a reward at the end of the week. Better still, it’s enough to stop me slurring like a first-timer when I go out for a few pints.

Phone a friend

I know it’s illegal to imply there is a difference between the sexes, but sometimes you need to talk to a man.

Better still, is a series of chats with your friends on a trip away. The trick is not to go too far for too long, or enjoy yourself too much, because your partner will make you pay through the nose.

The last one I did was a short weekend in Dingle, which involved a long hike, pints and pizzas. We all agreed it was great to get away from our kids, and then spent the next 48 hours talking about them.

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