Holding my wife’s hand tightly, I watched helplessly as she gasped for air, pain etched all over her face. Doctors and midwives swarmed around us. My wife, Lesley, then 30, had been in labour for three days and she was exhausted. It was decided that they’d have to use forceps to get the baby out.
Lesley was barely conscious as she let out a weak call for me. ‘Matt,’ she said, as her hand went limp in mine. She was suffering significant blood loss and I watched as doctors rushed to regain control of the situation. It was like a bloodbath and it was my wife’s blood.
After Minnie emerged with the help of forceps, she was placed in my arms amid the chaos. While trying to enjoy that first moment with our baby, I was acutely aware that I might be facing parenthood alone. I didn’t know if Lesley was going to survive, and I was terrified and traumatised.
Lesley didn’t wake up until the next day. Blood loss left her weak, but she was quickly asking after Minnie. She was so brave and focused on moving forward and starting our new family life, it hardly felt appropriate for me to tell her how intense the labour had been to witness. She didn’t need to know and as I was just a spectator, I didn’t feel that my emotions were valid.
I buried what I’d gone through. Or at least, I thought I did.
Lesley and I had been so excited about starting our family. Together since we were 16, we married at 23 and Lesley fell pregnant when we were 30. I’d happily removed my drum kit from the spare room and painted the walls purple and orange, ready to become the nursery.
My expectations of the kind of dad I wanted to be were high. I was going to be a provider, I was going to be cheerful, supportive, energetic and capable. But after Minnie’s arrival in April 2006, I felt numb. However, I thought, what right did I have to feel unhappy? Lesley was the one who’d gone through the painful labour. I’d just watched.
After a month’s paternity leave, things got worse. Back at my job as a university research associate, I felt like I was wading through mud trying to get from one end of the day to the other. Minnie wasn’t a great sleeper and I became exhausted trying to function at work on no sleep. I was barely able to form a sentence when Lesley asked me how I was. But inside, my thoughts were raging. I was terrified I was failing as a father and worried no one would understand if I dared voice how I was feeling.
I told myself to just get on with it. We’d decided to have children and I’d known it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Lesley was coping and I didn’t want to burden her.
As Minnie reached 18 months, she started to sleep better. We had always wanted more than one child so we agreed to start trying again. When Minnie was three, our first son, Zeb, was born.
After Zeb’s arrival, my fading world went darker. It was like a thick curtain had been draped over everything that had ever brought me joy. I felt a million miles away from Lesley and the children, stuck in my own head, telling myself they were better off without me.
I started crying as I walked aimlessly around supermarkets. I was convinced I was a failure, I was letting my family down, I was selfish to feel depressed when I had a beautiful wife and two healthy kids. I should have been happy, which only made me feel worse.
Men are expected to cope and provide, I told myself. Everything was exacerbated by the feeling that I had no right to feel any of this.
By the time Zeb was six months old, I was no longer functioning. One day when Lesley went out with the kids and I was supposed to be at work, I climbed back into bed, curling up in a ball, a broken and afraid man.
When Lesley came home and found me, it was the first time she’d seen me so vulnerable. I’d been distant but I’d never let her see what was really happening. But I didn’t have the energy to hide anymore. I’d reached rock bottom, I was scared and I needed my wife.
‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this,’ I kept repeating. Lesley sat with me, asking if I was ill.
‘I’ve failed as a father and a husband,’ I managed to say. Lesley seemed shocked, assuring me I was a wonderful husband and our kids adored me. But I couldn’t stop crying.
‘You need to see a doctor,’ Lesley said gently. I knew she was right and I felt ready to ask for help. I had scared myself. My doctor offered antidepressants, but I didn’t want to take them. He was dismissive and left me feeling like I needed to pull myself together, which only validated my fear that I was failure.
I persevered, requesting a second opinion. This time I saw a female doctor, who listened to what I had to say.
She told me I was suffering from post-birth depression and anxiety.
It felt strange to think I had postnatal depression. Lesley and I thought only women could get that. But my doctor explained that men too were at risk of developing mental health problems following the birth of their children.
Having a diagnosis, I arranged counselling and learned to make sense of how I was feeling. Counselling helped me feel better equipped to live with and understand depression. I see it as a long war made up of intense battles and periods of peace. I learned to recognise that exhaustion or stress could lead to another battle and I learned what to do to avoid that happening.
By the time Caleb, now four, arrived, I had a better understanding of my mental health. I knew the warning signs and had coping mechanisms. Depression can lead to suicide, I knew, and a reason for this is because men don’t talk.
But it’s becoming more widely recognised that men can experience perinatal mental health issues. Fatherhood is amazing, but it comes with an increased pressure to be financially responsible for more people. It changes your lifestyle, your relationship, your idea of yourself. Combined with a lack of sleep it can be a recipe for a downward spiral.
Minnie loves climbing trees, Zeb loves football and I’m teaching Caleb how to look after the plants in the garden. They are compassionate, adventurous little people. They may have been the catalyst for everything I’ve been through, but they are also my best medicine.
I have come to see that describing myself as someone who has mental health problems can be empowering. Acknowledging that I will always struggle with depression is not defeatist, it’s honest. I hope my honesty encourages other men to take that first step and tell someone how they are feeling.
Matt Padley, 40, lives in Nottingham, UK, with wife Lesley, 40, and their children, Minnie, 10, Zeb, six and Caleb, four.
‘Matt hid his feelings so well, I didn’t realise he was so traumatised. He was distant, but I thought it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a cup of tea and a bit of time.
When I found Matt that day, curled up in bed, my heart sunk for him. I felt so powerless, but I cuddled him and told him over and over again that I loved him and was here for him.
Matt has been criticised for daring to think he has gone through a tenth of what a mother goes through. He’s been accused of ‘moaning’ by people who think dads have it easy. But I have seen it for myself. We call it perinatal depression to avoid antagonising anyone, but what dads go through is just as valid as what mums experience.
By the time we had Caleb we’d come a long way. We learned to communicate. We involved our friends and family so we had a support structure. Like me, they were all oblivious to Matt’s turmoil, but we’re all here for him now. Matt’s mental health is part of who he is, it’s part of why I love him. It’ll always be a part of our lives.
If he’s having a hard day, we show him we’re there for him, we love him, we don’t judge him. Depression can be lonely and it feeds on isolation, so we make sure Matt never feels alone.
There’s an idea that men have to be strong, silent heroes, never talking about their emotions. But I see true strength in Matt now. A real man can talk about his feelings, and that’s what we’re teaching our children.