Being a parent can be lonely—especially for men, who tend to have fewer friends, on average. New dads who think of their spouses as their “best friends” may find that a new mom’s priorities shift in ways that leave them feeling isolated — a feeling exacerbated by time constraints that lead to fewer social opportunities. Data seems to indicate that fathers are often lonelier than mothers. Solving the problem is, unfortunately, not as simple as identifying it.
“Moms often have a support network of other women with which to be open about the struggles of being a new mom,” explains psychotherapist Jennifer Avila. “Dads are unlikely to have these types of heart-to-hearts with their male friends.”
Postpartum depression, anxiety, and loneliness are widely discussed and well-documented in women. But these postpartum problems are common among men as well—partly due to declining testosterone levels. Yet fathers are rarely screened for postpartum mood disorders, and there’s evidence that most men are already operating at a friend deficit long before they have kids. The upshot is that, when loneliness strikes, it hits men especially hard.
“One dynamic that comes up is that dad might have some jealousy towards the new baby and the attention that new baby is getting from mom,” says marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain. Where moms can acknowledge their exhaustion and stress, fathers might be understandably reluctant to lend voice to feelings of jealousy towards an infant. But just because that feeling sounds petty or small doesn’t make the experience of being shut out less alienating for men. To the contrary—it can create more resentments and set vicious cycles in motion.
One of the anxieties that leads to trouble for men is that they don’t earn enough to support a growing family. This can create real mental strain. “Dads can definitely feel more pressure during this time period, especially if mom has unpaid maternity leave, or if mom is going to be a full-time stay-at-home mom,” says McBain.
McBain and Avila agree that fathers would benefit from the same type of support given to new moms, like playgroups, classes, storytime, and other activities marketed towards men. As more male-focused resources like that become more widely available, lonely dads would similarly benefit from focusing on self-care, which may include making plans with old friends or just going to the gym. Likewise, it’s important for mothers and fathers to make a point of spending time with each other during this difficult postpartum period, either by hiring a sitter, having grandparents help, or just taking the baby for a walk together. This will help couples understand each other’s different yet shared experiences with parenthood.
“Sometimes the best thing both parents can do during life with a new baby is just hold on and hang in there, recognizing that their partner is going to be a bit out of sorts for a while.”