I’m not a steady rock…. Some things just don’t have an outlet. I lay at night and thoughts that I don’t want .. come up, I … trick my mind into making them go away…I want to portray a picture of managing….
Over the course of 2018, we spent time doing fieldwork with fathers like David above, who spoke to us about their journeys with mental ill-health, both diagnosed, and undiagnosed, in the period after having a baby. Some were also supporting mothers who had gone through difficult births or who themselves were going through postnatal depression or anxiety. We have written elsewhere about the struggles these men experienced with reaching out for help from those closest to them. There is dwindling support for postnatal care for mothers in our healthcare system while the issue of support for fathers is only recently beginning to be considered, leaving a heavy burden on activists and third sector organisations.
In this piece, we focus, on a key communicative metaphor – that of ‘the rock’, which David uses overtly above, but which other dads consistently alluded to, to convey the importance of impermeability, strength and steadfastness, as part of what they felt was expected of them, and what they had come to expect of themselves, as new fathers. A perceived failure to live up to such expectations, we learned, had played a key role in the spiralling of fathers’ mental health struggles as they played down difficulties as compared to their partners, or blamed themselves for failing to cope.
I felt that if I brought it up, it would be almost like a slap in her face, like I may need more support but you’re doing so much already….the sort of the guilt of feeling like I shouldn’t … if she was coping with a larger amount of stress, then why … I don’t know, I felt sort of … embarrassed I guess that… I wasn’t coping with it… I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed that I was not able to … do as well she was I guess, and I didn’t, I didn’t think it was fair that if I brought it up, it would be … selfish of me.
It became clear, then, that feelings of failure, embarrassment or guilt, such as those described by Roy had acted as a barrier to feeling able to seek support, or even to feel worthy of it. As Rob articulates below, such feelings were closely connected to understandings about masculinity:
I don’t want people to see me as different or treat me as different, or think they have to be careful around me or … that’s for me to deal with and worry about, not for them to consider…Because of the nature of the, of the condition, you feel as if you’re a burden… I felt that it was for me to sort out… you’re the man and you’re the strong one… I mean I know the world’s not like that necessarily but in your mind, that’s how you still see things.
The ‘rock’ metaphor, then, is intrinsically gendered. It has clear connections to hegemonic masculinity and its association with strength, protection and control. It permeates interpersonal and mass communication, and individual, institutional and societal discourses, connecting to broader difficulties men have opening up and seeking help, but manifesting in particular ways in relation to fatherhood. From friends and families to best-selling baby manuals and online advice sites, fathers-to-be often find themselves surrounded by a discourse that frames new fatherhood as a project that centres on the provision of unwavering support for their baby’s mother. Now there are, of course, obvious reasons for ensuring fathers understand all their partners may be going through and encouraging them to be there for them in all manner of ways. Yet, amidst the lower visibility of more rounded narratives of all that becoming a father might involve, the pervasiveness of this imperative to be a steadfast, rock-like supporter may lead to difficulties for fathers and families. For one, such a discourse risks conveying to fathers that they are peripheral to the experience of having and looking after a baby, which also seems to discourage their taking any more than a secondary role in the sharing of care, for example. But, in so doing, this also potentially positions fathers’ own affective experiences, emotions and struggles along the way as unimportant and undeserving of support. In our research, the imperative fathers felt to be providers and not recipients of support had seemingly made it more difficult for them to recognise themselves as fully involved, affected and vulnerable, or to identify and act on needs for help, as here:
I didn’t really feel that I could share … because I felt guilty about having them… I felt that I couldn’t seek that [support] because the centre of attention should be wife rather than me.
Literature on intensive mothering has demonstrated the damage that gendered discourses can wreak on mothers, and how pervasive such ideologies can be, through everyday life and via institutions and policy. Our work with fathers indicates the operation of very different but similarly pervasive gendered discourses, revolving around the masculine ‘rock’ metaphor and the notion of impervious support, narratives that arise repeatedly in men’s own talk but reflect the plethora of discursive channels that surround them. The significance of such discourses as a barrier to mental health support-seeking offers an example of how structures of dominant masculinity, reinforced from various angles, can work against and damage men themselves, as well as being potentially detrimental to their partners and families.
We began this piece with David’s words – “I’m not a steady rock”. In their classic work Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson say about the rock metaphor –
“Take a rock. It’s a separate object and it’s hard. … Rocks have inherent properties independent of any beings: they’re solid, hard, dense..etc.”.
This helps highlight, we suggest, some of the broader and more pervasive issues we (families, societies, professionals) need to deal with in terms of paternal well-being. As well as placing limits on the scope of their parental identities and responsibilities, the construction of new fathers as separate, solid, steadfast support-providers places a set of emotional expectations on them that may be detrimental to their wellbeing. As the conversation begins to pick up on male mental health, there have been increasing instances online where fathers have opened up about their experiences and vulnerabilities. Scholarly literature which addresses new fathers’ mental health struggles and themes such as post-traumatic stress disorder in fathers also continues to develop, and it is encouraging that broader discourses around fathers’ gendered positioning, and the need for in/formal support for their emotional needs are beginning to be discussed in fields such as nursing, and midwifery.
Our argument here is that, as part of this growing discussion, we need to think carefully about masculine discourses surrounding new fathers, not just via informal, everyday interactions, but also the wide range of public-facing information and advice oriented to new parents. Specifically, we might think about how to more frequently address new fathers as participants rather than merely supporters and, as part of this, prepare them as fully as possible not just for the vital task of supporting mothers, but also the practical and emotional challenges they themselves might face.
*All names of participants in the project have been changed to preserve their anonymity.
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.