Non-Gestational Parents Also Suffer From Postpartum Mood Disorders

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A couple, a genderqueer person and transgender woman, sitting on a therapist’s couch and talking. (Image Source: The Gender Spectrum Collection)

It is important to focus on the needs of mothers and birthing people during the postpartum period, and it’s generally important to honor the complexities that accompany the fourth trimester, but it’s imperative that we take into account the ways in which all parents are impacted by the arrival of a new family member. That includes the parents who did not physically give birth to the new child, the non-gestational parents. Postpartum mood disorders like postpartum depression (PPD), postpartum anxiety (PPA), and postpartum psychosis (PPP), are marked by different symptoms that can manifest in different ways depending on the person. Resources and support networks for people struggling with postpartum mood disorders vary and many mothers and birthing people lack access to them. Their partners and co-parents often lack access as well and this is a reproductive justice issue and public health concern.

After the birth or adoption of a new child, family dynamics can change tremendously. Changes in schedules, responsibilities, expectations, and communication styles can lead to moments or long periods of difficulty in finding a rhythm. When things like work, finances, and child care are factored in the situation gets more complicated. Further, things like the race, class, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and nation of origin can impact what life is like for new parents. Those factors are hard enough to navigate without even beginning to make sense of the emotional, psychological, and, in some cases, religious or faith-based issues that impact family life.

While birthing people heal and recover physically and psychologically from pregnancy, labor, and the overall birthing experience, their partners are healing and recovering in their own ways. The struggles that non-gestational parents face aren’t discussed as often as they should be and lack of awareness could lead to more cases of undiagnosed and/or untreated postpartum mood disorders. Diagnosis and treatment are, of course, not accessible to everyone so the issue is even more complicated in that regard.

When non-gestational parents face the transitions and adjustments that accompany a new child at home, they respond and react in various ways. Within four weeks of the birth of their new child, some symptoms that non-gestational parents can experience are “depressed or sad mood, marked loss of interest in virtually all activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death.”

According to studies, disorders like PPD in non-gestational parents can lead to “increasing emotional and behavioral problems among their children (either directly or through the mother) and increasing conflicts in the marital relationship.” With more than ten percent of new fathers, for instance, experiencing what doctors are referring to as “paternal perinatal depression”, it is important to pay attention to risk factors and symptoms. Especially in relation to genetic predispositions for mood disorders or environmental factors that can lead to issues like anxiety. For Black, Brown, and Indigenous fathers and non-gestational parents, the risks are increased due to the ways in which structural and institutional racism impact their lives experiences in general with respect to susceptibility to mental illness. For LGBTQIA+ parents, there are added layers given transphobic and homophobic legislation coupled with lack of access to culturally-competent and inclusive medical and services. The majority of studies and research on the topic of postpartum mood disorders and non-gestational parents centers men in the discourse and laments the “lack of support and tailored treatment options for men having trouble adjusting to the transition to fatherhood.” The obstacles faced by LGBTQIA+ parents point to the need for options that are more inclusive of all gender identities.

Addressing the unique struggles faced by non-gestational parents and ensuring that they, along with mothers and birthing people, have affordable and equitable access to necessary resources and treatments in the fourth trimester must be a goal of reproductive justice movements. The quality of life for the entire family depends on the mental health of the parents and it’s important that conversations about postpartum mood disorders include non-gestational parents. Childhood environments impact the development of children and those children go on to impact the world so it’s important to advocate for the conditions of possibility for the sustainable health and wellness of their parents.

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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