Parental Mental Health: Why Non-Birthing Parents Are Also At Risk

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Are fathers, adoptive parents, and non-birthing partners being left out of the parental mental health discussion?

Navigating parenthood, regardless of what stage you’re in, can really feel like a rollercoaster ride. One day, you may be steeped in appreciation for your family, kids, role as a parent and lifestyle. 

The next, you may be overburdened with overwhelm, anxiety, stress management, or even feelings of self-doubt or regret. (“Why did I become a parent? Am I even any good at this? Was I supposed to pursue a different path?”) These feelings are part of the reason why mental health care is so important… for every parent. 

Parental mental health is so important and yet it’s often neglected—between partners, among family/friends, and even on a personal level where we push aside our own needs and emotions. 

Taking care of your mental health though is like ensuring you have a solid structural foundation for parenthood. If the groundwork hasn’t properly been laid, you won’t be able to effectively support everything that parenthood and family life lays upon you. That’s something that both birthing and non-birthing parents can easily forget. We’re primed to think that carving out time for ourselves is selfish and we might even feel guilty when all of our time, resources, and energy isn’t given to our children. 

What do we mean by “non-birthing parent”?

“Non-birthing parent” is a term used to refer to the parent who is in an important role of raising a child but did not physically give birth. We use this term because we recognize that other terms like “mother” and “father” are limiting and can isolate some parents. They can also leave many valid caregivers out of the conversation entirely. 

Mental health care is for every parent

Tending to your mental health and wellbeing is a way of indirectly nurturing your family. When parents feel mentally and emotionally well, children notice, and benefit from this. You deserve your own time and energy and your child deserves a parent who is present and tending to their mental well-being. 

Another thing that we can often forget or leave out of the conversation is that mental health challenges are not just reserved for the mother or parent who gave birth. Non-birthing parents are also susceptible to mental health struggles as they navigate demands of family life as well as:

  • changing roles
  • demands on finances
  • a steep learning curve
  • higher-stakes responsibilities
  • less social interaction
  • a changed living environment
  • relationship challenges
  • postpartum depression
  • sleep disturbances
  • having to put certain personal passions on pause
  • identity loss and shifts
  • nervous system overstimulation
  • round-the-clock caretaking 

While those are some of the most common issues that can compromise parental mental health, that list is not exhaustive. The bottom line: parenthood is just tough! 

For these reasons, every parent is at risk for developing mental health issues and each of these experiences is a valid one. That’s why both/all parents need to carve out time for proper self-care (mental and physical!). Think of this as just general maintenance to keep the machine running. Skip it altogether and slowly, you start to see things running less smoothly or breaking down altogether.   

Non-birthing parents are susceptible to mental health issues. How can we address this? 

When discussing mental health issues amongst parents, it’s important to remember that it’s not a contest. The conversation cannot be focused on who has it worse and why, whose struggles are harder, whose life has changed more, or who has the “right” to feel challenged by all that parenthood brings. 

Many partners fall into this trap. In reality, it’s one of the most common arguments in the first months and years of the postpartum period as many experience a decline in relationship satisfaction or even secretly feel strong resentment toward their partner. 

As mentioned, there are plenty of factors that can contribute to poor mental health or a decrease in happiness and well-being for a non-birthing parent. This is frequently neglected or overlooked though because most of the conversation focuses on the mother or birthing parent. 

We want non-birthing parents to understand that these experiences are real and valid. This journey is one that is marked by increased responsibilities, anxiety, and potential isolation. If this new phase of your life has you feeling stressed, alone, depressed, doubting yourself or your life path, or just not fully feeling like yourself, know that what you’re experiencing is actually quite common. 

Recognizing the issue is the first step towards addressing it. If you’ve noticed that your wellbeing has shifted or declined, the below list is a good starting point for doing those basic checks on physical, mental and emotional needs according to your available mental bandwidth. This is meant to be used as a starting point or daily checklist of the basics. It’s not meant to be exhaustive or in place of proper medical or mental health support. 

Helpful Steps to Take To Support Your Mental Health

“I’m feeling depleted”

You get that parental mental health is important but self-care is so hard when you’re mentally drained, exhausted, or are barely keeping your head above water. If that’s the case, you need to meet yourself where you’re at with the most basic actions possible. 

Think of these like a little list of to-dos to tackle when your mental health feels like it’s in the red. 

  • Drink a glass of water or cup of soothing tea.
  • Eat a snack or meal (nutritionally dense is better) 
  • Step outside for fresh air/a change in scenery  
  • Take a warm shower
  • Open the curtains
  • Play upbeat music or a podcast

“I’m unmotivated but not exhausted”

You’re having a day that could be better but it’s also not the worst. Do what you can! Remember that if you only have 40% and you give that 40%, you really gave it your all today. If this is the mood, try this list of lower-energy self-care. 

  • Tidy a small area of your home 
  • Water plants
  • Play with or walk a pet
  • Do one task on the to-do list
  • Call a friend
  • Make your favourite comfort food

“My batteries are fully charged!” 

Part of proper self-care means supporting yourself even on days when you feel energized, happy and ready to go. Being proactive and tending to mental health is important so that you’re not just waiting until those low days to give back to yourself. 

If your energy stores are in good shape, this is a way to set yourself up for success tomorrow or later this week. 

  • Clean the house
  • Batch cook for future you (because some days you just can’t…)
  • Get ahead on work
  • Do an endorphin-boosting workout
  • Head to the park
  • Catch-up with a friend
  • Book appointments

Mental health (and managing it properly!) is one of the most important aspects of overall wellness. Everyone needs to give emotional wellbeing time, space, and proper consideration. 

That’s true for everyone at every stage of life however parenthood is a time when mental health management becomes more relevant than ever before. That’s true not just for mothers or birthing parents, but also for dads, adoptive parents, step parents, grandparents, and anyone else in a parenting role.
If you’re a parent who is struggling to adjust to parenthood, or you want to be more prepared for when the curveballs do show up, The Perinatal Collective’s team of therapists is here to support parents all across Canada. We cover everything from relationship dissatisfaction, to anxiety, to identity shifts and changing roles. No issue is too small. Get in touch here.

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About The perinatal collective

Welcome! So glad you're here. 

We're a team of mental health therapists across Canada with advanced education and experience in perinatal mental health, meaning you don't have to cross your fingers and hope that we understand how hard this stage can be.

We understand the nuances of the early stages of parenthood: how typical counselling strategies may not be relevant to parents with young kids, and how mental health challenges look different during this time.  

From deciding to have children, to navigating your journey through fertility, pregnancy, birth, postpartum, relationship changes, parenting, career demands and beyond, parenthood can be full with challenges.

Our goal is to help you manage the peaks and valleys of the entire journey, while staying connected to yourself, and feeling whole, along the way.