image copyrightElliott Rae
After the distressing birth of his daughter, Elliott Rae struggled with post traumatic stress disorder, but went without help for over a year. He's now urging dads to talk about their problems – and to avoid the agony he went through.
Elliott Rae sat on a hot and crowded London Underground Tube and cried without knowing why.
"I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness," he says, remembering that sticky summer's evening five years ago.
Nothing in particular had happened that day to provoke such an outpouring of emotion. He'd got up with his nine-month-old daughter as usual and had breakfast with his wife, Soneni. Then he'd set off for work in Westminster, where he worked at the Department for Transport.
To friends, family and colleagues it looked like Elliott was doing OK. He'd say, "I'm just tired, I'm a new parent," and that would be enough.
But in reality everyday life had become a struggle, and the root cause was his daughter's traumatic arrival into the world.
Elliott was plagued by flashbacks of her birth and the frightening weeks that followed. It kept him up at night and could choke even the easiest of chitchat with colleagues.
"I didn't feel like myself at all and I couldn't muster the energy to care about anything," he says.
When he eventually got help, Elliott was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has published a book, Dad, in which he opens up about his experiences of fatherhood, together with 19 other dads.
The 38-year-old never saw himself as a person who might develop mental health issues or need counselling. When Soneni became pregnant in 2015 he was overjoyed.
Her labour began in hospital in the relative serenity and calm of a birthing pool. Elliott and Soneni's mum were there for support as planned.
But within hours Soneni's blood pressure began to rise, and the baby's heart rate began to drop, so she was moved to another room.
"That room felt very different, it felt darker, with lots of medical equipment," says Elliott.
A few times Elliott remembers the midwife thumping a red button and the room filling up with doctors. This was not how he had imagined things would go.
He held Soneni's hand and together they put the breathing exercises they'd learnt at their hypnobirthing classes into practice.
She was being given intravenous antibiotics because tests had picked up a Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infection and the hope was this would prevent the baby becoming infected during birth.
Most of the time GBS isn't harmful to the mother or the baby – but in this case, it was.
When their daughter was born, after almost 24 hours of labour, she was grey and didn't make a sound. "The midwife put the baby on my wife's chest and then there was just silence, it felt like everything stopped," says Elliott.
image copyrightElliott Rae
The room filled up with doctors again and Elliott could only watch in disbelief as his daughter was resuscitated on one side of the room and his wife lost a worrying amount of blood on the other.
"It felt like I was watching a movie and the moment belonged to somebody else," he says. All the noises merged, as if Elliott was underwater and hearing a commotion above the surface.
"During the birth I had a role but now I felt helplessness and shock. I had to stand back and rely on these people I didn't know to save my family."
Within minutes Elliott was stumbling down a thin corridor towards the neonatal intensive care unit (Nicu), his tiny daughter being wheeled in an incubator just ahead. He'd kissed Soneni goodbye and promised to be back soon.
"I was so worried about them both, but my daughter was five minutes old, I needed to go with her," he says. "For the first time in my adult life, I felt like a child who didn't know what to do."
Instinctively he reached for his phone to call his mum, but there was no reception.
"When we arrived at Nicu a lady there took one look at me and could see I was a mess. She told me I needed to pull myself together and be there for my family."
He was grateful for her words because they had the intended sobering effect. In the days that followed he adopted a business-like efficiency, advocating for his wife on the ward and applying a laser sharp focus to what Nicu staff said during the daily briefings about his daughter.
He didn't cry or fall to pieces – "there wasn't the time". But returning home the first night with no baby in his arms or wife by his side was extremely tough.
Earlier he'd wheeled his wife into the Nicu and they'd been allowed a few moments to cradle their daughter before returning her to the incubator. She'd looked up at them and reached out her hands. Leaving her behind, surrounded by wires, was heart-wrenching for them both.
Within a few days the family of three was able to stay together in one room and the baby slowly recovered from the GBS infection.
After a fortnight there was talk of them being able to go home. Elliott and Soneni finally felt like they could catch their breath. Everything was going to be OK.
image copyrightElliott Rae
Then out of nowhere, their daughter developed a bump at the back of her head – and it appeared to be getting bigger. The doctors were worried and wanted to do an MRI scan to rule out blood clots or a brain tumour.
Once again, Elliott felt he wasn't in control.
"I could feel the energy draining from my body – I had no more to give," he says. "We both hit the absolute bottom, we were at our most vulnerable."
The night before the scan they stayed up and said prayers over their baby daughter with one of the midwives.
"I remember wondering where all these tears were coming from, because I cried all night," says Elliott.
The next day he took his daughter to the scanning room and placed her tiny frame into the huge clunking adult machinery.
Then they had to wait for the results.
A nurse came bursting through the door, beaming a huge smile and pulling the worried parents into a hug. The bump wasn't anything to worry about, they could go home.
But the rollercoaster experience marked both parents. They left the hospital elated and profoundly grateful to have their daughter, but extremely anxious about her.
"We were at A&E most weeks for the first few months, over every sniffle," says Elliott.
"We barely left the house in the first three months, and when we did it would be like a military operation."
Most of Elliott's paternity leave was swallowed up in the hospital so they'd barely got home before he had to return to his full-time job.
Colleagues welcomed him back. "Oh, you've just had a baby, haven't you!"
"Chatting at the tea point, it never felt like the right moment to explain what we'd been through."
image copyrightElliott Rae
Therapy wasn't something Elliott ever thought about, and it wasn't something anyone offered him either.
Soneni, meanwhile, recognised that she needed some help and was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety a few months after giving birth.
"I worried constantly and would imagine the worst-case scenarios," she says.
But almost as soon as Elliott and Soneni felt they were hitting their stride, their daughter had a severe allergic reaction to wheat and had to be rushed to hospital.
"Soneni dealt with it really well, but it sent me right back to the birth and that helpless, out-of-control feeling," says Elliott.
That's when he began to show signs of PTSD: insomnia, anxiety and flashbacks that could strike day or night.
"He told me about out-of-body experiences – that's when I began to worry," says Soneni.
She is moved to tears to think of the pressure he felt.
Elliott acknowledged he needed help in 2017 after a journalist asked him about the birth of his daughter and he found himself struggling to talk about it without getting upset. The journalist gently suggested he speak to someone and put him in touch with a doctor who specialises in trauma and postnatal depression.
"I thought of PTSD as something only soldiers get after going to war, now I know it can be triggered for anyone who has had a traumatic life-changing or life-threatening event," says Elliott.
In January 2016 Elliott set up a parenting and lifestyle platform for dads called Music Football Fatherhood (MFF). It was an outlet to talk about being a new parent, though he didn't talk about the traumatic birth or PTSD until recently.
Other dads began to get in touch and open up, which gave him the idea for his book, Dad.
"I think most new fathers are struggling at some point, and that's normal. MFF made me realise that," he says.
"There are stories here and we don't talk about them in public. Most new expectant dads don't know half of what it is like to be a dad, because we don't talk about it."
Elliott would like his book to spark new conversations. There are accounts from men who were bullied as a new dad, who raised children as a widower, or were father to a child who died.
"As men and as dads, being vulnerable and talking about our mental health and our struggles is a very new thing to do. It still isn't completely acceptable," Elliott says.
image copyrightElliott Rae
There are lots of ways he thinks new dads can be better supported.
In preparation for becoming a dad Elliott would read threads on Mumsnet about practical things like budgeting or which pram to get, but that was the extent of it.
"I didn't think properly about the kind of dad I wanted to be and I didn't talk to other men in my life, it never occurred to me," he says.
But now through MFF he has started working with NHS pregnancy and maternity services to run programmes that encourage expectant fathers to think about what it means to be a dad, how their identity will change and what it might mean for their relationship.
New dads and mental health
- One in 10 men experience anxiety and depression symptoms in the first six months after the birth of a baby
- One in five will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy and the first year after birth
- Of fathers with depressed partners, 24% to 50% experience depression themselves
- The biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK is suicide – studies have shown that fathers with mental health problems during the perinatal period are up to 47 times more likely to be classed as a suicide risk than at any other time in their lives
He thinks all new dads should be offered a conversation about their mental health, especially if they're in a high-risk category: if they have a history of mental health problems, if they have witnessed a traumatic birth, or if the mother of their child is suffering from postnatal depression or other mental health problems.
And he thinks employers could do more too, by recognising that dads have had a life-changing experience, and offering them equal parental leave and the chance to work flexibly. This could also help mothers to continue working, he says.
Elliott is encouraged by the NHS's commitment that the partners of pregnant people and new mothers who are themselves suffering from mental ill health will be offered assessments and professional support if needed.
It will help people who were in his position from slipping through the net and needlessly struggling, he says.
"Looking back, there were so many conversations that could have been had, so many points of intervention.
"I feel lucky that my experience wasn't as severe as it could have been."
Elliott and Soneni's daughter is now a happy, thoughtful five-year-old who loves dogs and composing songs while she is in the bath.
She has inherited her parent's love of music and dancing and has started writing her own "books" ever since her dad started writing his.
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