“I can’t be depressed – I’m Black!”
I’ve heard a number of my African American male clients – mostly new dads – say some version of the statement in the title of this piece and it never really gets easier to hear. When you tease out the multiplicative contributions of masculinity, fatherhood role salience, African American cultural norms, and the systemic implications of health disparities and racism, it paints a pretty unsettling picture that frankly needs a much larger canvas. Every year, we celebrate International Father’s Mental Health Day the day after Father’s Day to bring more attention to the unique mental health issues and difficulties that many fathers experience during their transition into parenthood. This year, IFMHD coincides with Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the United States as of June 2021. I’m originally from Texas and so grew up steeped in Texas history and culture including recognizing Juneteenth to honor When Major General Gordon Granger declared on June 19th, 1865, freedom for slaves in Texas. I’d always thought of Juneteenth as a “Texas thing,” and so was happy – and honestly a tad surprised – when the day became nationally recognized a few years back in the context of greater awareness of systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. So this year I thought it would be good to draw some attention to the areas of Black masculinities and early fatherhood as a way to honor these fathers in the context of their ethnic and gender identities.
Masculinity is commonly seen as a set of socially-constructed practices which maintain power and control, confer status, and limit displays of weakness (Hammond, Fleming & Villa-Torres, 2016) – and many years of research support that men from marginalized groups are often denied access to institutions and power that other men have available to them (Courtenay, 2000). One prominent theory called “Precarious masculinity” (Vandello & Bosson, 2013) essentially holds that masculinity is fragile, built up only by enacting traditionally manly behaviors in public, and is easily lost i.e., “you’re only as manly as the last manly thing you did.” Framing these factors in the context of contemporary fatherhood brings to light a key disconnect: By asking dads to be more involved during the perinatal period, we’re telling them to engage in behaviors – think baby-wearing, swaddling, changing diapers, giving a bottle, staying home to care for a newborn – which we as a society have traditionally feminized. One of the resulting mental health dynamics is called gender role strain, and it basically means the discomfort one feels when we engage in behaviors that aren’t aligned with traditional gender role norms in our own culture. Taken together, being a member of a marginalized group, having an easily-threatened sense of masculinity, and feeling the need to enact a “dad 2.0” role involves stepping way outside the man box during the stress of the perinatal period all set the stage for Black dads to be at high risk for depression, anxiety, substance issues, and relationship problems. Part of the problem is that as a society, we’re not used to thinking about fathers – or men in general – as a group that needs support. We learn that “protect, provide, and sacrifice” are the father’s mission, and all too many clinicians, birth educators, and parent support professionals tell dads to “be the rock” without also telling them that they’ll need their own support. That needs to change.
The title of this piece gets at a common sentiment among Black Americans, which is a traditional sense that “we have to do it twice as well as the next guy because we have something to prove” in the context of systemic racism. So being twice as good as the next dad doesn’t include being depressed – until it does. One in ten dads get postpartum depression, and nearly 20% develop an anxiety disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, specific phobia, or acute stress disorder. I’m not aware of any research that has yielded solid prevalence data on paternal postpartum depression by ethnicity in the United States (or any other country), but the research and anecdotal info I have suggest that African American dads aren’t exempt from this experience.
A related factor comes from what’s called intergenerational (or transgenerational) trauma, which basically reflects a person’s experience of trauma related to being a member of a traditionally marginalized group. This experience relates to new/expectant Black dads because they know that they’re bringing a new little Black baby into the world whom they’ll be powerless to prevent from experiencing racism and oppression. So much for protecting and providing – but as is so often the case with trauma-based work, many men struggle with finding the words to describe the specific pain or discomfort they’re experiencing. For that reason, the most common initial starting point for working with these African American dads involves helping to tease out their unique experiences and sensitivities so they can give voice to what they’re experiencing to the people who really need to hear it. This, of course, violates traditional masculine norms and so finding people with whom he can be vulnerable is another important piece of the puzzle. So to all the partners, parents, buddies, and loved ones out there – if a dad takes the risk of telling you about feeling down, off, not enough, etc. just ask him questions to help him tell you want to know more. You’re already on Postpartum Support International’s website right now, so you might already know about our resources for dads. You just listening and validating that yes, in fact, he can be depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, sad, etc. might just be the most important way you can help him to feel seen and get on the path back to being well.
This year, PSI’s Perinatal Mental Health Alliance for People of Color (PMHA-POC) is hosting a panel of experts on mental health, parent support, Black masculinities, and fatherhood on June 19th at 11am pacific/ 2pm eastern and definitely invite you to come check it out!
For more information on International Father’s Mental Health Day, see our page on the PSI site.
Dr. Dan Singley is a board certified psychologist at the Center for Men’s Excellence, co-author of Parental Mental Health: Factoring in Fathers, and a PSI Facilitator for “Dads Chat With and Expert” held the first Monday of every month.
Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Engendering health: A social constructionist examination of men’s health beliefs and behaviors. Psychology of men & masculinity, 1(1), 4.
Hammond, W. P., Fleming, P. J., & Villa-Torres, L. (2016). Everyday racism as a threat to the masculine social self: Framing investigations of African American male health disparities. In APA handbook of men and masculinities. (pp. 259-283). American Psychological Association.
Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2013). Hard won and easily lost: A review and synthesis of theory and research on precarious manhood. Psychology of men & masculinity, 14(2), 101.