Last week’s episode of the CW’s Jane the Virgin featured a subplot that addressed postnatal depression in men. In brief, after choosing to stay home with his newborn daughter, Rogelio (Jane’s father) claims to have developed male postpartum depression (paternal postnatal depression or PPND). He proceeds to get in a Twitter war and talk show feud with newfound arch nemesis River Fields (notably played by real life postpartum depression survivor and advocate Brooke Shields).
While it was encouraging to see the topic of PPND portrayed in a popular show with a broad audience, ultimately it was used as a cheap plot device that belittled the subject, and missed an opportunity to shed real light on a condition that is not given significant attention. While Jane the Virgin is a comedy, comedic shows are often great forums for exploring complex and difficult subject matter. It was only a few months ago that ABC’s black-ish devoted an entire episode to postpartum depression that was incredibly funny, and also poignant and accurate in its portrayal.
That said, there were a few things that Jane the Virgin got right about PPND. First and foremost, the show noted that a common misconception is that men cannot experience postnatal depression because they do not experience the hormonal shifts associated with pregnancy and the postpartum period. As Rogelio correctly points out in the episode, new fathers do experience hormonal shifts in levels of testosterone, estradiol, and prolactin. What the show did not address is that it is not fully known whether hormonal shifts are even responsible for postpartum depression at all. Rather, a more accurate explanation is that PMADS represent a broad spectrum of disorders with multiple and/or different causes and contributing factors, with hormones being just one of many.
Second, there is also a moment in the episode where Rogelio breaks down crying, expressing that the demands of masculinity make him feel as though he has to be strong and stoic, which makes it difficult for him to talk about PPND. This moment ultimately reveals itself to be a plot device of manufactured emotions used to incite his rivalry with River Fields. This is unfortunate because what he is saying about masculinity is true and deeply problematic. We know that depression is underreported in men and that broadly speaking men are much less likely to seek mental health support due in large part to the impact of social norming, masculine role socialization, and stigma. These disparities are likely more pronounced with PPND due to the additional stigma associated with having a condition that many people view as a women’s issue.
While this episode missed an opportunity to educate people about PPND, ultimately it has generated conversation about a diagnosis that is still considered controversial, and that in and of itself is important. What we do know is that an estimated 7-10% of new dad’s experience symptoms of depression. While men’s postnatal experiences look different than those of their birthing partners, their struggles and challenges are also valid and worthy of acknowledgment. We need to encourage rather than belittle men who challenge harmful social norms by being honest and open about their emotional struggles. Furthermore, to pit the existence of PPND as a debate between men and women is also reflective of a cis-gender and heteronormative bias that does not acknowledge that transgender and non-binary folks have babies, that gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people are also parents, and that many people adopt children, and that they can all experience PMADs.
Coping with a PMAD is in and of itself a painful and isolating experience and to be told that your symptoms and feelings are not real because you are not female identified denies the experience of many survivors. Working to encourage an inclusive community of survivors and allies that acknowledges that PMADS can impact people of different genders and sexes serves us all.