It could be weeks, or never, before Cory Morris’ family fully understands what may have led the 21-year-old father to do what police say he did: fatally beat his 4-month-old daughter.
What is certain is that immeasurable heartache will remain for the mother, Jennifer Andersen, who wrote on Facebook last week that baby Emersyn “was my whole entire world & now she’s gone.”
Morris, who lived with Andersen in a Minneapolis duplex, was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in Hennepin County District Court.
While the charges, if proven, could lead to years behind bars for Morris, I hope this case encourages us to have an important and fresh conversation about the vulnerable mental health not just of new mothers, but also of new fathers, particularly those who are very young.
“The psychology of early fatherhood tends to be a blind spot,” said Daniel Singley, a clinical psychologist and expert on men’s perinatal health with Postpartum Support International (PSI), a Portland, Ore.-based organization providing resources and training on postpartum depression.
While speaking generally and not about the Morris case, Singley noted that health professionals commonly refer to the challenges of this life passage “as maternal-child mental health. There is now growing awareness, in terms of funding and outreach, that they forgot somebody.”
A study published this month in the Journal of Parent & Family Mental Health revealed that 4 to 25 percent of fathers experience paternal postpartum depression (PPD), most commonly in the first three to six months after a baby is born.
Men with previous histories of depression, and those who are young fathers, are at increased risk of developing paternal PPD, according to the journal’s authors. Singley noted, however, that infanticide among fathers is “off-the-charts rare.”
Crystal Clancy, a Burnsville licensed marriage and family therapist and co-director of Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota (ppsupportmn.org), recently wrote a blog post titled “What about dad’s village?” in which she reminded people “that dads are not immune.”
“Even if he was experiencing postpartum depression,” she said of Morris, “and even if there was some kind of mental illness going on, does it justify why he killed his baby? No. But it could have put the family at risk for this tragedy.”
But if identifying PPD in mothers is tough, it’s doubly so for dads. PPD is not “the baby blues,” which is common and short-lived, typically requiring time and supportive care.
For new moms, postpartum depression symptoms may include excessive crying, panic attacks, a change in appetite, extreme concern for the baby — or a fear of harming the baby. These worrisome symptoms typically arise within the first month after giving birth.
Symptoms look different in dad. He may be angry, frustrated, irritated. Isolation is also common, with new dads withdrawing physically from social situations or staying longer at the office.
While increases in substance abuse and violence also are noted, Singley said that killing one’s child is “extremely, extremely rare in the general population,” and even more so among fathers.
“Being depressed does not equal infanticide. It’s really important to not cast the idea that, ‘Hey, better watch dad.’ ”
Better screening needed
It’s also really important to help dads in ways that work for them, especially when considerable roadblocks are in place. Doctor’s office visits may not be affordable when baby needs diapers. Time away from work to see a therapist may be impossible. And screening is generally inadequate.
The field of male PPD is so new that most doctors miss the possibility completely during new-baby visits. Or they ask screening questions that might draw out a new mother (“Are you feeling weepy?” “Having trouble bonding with baby?”) but probably will lead an emotions-averse father to clam up.
A better strategy, Clancy suggested, “is to get away from questions about emotions and focus more on the experiential, something like, ‘Is being a new dad like you thought it would be?’ ”
Singley agreed. “One of the best things you can do is validate him. Say, ‘Yeah, a lot is changing; it’s a big transition. You don’t have to do this all yourself.’ ”
And doctors need to know that if mom is suffering from PPD, there’s a good likelihood that dad is, too. In up to 50 percent of cases of maternal PPD, fathers are also suffering from it.
“My theory, and what I see a lot of times, is that dad is so focused on helping mom get better that he’s not focused on how he’s doing,” Clancy said. “He may not have insight at the time. And when mom starts to do better, he’s just supposed to act like nothing happened?”
Families and friends can step up, too, to encourage him to get cardiovascular exercise and keep his social contacts, although this can be very difficult if the person at risk pushes everyone away.
Medication and talk therapy are often key components in recovery, too, but, again, dad has to choose this path.
PSI’s website, postpartum.net, offers resources for postpartum dads, many in Spanish as well as English. In addition, Singley holds a monthly call-in called “The Dad’s Chat” just for guys.
“The chat’s not a place to work on a deep depression,” he said, “but I’ll point men toward therapists who can do this work. Men tend to get more involved if they feel like, ‘This is for me.’ ”
Clancy added that it’s important not to view this as a mom’s issue or a dad’s issue — or a child’s issue.
“This isn’t about diagnosing men vs. women or saying that whatever choices they make are OK or not OK. This is about saying that having a baby is a family issue. Both parents are at risk of different things.
“And he,” she said, referring to Morris, “was not doing OK.”