Being a stay-at-home dad triggered his depression: 'I needed to hurt someone physically but it should not be my daughter'

PHOTO: Facebook/JustAnOkDad

Kris Tan was 37 and a stay-at-home dad when he felt the walls closing in on him one night in May, 2018.

In a blog post which he wrote a few days later, Kris detailed how he "lost it" after a three-hour attempt to put his two-year-old daughter Kyra to bed.

"I was on the verge of breaking down and I knew I had to vent it out," he wrote, expressing a need to "hurt someone physically" but realising that "it should not be her".

Kris ended up slapping himself hard across the face — an act which almost didn't register in his mind until he saw his toddler innocently imitating him.

In an interview with AsiaOne, Kris shares with us his "hazy" memory of that night, a culmination of many factors, including his child's separation anxiety, which took a toll on him.

From his journal, he recalls being at his wits' end, repeatedly begging Kyra to "please sleep" in his mind as she continued to wail.

"I believe I was squatting outside her room at some point and talking to myself, with my child crying inside," he tells us.

Fortunately, he knew that his "mind was not right" then, and was able to let his wife in on how he was feeling.

The next morning, instead of heading to work, his wife drove him to the emergency department of the Institute of Mental Health.

Kris reveals that while he was reluctant to go, "I had no more fight in me left".

"I broke down that day with the doctor and my wife in the room. It was probably me giving in to suppressed emotions and giving in to the fact that I do need and want a way to better days."

Being a parent triggered depression

Kris, who writes regularly on his Facebook page, Just An Ok Dad, has been honest in sharing that his journey with depression began when he became a father for the first time to Kyra, now five. Ella, two, arrived three years later. 

His wife, Li Ruifang, 37, is a third-generation hawker of the popular 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles stall at Tekka Food Centre.

Their roles were decided shortly after Kyra was born, due to finances and availability. Back then, Kris was working as a freelance social media community manager.

With his trademark sense of humour, he explains: "I am unable to earn as much as her hawker business any time in the near future, and I believe she sees it the same way, as she talks about hitting the Toto jackpot more often than hopes of me finding a better payout."

Read Also
'I wanted to push the aircon out and jump down with it': Entrepreneur's epic meltdown changed his life... for the better
'I wanted to push the aircon out and jump down with it': Entrepreneur's epic meltdown changed his life... for the better

Little did he expect that the joy from being a dad would bring with it the cloud of depression. 

Of how his depressive episodes started, Kris says: "It mostly comes from my introverted personality and my need to be alone to recharge."

But as many full-time parents know, such luxuries of time are few and far between.

Back then, Kris was still balancing daddy duties with his freelance work, but the juggling act put a strain on him and his mental health took a hit.

"I started to be really moody, and really tired — the kind of fatigue that no amount of sleep can help. It got especially worse during a period when my eldest was waking up every hour or so in the middle of the night when she was about a year old," he says.

Even when Ruifang helped take their daughter off his hands for periods of time when she could, he would get worried, and feel anxious for their return.

His mental and emotional struggles were compounded by the fact each time he went on social media, "the general feel of parenthood, from what I could see, was of gratitude, happiness, enjoyment and even ease from other parents".

"It was a stark difference to my feelings," Kris notes, even though he too "was posting positive stuff".

As Kris' mental health deteriorated, his wife noticed the changes in his mood and badgered him to tell her what was wrong.

While at first reticent, that was the first time he opened up to her about his inner turmoil. Being able to fully express himself to someone filled him with relief.

"Humans all need some form of connection or expression in their lives. If I didn't have my wife to be that channel, I probably would have to find that someone or something, or risk imploding on my feelings," he says in reflection.

Read Also
She became a KTV hostess at 14: Project Green Ribbon co-founder shares traumatic past, including finding out her 'auntie' was actually her mum
She became a KTV hostess at 14: Project Green Ribbon co-founder shares traumatic past, including finding out her 'auntie' was actually her mum

Finding an expert who can provide support is also critical.

"For people who don't have someone close to talk to, it is very important to find a psychologist to talk to. Words are very powerful as they can give positivity, instil hope, give comfort, show understanding," says Kris. But he understands that conversely, words can also be misconstrued despite one's best intentions.

"Not all psychologists are good but the odds of one who is able to help are much higher than an untrained random person in the world," he adds.

Through therapy after his meltdown in May, Kris discovered that it is his sensitivity to children's cries that triggers the feelings of frustration in him. And while anger may be a normal reaction, with depression, "it can also lead to feelings of helplessness and questions about my abilities and actions", Kris shares.

One has to wonder though, that against the backdrop of the realisation, what made Kris brave enough to try for a second child?

"Up until my mind changed (about having another kid), I didn't see myself having a second child due to my understanding of the cause of my depression," he explains. 

But his wife had strong reasons for wanting a second child, the first being her worry about Kyra growing up alone.

The second reason, he says, has to do with how she saw the combination of therapy and medication helped him.

"Because of how positive she is as a person, she saw that I made significant recovery since I sought help. I understood both her concerns and felt positive enough to try," says Kris.

"She mentioned the possibility of the second child being easier (in temperament) than the first and I told her the opposite can happen —  and it did," says Kris. "I guess the experience of our second child made her understand how difficult things can turn out to be and that's why she is less positive about having a third."

Now, their second child Ella would most definitely be Kris' last.

In a Facebook post earlier this year, Kris shared how he'd undergone a vasectomy in February 2020. He was resolute that he did not want to have any more children with his wife, or even with another partner in the unlikely event of a remarriage.

More than a year on, there are no regrets. "It's really one aspect to give both me and my wife a peace of mind," says Kris, who shares how his depressive episodes had most definitely put a strain on their marriage.

He recalls of those times: "My wife could not share her feelings of unhappiness or even happiness.

"And with me being moody almost all the time, she either added on to the moodiness or I made her feel that her happiness is unwarranted with my unhappiness."

But in retrospect, the experience has made their relationship stronger, open, and "more realistic", says Kris, who credits his wife for being steadfast despite the difficulties.

"Leaving the marriage or letting me deal with my own problems wasn't on her mind, and with her resolution, we are in a better relationship now."

There's also little to no chance of them switching roles, either now or in the future.

On top of the financial aspect, they both agree that Kris is better at handling the kids. His involvement in their upbringing has manifested in their close relationship with Kris. He shares: "In my household, it's [a case of] Mama, where's Papa?"

Fearlessly facing the future

It's been over two years since Kris sought professional help for his depression, but the journey has not been without some blips along the way.

Kris shares that after a particularly difficult situation with Ella when she was 10 months old, he once left the house, shutting off his phone. During the three to four hours he spent wandering around the neighbourhood, his thoughts cycled "between the situation at hand and ways I could end my life". Although he didn't act on them, "those thoughts had been the clearest of them all".

After the episode, Kris had his medication increased and also began psychotherapy.

Though some days may be harder than most, Kris has learnt to cope better by employing various strategies.

“For example, my second-born will still have meltdowns, where she will scream and cry, and be inconsolable. Instead of the past where I would be too sucked into her emotions and end up being frustrated myself when everything failed, I would now try some solutions, step back if I need to take a breather, before coming back with other solutions.”

He strongly advises those facing similar difficulties to seek professional help, and stresses the importance of "seeking out small wins everyday", explaining that "things that are easy to complete give you strength in the mental bank to fight the bigger battles".

Having sufficient rest is also often overlooked, especially as a parent.

You have more than others do. Others suffer more than you do. Yet you are suffering and you are sad. That is ok....

Posted by Just An Ok Dad on Sunday, June 27, 2021

While he is now on reduced medication, Kris is realistic that what happened before could happen again. 

"I don't have fears of going back into depression... I just have to be careful about how I handle my mental state. It's not that I am not moody, angry or upset these days but unlike any normal person with those feelings, I often have to look inward to keep those feelings in check and make sure that they don't dwell," he says.

What keeps the 40-year-old going these days is still his wife and children.

"I recognise how much they need me and adore me. I know that I need to take care of myself in order to take care of them."

It's okay to not be okay

His regular anecdotes and sharing of his struggles as a stay-at-home dad on social media have touched readers who've reached out to him, either to offer their support or commiserate. 

"Expressing humour while discussing something serious or even depressing is something that I learnt that helps me express myself while drawing a connection with others," says Kris.

And his approach, we gather, is to break through the toxic positivity that often permeates social media around the topic of parenthood.

"My style is to be as candid as possible so that the community that follow do not fall into the same trap that I did when all I saw was overwhelming positivity and happiness online."

In essence, we guess what he means is that it's really okay to not be okay.

ALSO READ: 'I wanted to push the aircon out and jump down with it': Entrepreneur's epic meltdown changed his life... for the better

One thing Kris also hopes people will realise is that "depression is not just sadness". Rather, "the brain is just chemically unable to retain feelings of positivity".

And the best way to reach out to a depressed person, in his opinion, is to say "hang on" or "hang in there". The reason is simple: "In those periods of darkness, it's really sometimes about hanging on to my dear life in the torrent of negativity," he states.

Being treated by loved ones with kid gloves is also one small annoyance that his experience has brought. To Kris, sowing seeds of confidence in another's abilities is a more effective method of healing.

"As with people coming back from physical injuries, I believe it's better to build up their strength and confidence by giving opportunities to succeed rather than holding them back with doubt and treating them like the time when they were most injured."

Lastly, what's important is simply to treat everyone with compassion.

"We can't easily see people with mental health issues so I believe it's best to just treat everyone with kindness and trust as much as possible."

ALSO READ: She became a KTV hostess at 14: Project Green Ribbon co-founder shares traumatic past, including finding out her 'auntie' was actually her mum

SINGAPORE HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
  • Shan You Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 6741-0078
  • Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: www.eC2.sg
  • Tinkle Friend (for primary school children): 1800-2744-788

candicecai@asiaone.com