This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
"It really hit me hard; I never thought it could happen to me. My partner and I were really excited about the pregnancy. We enjoyed every moment together: the ultrasounds, the childbirth education classes, the cute tiny baby clothes, the cradle… it was all so very sweet." The story of Miguel*, a 30-year-old man from the port city of Valencia, Spain, is both difficult and moving. Just a month and a half ago, he became a father for the first time, but now he claims he feels nothing when he sees his newborn son, Joan, in the cradle.
"It all started the day of my partner's last appointment with her gynecologist—the last one before she was going to give birth to our child. I got an urgent call from the hospital emergency room, where the doctor explained that I couldn't be present [in the delivery room] due to unforeseen developments and 'critical circumstances' regarding the pregnancy. I felt like everything was falling apart. I became enraged at the doctor. I felt angry that I couldn't be by Ana's side and watch my son be born."
Since Joan's birth, Miguel has had trouble sleeping and holding back the spontaneous bouts of weeping that often overwhelm him. "Sometimes I dream that I'm in the delivery room looking on as my baby is born, and when I wake up, I'm fuming with anger," he says. At work, people have told him he looks sad these days, which doesn't quite line up with the universal expectation of how a first-time dad should appear. "Why is it that I don't love the baby when, if anything, I should be [elated] right now?" Miguel says.
These feelings can occur, and [we] need to recognize [them] as something normal, something we can deal with," says Àngels Córcoles, a Barcelona-based psychiatrist and psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression.
Socially, we've distorted the idea of what it's like to have a baby; it's very possible to experience feelings of rejection.
"Postpartum depression can be a very serious phenomenon. [Even if] it's not very common in men, [those who suffer from it] don't tend to seek counseling." Between five and ten percent of first-time fathers experience postpartum depression; it occurs in more than 30 percent of mothers.
Experts are careful to point out the fact that studies on the subject are still preliminary, even if they're confident that they're shedding new light on the matter. There's a hormonal component to postpartum depression, but social factors are equally important. "Changes in lifestyle or the amount of time [parents allot] for rest, and the inevitable mandatory reprioritization and reorganization of daily tasks—all of these things can profoundly affect parents," says Esteban Brook-Hart, a Valencia-based psychiatrist.
"It's something that's definitely happening, but only a few people who suffer from it actually go to counseling, because it's not often diagnosed in time," says Lydia Fiz, another professional working in the field. VICE Spain contacted five specialists and two gynecologists before encountering Miguel. His case is exceptional, in that many men don't share problems of this nature with mental health professionals. "There's far from enough counseling and treatment [options out there]; the issue is too easily overlooked," Córcoles says.
"I'm jealous of my wife and child," Miguel admits. "I haven't discussed it with my friends, and it would take a lot for me to say something to them because I'm not sure they'd understand." He's currently receiving help from a psychologist. "I try to be a part of my child's life as much as possible: I feed him, bathe him, hug him, and talk to him, but when I think about his birth, I break down in tears. It's been six weeks since he was born, and I still can't get over the hurt [of being left out of the delivery room]. Talking about my feelings with someone does help."
According to Córcoles, this is indeed a key factor in overcoming difficult times. "If you're going through a rough patch, seek help until you find it and something works out for you," she advises. She adds that it doesn't necessarily have to be professional help, and that the support of a close friend or loved one can be equally beneficial. "Intervention should be about giving people the tools they need to recognize what they're experiencing. [Recovery] should go beyond just prescribing pills, [which is an] endemic problem within Spanish medical practice."
Ten percent of men may suffer from this disorder, but only a few are diagnosed and almost none of them seek help.
According to experts, men and women experience postpartum depression differently. "[The issue] with the father is that he's left out, in a sense. They can feel excluded and become jealous of their own baby, whereas the mother is so exhausted that she barely pays attention to him," Córcoles says, describing a possible, typical case of the disorder. "Parents need to come to terms with the fact that they're no longer a couple comprised of two people. Now they're a family of three, which isn't the same, so there needs to be a period of adjustment. The third party, this blessed new arrival, will be at the center of their lives for some time."
Common symptoms of postpartum depression are sadness, irritability, exhaustion, and anxiety. People can sometimes experience difficulty bonding with the child, consequent feelings of guilt, and, in some extreme cases, have thoughts of hurting the baby. In extreme cases, postpartum depression can lead to suicide. "Even without crossing that extreme threshold, untreated symptoms can become internalized and sometimes permanently ingrained in [someone's psyche]. Maybe you've gotten over the depressive feelings, but now [you've taken on] a nasty disposition and have become really pessimistic."
While it's not an exact science, studies indicate that parents begin to feel the symptoms of postpartum depression between three and six weeks after their child is born. While fathers' primary depression is often marked by a feeling of being excluded, mothers' depression is usually more directly rooted in biology: depression aggravated by hormonal changes and exhaustion.
Researchers working in the field argue that postpartum depression must be recognized as a normal medical condition among a certain percentage of new parents. "[This condition] is something that traverses the lives of some parents for awhile [before it] moves on. There's no reason for stigma, scandal, or shame. It's a natural phenomenon," Córcoles says. He has no doubt that so long as he continues to receive essential help, it won't be long before Miguel's smiling again whenever he looks at his son.