There is a common myth that when you are handed your baby for the first time, you will love them instantly. The topic wasn't covered that much during antenatal class (this definitely needs to change), and I can remember a vague mention of bonding issues — that were covered up with terms such as "breastfeeding," and "skin to skin," which apparently were the two things that would create an instant bond with me and my baby, in case I happened to be feeling anything to the contrary. Maybe moms-to-be don't challenge this misconception because the thought of potentially not loving their baby would make them feel like a callous monster — because what sort of person doesn't love their baby instantly?
After a 26-hour labor, four different midwives, various consultants, and the stress of the beeping monitor that was attached to my baby's head while he was still inside me, I just wanted to be given my baby. Over and over again, that monitor set off an alarm to signal my baby's plummeting heart rate, causing a horde of hospital staff to come running to my room. All I kept wondering was why they weren't doing a caesarian, as I wasn't sure how much longer I could take wondering if the next alarm would be the one signaling that I no longer had a baby to take home. In the harshly lit hospital room, with so many staff and so much noise, I was finally given my baby. I looked at him, expecting the rush of love I had heard so much about, and just felt . . . numb.
I looked at him, expecting the rush of love I had heard so much about, and just felt . . . numb.
My own mother's sing-song voice rang out in my head: "I can't wait for you to experience it! That rush of love is like nothing you'll ever have in your whole life. I'm envious you get to have it, now that my time is done!" Due to my nursing background and quiet, gentle nature, I had been told by most people I knew that I was going to take to motherhood like "a duck to water." Except that there was no rush of love, no ducks, and no water. Only emptiness, and an increasing sense of anxiety and unease.
As all of the messages from our antenatal-group friends rolled in — signaling our group's babies being born, one by one — all of the messages had a similar tone. Everyone was "in love," everyone was "absolutely besotted." Becoming a mom was the absolute best thing that happened to all of them. I wondered if they were lying, to cover up that they felt the same way as I did. I thought that if they weren't lying, what on earth was wrong with me? My shame and anxiety exploded, which in turn only made things worse. I had never felt so detached, like I was floating outside of my body, watching someone else try to look after my baby. I felt like a huge failure. The one thing I'd looked forward to my entire life, that I was sure was going to be the first thing I'd ever excelled at, and I'd failed at the first hurdle. There'd been no instant bond.
I confided my feelings to my antenatal teacher, who came through on her promise that if we ever needed her after our births, she would be there. She told me to write down my feelings about the birth and how everything I felt had gone wrong had impacted my first few weeks with my baby. She took it to the hospital staff, who were more than happy to talk through and debrief on everything that had happened. The stress and trauma of the birth and the horrendous struggles I had with feeding (because of the birth and the fussy baby that I had as a result of all of these things) pointed toward reasons for my bonding struggles.
When caring for new mothers, the narrative surrounding this lie certainly needs to change.
The Guardian reported that one-third of new mothers struggle to bond with their babies. A further 12 percent of these women feel ashamed to discuss it. The report offered that more needs to be done by healthcare professionals at all antenatal and postnatal stages to help and support mothers through this. If the problem persists, it can possibly lead to educational and social problems later in life. I can remember the day that I'd finished changing my baby, lifted him, and he gave me the very first hint of a crooked, one-sided smile. It was just a flicker, but it was there. We had finally learned how to settle him and were finding our own little groove that almost resembled a routine. It was then that I felt it. I felt the rush that I didn't get at the moment of birth, and it was incredible.
I was worried and expecting the same emptiness when I had my second baby, but following a pretty smooth labor, I was overwhelmed with love when I was given him for the first time. I felt sad that I hadn't experienced this the first time around but lucky that I didn't have to feel the same shame and anxiety. I had been sold a lie that every mother loves their baby on sight, and it isn't always true. When caring for new mothers, the narrative surrounding this lie certainly needs to change.