I feel like I’ve always heard mothers talk about falling in love with their babies instantaneously. It’s a cliché, right? That soft-focus moment in films where the exhausted new mother – still perfectly made up, the only reminder of her exertions a light shimmer of perspiration – gazes into the eyes of her adorable and definitely not vernix-smeared infant, and the BOND happens. Invisible but indelible, written into our DNA.
Unless it doesn’t happen like that.
Giving birth is an intense and demanding experience, physically and emotionally. That’s before you even consider possibilities such as birth injury and trauma. First births are perhaps especially disorienting, as we don’t know quite what to expect (despite having read the book claiming to tell us exactly that) and we haven’t yet been entirely cured of the notion that childbirth is something you can plan for.
I was comparatively lucky. I was able to give birth to my first baby, a daughter, in something sort of close-ish to the circumstances I’d hoped for. There was some trauma, some excess bleeding and stitches, but I didn’t feel traumatised by it – and that’s the key, isn’t it? Trauma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
What I did feel was a sort of surrealistic sense that I was observing it all from outside myself. It couldn’t possibly be me who had pushed that baby out, breastfed her for the first time, smiled and joked with relatives who came to visit. Having a baby wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to me, it happened to other women. Women who knew what they were doing, who didn’t still feel fourteen years old on the inside. I felt tender and protective towards the mewling little creature in my care, but I wasn’t sure I loved her, exactly. I wasn’t sure she felt like mine. Surely they weren’t just going to let me walk out of the hospital with her in a few days’ time? It seemed terribly negligent.
The man of the house had just started a new job. You see, he’d timed it perfectly. He would finish his old job shortly before my due date, enjoy a week at home with me and the baby, then start his new job. Ha. Haha. I’m sure you can see where this is going. A week and a half past my due date, and the recalcitrant foetus was showing not the least inclination towards heading south. My husband’s eager “Yes?!” every time I called him – at his new workplace – was met with, “Nope, still bored and pregnant. Have you seen the remote for the DVD player?”
The medical fraternity traditionally gets a bit antsy about babies sticking around much more than a week or so past dates. But I just happened to be due to give birth at the epicentre of the biggest baby boom in the recent history of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. The same week I was due there was an article in the newspaper, commemorating the very same hospital where I was to give birth having broken its own record for the largest number of deliveries in a 24 hour period. My scans showed all was well, so they were uncommonly well-disposed to kiddo chilling in-utero for a while longer.
In the end, I requested that my obstetrician schedule an induction. My husband’s jumpiness was wearing thinner than the connective tissue of my rectus abdominus. It ideally needed to be on a weekend, so that the poor child would at least get a day or two with her Dad before he had to return to his new job and his zero annual leave days. We were scheduled in for a Friday night/Saturday morning induction – the very same Saturday, coincidentally, on which the AFL Grand Final was due to be played. My husband might possibly have had something more to say about that, but it’s hard to know for sure because I sent him my best Medusa glare right after he first mentioned it and he stopped talking. Just as well for him.
So baby was birthed. Husband returned to work briefly, before being kindly granted a couple of extra days off by his new employer so he could be with us for the first couple of days after the baby, unaccountably, was sent home in our sole care.
The third day, he went back to work. The baby and I muddled through alright on our own. Neither of us was getting a great deal of sleep, and the feeding thing was still a work in progress, but we were doing okay. I was still pretty baffled at the situation in which I found myself, and quite possibly so was she, but we were holding it together.
He arrived home at 6pm to find me sitting on the bed, beside the bassinet, tears and snot streaming down my face.
Vigilant for signs of postnatal depression, he gaped at me wordlessly for a few moments before saying, “What’s wrong? Do you hate the baby?”
“No-o-ooo,” I gulped. “I love heeeer! I love her so much! What if something happens to heeeer?”
That day, seven days after I met my daughter, the rumoured hormone crash had suddenly arrived with both a bang and a whimper. And that’s when it happened. The bond. The fierce, overwhelming surge of protective love. The realisation that this tiny child, who inspired such tenderness in me, also inspired a willingness to tear the limbs off anyone who might dare to harm her. What had I done? Was I just supposed to go through life always feeling this vulnerable, flayed bare by love?
I hadn’t fallen in love magically in the instant we met, but suddenly I loved her beyond anything I could have imagined. It was humbling and terrifying and wonderful.
I’m also fairly sure it was pretty normal. I asked around. Not every woman falls head over heels for her baby the second it’s slid damply onto her chest. It doesn’t make them unfeeling, or bad mothers. Sometimes the bond takes a couple of days to develop, or a few weeks. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes, as with me, you can pinpoint the exact instant it happens, because your world shifts on its axis. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, and you look over at the baby you’ve felt weird about not loving enough, only to realise you’ve loved them all along.
For me, bonding happened easier the second time around – the birth was simpler, I knew more about what to expect and I was better emotionally prepared. It was much closer to the clichéd instant love story. But that’s not necessarily true for everyone. One friend, a mother of three, said she felt she’d already bonded with the first two by the time she was six months pregnant, but with her third, it took until she was about six weeks old. She attributes that mainly to the fact that she’d been sure in her gut that she was having a boy, but had a girl instead. She needed to make a sharp mental U-turn before she could properly move forward with her unexpected daughter.
Another friend’s bonding experience with her babies was hampered by a traumatic start to motherhood. Pregnant with twin girls, her water broke 2 months early. She was forced to rapidly get used to the idea of giving birth to children who were not yet really compatible with life outside the womb, and all the terror and shock tangled up in that. She barely caught a glimpse of one of her daughters at birth and didn’t see the other at all, before they were whisked away to neonatal intensive care.
She struggled with misplaced guilt at not having been able to carry her daughters to term, and not being able to take care of them in their first days of life. The nurses would place the babies on her chest as she sat for hours beside the incubator. “I loved them at that point, of course. But I did not feel like their mother.”
She is now very close to her daughters, but is still not sure she understands the nature of maternal bonding. She has since had a third child, a son, and feels that she bonded differently with him as she was able to have a breastfeeding relationship. The twins were not strong enough to breastfeed at first, and by the time they were, they had grown too used to expressed milk from a bottle. Despite a difficult learning curve, feeding her son inspired a bond that she described as more like maternal instincts kicking in.
She feels very bonded with all three of her children now, but it took longer with her girls and was not as palpable a process. “I kind of grew into it,” is how she describes the bonding process. “Or my kids grew on me. It’s the same with love really. Take away the initial hormone-induced craze and look at just love, it’s something that grows over time.”
Does it even matter if the reality of the way mothers bond with their children is different to the prevailing stereotype? I don’t know. Perhaps not that much, not for most people. But I think that sometimes maybe it does. If you’re already struggling – had a tough birth or a colicky baby, difficulty feeding – then feeling like you don’t love your baby in the right way could be just one more thing feeding into a sense of wrongness and despair.
It matters if, when mothers go looking for someone to tell them they’re not weird or wrong or unnatural for feeling a bit ambivalent about their new role or disoriented by the demands of motherhood, they instead find blank stares and judgement. Everyone too invested in the dominant paradigm of selfless, fearless, all-in motherhood to take the risk of speaking their truth.
Maybe there’s something quite lovely about a mother and child who take a little while to find their groove, but are all the stronger for it over the course of their lives together. My friend with the twins ponders why there is such an emphasis on love at first sight in mother and child relationships anyway. “What good would that do? Looking at how fast ‘love at first sight’ disappears?”
“There are years and years to take care of children,” she adds. “No need to spend all that love in one day.”