When I saw my newborn son for the first time I thought “He’s perfect.” Then I thought “Oh shit, what have I done?”
Even though as many as one third of mothers have said they didn't bond with their baby straight away, I was still overcome with shame when I failed to fall instantly in love with my son. It’s a guilt that I’ve grappled with ever since he was born.
Not bonding with your baby can happen to anyone
It wasn’t meant to be like this. My son, Noah (not his real name) was planned and very much wanted. Six months after our wedding, my husband took our dog for a woodland walk where we talked about what our future would look like and babies felt like they were definitely on the agenda.
At age 38 – and having seen so many of my friends struggle to conceive – I didn’t expect to get pregnant as quickly as I did, and that’s when the doubts started to creep in. I liked children but I couldn’t ever remember a time when I felt particularly maternal. I began to question whether or not I was merely giving into societal pressures. This internal monologue played in my head for the next 38 weeks while my child grew inside me. Did I really want a baby? I thought I did, then I thought I didn’t, then I thought I did, then I thought I was happy, then I thought I wasn’t and then I gave birth.
Floss Knight, a psychotherapist with particular experience supporting people with postpartum depression, told me this feeling was “hugely common.” So much so that she’d like to see information on postnatal mental health talked about in schools: “I think it's crazy that we don't have this in our curriculum. Because when you've talked about something and it's been discussed prior to it occurring, i.e at school, it becomes a situation where it's much more comfortable should you have that experience? So you're not thinking, ‘What's wrong with me?’”
Don’t underestimate what’s has happened to you
Of course everyone tells you that your world will change once you have a baby but no one tells you what this actually means. The sleepless nights, the two-hourly feeds, the lack of freedom and free time, the lack of silence, the constant fear that you’re doing something wrong, the all-consuming being that is completely reliant on you for food, comfort and love. As an independent and introverted woman I found the fact that someone else was always with me hugely suffocating. It is, of course, different for everyone but there was definitely an element of shock that I wasn’t prepared for.
Floss said: “Having a baby completely changes our entire experience of the world, and that is a massive shock. Suddenly you have this little thing that's totally dependent on you for literally everything. So you can feel hugely neglected and empty.”
One of the symptoms of psychological shock is a disconnection from what is happening and looking back now, I can see I was in this state of shock when I was expected to care for and love a child.
Expectation vs reality
I was expecting - hoping - to feel this huge surge of love when Noah was born. I was waiting for that shot of oxytocin that would make my body and brain into loving this child with every fibre of my being but that never came.
Struck with the realisation that I couldn't change anything now there was a baby to look after, I threw myself into doing just that. ‘Fake it till you make it’ might work for your job but would it work for parenting? I told Noah I loved him every day, even on the days where I wasn't sure I even knew what love was anymore. I held him tightly to me every time I walked up the stairs, scared that if I didn’t some subconscious part of me would betray my real feelings and I might let him slip away. Of course I didn’t want anything bad to happen, but I wasn’t convinced that I’d be devastated if it did.
I wish I had spoken to someone about how I was feeling. Because I was putting on such a good act of being a loving mama everyone just assumed I loved being a parent, and they showered me with praise I didn’t think I deserved.
Floss said: “It’s important to not isolate yourself and find someone you can talk to. Make sure it’s someone that you trust and they’re nonjudgmental. For some people, this is their moms, and for other people, it's absolutely not their moms. So pick the person rather than the one that's going to either infantilize you or make you feel worse.
“There'll be those that you lean into and those that seem to have the perfect child or the perfect relationship. And that's often not necessarily what's going on, and you'd be surprised at how many people suffer.
“Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outside.”
When the bonding began
I can’t remember exactly when I felt the shift in how I felt about my son, but I remember the feeling vividly. One afternoon when we had just woken up from a nap together, he was rubbing his eyes and crying gently when I pulled him into my chest and he leant his head against me and sucked his thumb. The crying stopped and in the quiet I remember stroking the downy blonde hairs at the top of his head and saying “I love you, bubba. Mama is always going to love you.” But this time I knew I really meant it.
The relief was overwhelming as months of my own shame seemed to be washed away. Looking back, I think what helped me when Noah began to develop his own personality and I was also able to get back some of mine. He would smile at me when I smiled back, and clap when I clapped at him, reply with a gurgle or a grunt when I spoke to him, there was suddenly a person to love.
Floss said: “Being a mum is no easy job. It's the hardest job, especially when they're little. For some people it is when something was given back that it felt that there was the bond forming. Because let's be honest, a little one is probably a little bit terrifying at times as well because of the vulnerability and because of the intensity of the relationship.”
I often wonder if things would have been different if I had spoken up sooner and if I could have changed those first few months where I was feeling so empty and ashamed.
Floss advises anyone who feels like I did to seek help, from a friend, a partner or a therapist: “Support is key. Not everyone has a partner so you can be supported by another, but it’s important that the person you turn to is non-judgemental.”
Floss also highlighted the importance of being kind to yourself: “Because we're always focussing on the baby we can just neglect ourselves. You can forgive yourself because you're doing the best job you can on any particular day.”