I’ve started writing about my experience of bonding with my son countless times, it’s something I’ve wanted to share, but I haven’t felt ready to share all of it. I’ve wanted to put it out there so that anyone who might have experienced it can know they’re not alone, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t want anyone to think badly of me, or worse, feel sorry for me.
Because this isn’t the story about how I struggled to bond with my son; this is the story of how I fell in love with him.
When I was pregnant with my son I felt so deeply connected to him. I loved that feeling of never being alone – that no matter where I was he was always right there with me. I still had fears; I wasn’t sure if I was ready, or how I would cope without sleep, I didn’t know what to expect, but it never even crossed my mind that I might have difficulty bonding when I already felt so in love with him.
His birth wasn’t what I had anticipated. I went into hospital prepared to trust the doctors and do whatever I had to do to give birth to my son safely, but after being induced – and the process took 45 hours – with many things going wrong in that time, when I first heard his cry as he was born from behind a curtain in surgery, at first I was shocked. In all that time, through all that pain and fear, part of me had forgotten there was ever going to be a baby. I started crying; not the soft sobs of a new mother overwhelmed with joy, I was crying so hard the nurse comforted me and told me everything was okay, that my son was okay. But I was mess.
He was quickly assessed on the other side of the room, just out of sight, I could hear him but I couldn’t see him and I was stuck on the bed, with my belly inside out, waiting to see him for the first time.
When they brought him to me, wrapped up tight, all I could see with his face all squished up and his eye clamped shut tight in the brightly lit surgery. I touched his nose – it was all of him I could really have any kind of contact with. After 9 months of being totally connected with him, not being able to touch him frustrated me.
And then he was taken away from me.
No reason, no explanation, nobody told me where he was going, nobody asked me if that was okay. I cried alone for a bit, but the tugging at my belly as they stitched me back up starting hurting, so I told the anaesthetist that I was in pain and she gave me some morphine; I fell asleep.
It wasn’t long before I was woken as I was wheeled out into the recovery area. These memories are patchy (probably because of the morphine) but I remember stopping a nurse and asking if I could breastfeed him. I felt I needed permission, because I didn’t feel like he was really mine, but I had planned to breastfeed and understood that it was important to start as soon as possible.
I felt a little better when I was feeding him. It was awkward, but he latched on perfectly and that was incredibly reassuring that at least one of us knew what they were doing.
The nurses and midwifes in maternity ward were wonderful. They encouraged me to have skin to skin time with him, they talked to me about safe co-sleeping, and they apologized to me about my experience birthing him.
On the morning of our last day in hospital a midwife asked if she could bathe my son as a demonstration for a group of pregnant parents-to-be. I sat on a chair nearby while she bathed my screaming son – he screamed the whole time he was out of my arms, but the moment he was dry and dressed and returned to me, he stopped crying and gazed up at me. The midwife took that opportunity to explain to the group that newborn babies can only focus from their mother’s arms to her eyes and that only 3 days old he could recognise me by sight, sound and smell.
There was a collective sigh from the room of pregnant mothers as I gazed back at my tiny new baby feeling guilty, because while he seemed to know me, I didn’t know him. He seemed like a tiny stranger and I kept thinking who are you and where did you come from.
At home I had nightmares that my baby had been lost in hospital, the baby I’d bonded with while he was inside me was forgotten somewhere, and I’d taken home the wrong baby by mistake – it felt so real I’d woken up sobbing.
In the light of day I knew he was mine, I knew he was the same baby, but that made me feel worse. I felt so guilty that I had trouble making eye contact with him, because I was afraid those bright, intelligent, blue eyes would see right through me and somehow he might know what I was feeling.
I didn’t know at the time that it’s normal, not even particularly uncommon, for new parents to not feel that immediate rush of love right from the beginning. (As many as nearly 30% of mothers don’t fall in love with their babies straight away)
I liked him though! If I stepped back and stopped freaking out about how I was feeling towards him I was able to enjoy him, just as I would enjoy any baby. On bad days I’d pretend I was the nanny, which was not a hard thing to do as I’d worked in a nursery in a childcare centre until I was 37 weeks pregnant with him, so caring for a baby came naturally and comfortably to me, just as long as I set aside trying to make myself feel what I thought I should be feeling.
So, it wasn’t all bad, or completely joyless! I thought he was an exceptionally beautiful and clever baby and I was proud that he was mine.
I also found I felt better if I held him as much as I could. You know the saying by Elizabeth Stone “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I didn’t have that feeling. If I wasn’t holding him I felt like he was just gone, or like he never was. It was a hideous feeling.
So, I held him all the time. I started babywearing. We were cosleeping. I carried him so much that at his 6 week check the Maternal and Children’s Health Nurse took one look at his head and asked if I always carried him on my left arm, because his head had a slight inwards curve spot from always being cradled on my arm.
We had skin to skin time; I took him into the shower with me, or tucked him into my top in just a nappy. Eye contact with him would sometimes make my stomach knot up with guilt, so I tried to just focus on simply observing his amazing eye colour, rather than trying to connect with him.
And the more I looked into how to actively bond with my baby the more I found information on Attachment Parenting and I made connections with parents who had the kinds of relationships with their children that I wanted to have with mine.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but around 6 months old I realized that I’d stopped trying to bond with him, the things that I’d been doing to connect with him for his sake had become easy and effortless. They’d become real for me. And in 6 years that hasn’t changed.
The guilt resurfaced when our daughter was born. Her birth was very different and bonding with her was instant and intense. It truly was “love at first sight”.
But I’ve forgiven myself for what I could not change and when I look back through those memories, the love I feel for him now has filtered through them. When I think about his first breastfeed, I feel love. When I think about that moment after his first bath, I feel love. When I remember gazing into his eyes, even though I remember thinking how scared I was that I might never love him, I feel love.
If you’re experiencing this right now I want you to know you’re not alone, the more people I’ve spoken to about this the more people I’ve found who’ve experienced very similar things. Even without a traumatic birth experience, sometimes bonding with baby takes time.
I also had anxiety and I saw a Perinatal Psychotherapist. If you are concerned, talk to a Maternal and Children’s health Nurse, your GP or check out PANDA.org for resources for Perinatal Anxiety and Depression.