You have been cooking your baby nicely for many months now. You are excited and nervous in equal measure, wondering how life will change. But you are sure of one thing. You are going to love this baby more than you have ever loved anyone or anything before it. You will feel so proud of yourself for creating a beautiful little person. This baby will complete you. You know this to be true because other Mums have told you, the magazines tell you, you see it on One Born Every Minute and you simply cant wait to be bonding with your baby.
Here comes the magic!
Then your baby arrives. Nothing. There is no elation, only exhaustion. You don’t feel proud, you feel anxious all of a sudden. You don’t feel like your life is complete, you feel like its just spiraled out of control in an instant. You feel lost and cheated. Obviously your friends are better Mothers than you and you sit looking at the sleeping (or crying) bundle of responsibility in front of you and you wonder ‘Why am I not bonding with my baby?’
Does everyone bond with their baby instantly?
The first thing you should know is that you are not alone. There is a huge expectation on Mothers to feel an instant bond with their newborn baby. After all, its a natural instinct to care and protect your young isn’t it? (Unless of course you are a sloth bear which have been known to eat their own young – if that’s you then I’m not sure this blog will help but keep reading, just in case. ) It is reported that four out of five mothers experience that surge of love that we all look forward to from the moment the line appears on the pregnancy test. This does mean of course, that one in five struggle. This means that in a room full of 100 mums, twenty of them will feel your pain. You are not alone. You have a tribe. Albeit a silent one for fear of being judged at best or demonized at worst by other parents. You’re not a monster if you’re finding it a struggle bonding with your baby. Just so you know, I struggled after a shock announcement from the doctors turned my world upside down. So I get it. I understand the shame and the complete and utter feelings of failure. I am one of your tribe
Why do we feel the pressure to bond instantly?
For decades, psychologists have theorized about the impact of early bonding in babies with a primary caregiver. Countless studies have linked a healthy attachment to positive mental health, self image and intellect of children. Studies conducted on young offenders have suggested that the very reason they offended was rooted in their lack of early bond. While I’m not denying the findings of these studies, I think its important to realise that other factors play a massive role in the direction a baby’s life takes. Nevertheless, its a huge pressure to know that those first few months and years are vital and will shape the adult your child will become. No wonder we all beat ourselves up when the bonding process is a slower one.
The perfect Mother.
Then there is that image of the ‘perfect mother’ which haunts our days and torments our nights. The benchmark standard that many feel they need to achieve. Happy children full of awe and wonder with beautiful manners thrown in for good measure. Immaculately dressed toddlers without a trace of spaghetti hoops down their front. Tidy homes to put any homes magazine to shame. Satisfied husbands both in and out of the bedroom (if you’ve got the energy after keeping the kids and the house spotless). I am thrilled to see more relevant blogs and personalities such as the unmumsy mum these days showing that the idea of a ‘perfect mother’ is an absurd one but there is still a way to go in reassuring brand new Mothers that just because they are not Mary Poppins, does not mean that they are failing.
Why am I struggling to bond with my baby?
There are many and varied reasons why people struggle to bond with their baby. I am not a doctor or a psychologist but I know that, for me I struggled with the guilt of feeling responsible for my sons condition and grief for a life I had dreamed of and lost. If you have an altered life of your own then you may relate to this. If not, there are plenty of other (and more common) reasons why Mothers struggle. Finding it tricky to breast feed often leads to feelings of inadequacy for Mums who hoped this would be part of their bonding journey. A history of miscarriage or loss can add to the psychological impact of a newborns arrival. Past trauma can also play a part in moving forward with life. Then don’t forget that life has changed forever. In an instant the life you had has been replaced with something entirely different and you are a beginner again, learning the parenting ropes without a manual. Yes its exciting but its overwhelming and daunting too. Add a sprinkling of hormones and post labour recovery pains and you’ve got yourself a recipe for panic and self doubt. There are of course, many unknown reasons for a struggle to bond but I’m going to run through some things that you should avoid and can do to help.
How might I make this worse?
I was too ashamed and scared to admit that I was struggling so I painted a smile on my face. I went through the motions of day to day life, all the while imploding. Although this feels like the easiest and best option, denial is simply like fastening the lid on a bottle of pop as you shake it. It just builds up within you until you cant take the pressure anymore.
Negative self talk
Another big no no (talking from experience again) is negative self talk. I am a terrible Mother. I dont think I’ll ever love him / her. My partner deserves better than me. What is wrong with me? All of these questions and more can race around your mind at 100mph. This is exhausting and only feeds your fears more. You need to starve the self talk and replace it with phrases which will serve you better. I know this is not as simple as that by the way and I am far from perfect but when I catch myself being harsh then I am aware enough now to stop and have a word with myself. Thoughts become beliefs which then become actions. If you wouldnt say these things to your very best friend, then dont say them to yourself.
Chasing the ‘fun stuff’
External coping strategies can also be unhelpful. The glass of wine of an evening can quickly turn into a bottle and begin to creep earlier from ‘after dinner’ to ‘with lunch’. Alcohol may numb you temporarily but long term it can be incredibly dangerous and only exasperate your feelings. If you want a magnifying glass on your sadness and a sore head in the morning, alcohol is the way to do it. The other external distractions I thought i’d mention are those of activities like excessive exercise and affairs (possibly some overlap there) Its easy to throw yourself into something fun but the long term consequences of an unrealistic intensity with either of these may cause even more issues. I am not preaching or judging here. Just thinking out loud.
What can I do to help?
If I could go back 12 years and tell myself anything as a new mother who was lost and full of self loathing and doubt it would be this.
Talk to your partner and your friends. Often, that in itself is enough. Sometimes it isn’t and in that case you need to seek professional help and talk with your doctor. I hated the idea of antidepressants until they saved me from myself. If you need a crutch for a while then do it.
Give yourself time
Be patient with yourself. If that instant overwhelming love doesn’t come immediately, it doesn’t mean its not on its way. Don’t be too hard on yourself and give yourself breathing space and time to adjust to the changes in your body, mind and house!
Take care of yourself
Look after yourself. You might be a mother now but you are still a person and you need to take care of yourself. Find time (I know that’s hard) to read, take a long bath, mediate, catch up with friends, punch the frustrations out in a boxercise class. Whatever you need to do to give yourself a top up. It will make you feel even better on the good days and a little more resilient on the hard ones.
Live one day at a time
Take one day at a time and try not to worry about the future. Leave it out there in the distance and look for the small wins in each day. Got to lunch without crying? Yeay! Made the baby giggle? Fab! Laughed inappropriately at something the baby shouldn’t have eaten? Oh well, at least you’re laughing! You’re not going to get it right every day but every day there will be moments where you do. Look for them and remind yourself of them when the negative self talk begins.
Create fun routines
Touch is a powerful ally in the battle to bond. Baby massage has been suggested as one way to improve the connection but simple things like eye contact, singing and fun routines can also help massively. Develop a ‘thing’ that you and your baby have such as a song or a tickle routine. Maybe a certain way of putting a clean nappy on (note I dont advocate making an adventure of getting the dirty ones off. I don’t care how much you love your baby, a nappy of crap is never exciting!) Your baby will come to associate you with that fun routine and as they give you the feedback that they are enjoying it, you will too.
We will never know if the four in five mothers really are enjoying the flushes of an instant bond or just saying they are but until we are all honest about our early bonding experiences then nothing will change. Generations of mothers to come will still be aiming for an unrealistic perfection instead of accepting their journey for what it is – a physical, emotional and hormonal roller coaster. That old fairground phrase “scream if you wanna go faster” should really be “scream if you wanna slow down for 2 minutes and take a pee in peace!” when it comes to the parenting big dipper.
Enjoy the journey
The truth is, sometimes a bond is instant and overwhelming.
However, babies cry, crap, zap you of your energy and mess with the wiring of your brain and hormones. Its natural to feel a little lost at first.
Sometimes a bond takes time and requires work and patience like mine did but I would argue with anyone who said that I was less of a Mother for it. In fact, I appreciate the love I feel for Harry so much more than I might otherwise have done. I am more grateful for the good days. More understanding of the bad days than many and even now at the end of a tough day I remind myself that I am trying my best. Harry is fed, clothed, safe and happy..which is more than can be said for the poor sloth bear babies. I may not have bonded with my son instantly but at least I didn’t eat him!
I hope this helped. If I have missed anything off then I would love to hear your tips too!
Finally, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re reading this then you’re already better than you think you are. You’re a work in progress and a great one at that.