You learn a lot when you become a parent. I'd never changed a nappy before in my life... no I'm not joking. I learnt how to wrap a baby (no easy task). I learnt that a runny nose could mean 101 different things. I learnt that a baby shouldn't eat honey until they're at least one. I've become very good at using the toilet with a toddler balancing on my knee. I'm somewhat of an expert now in stirring dinner with one hand while I feed soft cheese to my baby with the other. Yep, I've learnt a lot.
I've also learnt what advice is useful to an expectant mum and what advice should be kept to myself. My conclusion... the best advice is no advice at all. I was overloaded with advice when I was pregnant for the first time and I loved it all... until I became a mum, and it kept coming.
Some of it was useful. I remember ringing my own mother up when my daughter was only 2 or 3 days old and asking her "After I've fed her, does she HAVE to do a burp? Do I just keep patting her on the back until something happens? How long do I do it before I stop?" The advice my mum gave me in that situation was very helpful. Unfortunately, however, some advice I got was not helpful at all. The comment that would make me the most upset was... "Oh he's lovely, you must have fallen in love with him straight away!" If there's one thing guaranteed to feed any sort of post natal depression I had, it was acknowledging this hadn't been my experience.
My son just turned one and I can now say, honestly, I love the little fella. But it's taken me a long time to get here. It didn't happen straight away. It didn't even happen after a few months. I spent the entire first year of my son's life feeling frustrated, angry... and convinced there was something wrong with me. Every day I would ask myself "What is wrong with you? What is wrong with US? Why can't you love him? Will you ever love him? Oh my goodness, what if you never love him?"
No one ever really explained to me that sometimes... and it's nobody's fault... but sometimes, love comes... later.
It's pretty normal to be asked certain questions when your baby is born. People always want to know how much they weigh, who you think they look like, how long they are etc. If you're lucky, you may be asked a few questions. "How are YOU feeling?" is one that comes up every so often. If you're really lucky, someone might ask you "Would you like a coffee?" (Um, yes!) There's one question everyone seems to ask the parent of a new baby. It's the question I hate the most. I'm happy to answer any other question but this one...
"Is he a good baby?"
In the depths of my depression I found this question really hard to answer. Our boy cried a lot from the moment he was born. I remember pulling away my nipple shields full of blood after he'd bite so hard he'd break the skin. He would only ever sleep in my arms, so I didn't sleep well for months. He was loud, strong, incredibly needy and the complete opposite of his calm, placid and easy older sister.
"Is he a good baby?"
"Hell no!" I would scream at myself in silence. "A terrible sleeper, a regular cluster feeder, a multiple witching hours a day kind of kid... he's anything but good!" But I couldn't actually say "No" because that would mean saying he was bad. My initial bond with him was weak (or at least it felt that way) however I loved him enough to know he wasn't bad. So, from the day he was born, I always referred to him as difficult.
I read an article by Dr Gail Gross (a human behaviour expert) and she said this was a problem faced by many parents (although that news didn't make me feel any better". She listed all the reasons she believed mums and dads were low on love for their baby. At the top of her list... post natal depression! My hormones were clearly out of whack and the chemicals in my brain were unbalanced, however I can't blame my PND entirely. For whatever reason, I've just always found him really hard to love.
Since the day he was born, he has used up every ounce of my energy, leaving me with nothing to use up in the area of love. It's a similar feeling to that I have when I teach. I am encouraged to use praise as often as I can with the students in my class who are... challenging. Every single tiny thing they did well, I was told to notice, acknowledge and praise. "Wow I love the way you're sitting still!" "Wow, I am so happy with how quietly you're working!" "Wow, I am so glad you're choosing to listen and not talk!" You get the idea. Sometimes, at the end of a long day of dealing with bad choices and challenging behaviour, the kid would all of a sudden do something right! Ta-da! Just like that! But I would be so utterly exhausted by having to deal with all the hard stuff, I wouldn't have any energy left to praise the positive behaviour. This is what it's been like with our son.
Something has happened over the last week that has prompted me to write this blog post. It's like I woke up one day and felt... different. Sometimes now I sit with wide eyes, staring at the gorgeous boy in front of me. Just staring... amazed at how lucky I am. He still doesn't sleep very well. He still bites (only now he has 6 teeth so it's even worse!). He is still loud and strong and fast. And I don't know if it's the anti-depressants, or something about him or just that the right amount of time has passed... but we are finally, in love.
Now I can look back on the last year in two different ways. I could look back on it with regret and a sense of grief at the loss of any sort of bond with my boy for the whole entire first year of his life. Nah, that sounds too exhausting. I could look back at it and accept it for what it was. With self care and compassion, I could accept that I did the best I could with what was going on and I could realise there was in fact a bond there all along... it just took a little while to strengthen enough for me notice.
Jennifer Margulis is an author who speaks about myths relating to bonding with your baby.
1. If you have negative feelings about your new baby, you’re not a good mother.
Wow, where do I start? I was plagued with negative feelings about our boy... after all, he screamed at me, bit me, clung to me, kept me awake and had basically turned my life upside down! But I still comforted him when he cried, fed him when he was hungry and held him when he wanted to sleep. I was (am) a good mother!
2. Normal women bond with their babies right away.
Yep there it is again... that idea that you're not normal if you don't love them right away. Actually I'm learning, loving your baby right away is quite uncommon!
3. Even after a hard labor, you forget the pain and feel instantly connected to the baby.
But then you need to get stitched up... and stand up... wee for the first time... experience the pain of your milk let down... Ok so you may feel happy for the first minute or two after labour because the pain that is so beyond anything you've ever experienced has stopped... but you are uncomfortable for DAYS afterwards! And personally, I always thought... "You caused that!"
The bond between a mum and baby is complex but inevitable. Sometimes it happens straight away. Sometimes it happens when you leave the hospital and get home with your baby in your arms. Sometimes it happens when they sleep through the night for the first time. Sometimes it happens all of a sudden, with no warning. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, years. And it is OK. YOU are OK. There's nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with your baby.
It's just what happens, when love comes later.