Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Myth of Bonding

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Dear Marjo,

I’m already crying as I write this, because I’m so scared to even think about it, never mind see it in black and white. But I never really bonded with my baby, and I’m afraid that means I don’t love him. I do care about him, and I’d lay down and die before I let anyone hurt him. But is that what love is? Isn’t it supposed to be more magical?

He was born prematurely (at 34 weeks) and spent a couple of days in NICU before we could take him home. We were so afraid when I went into labor early, then excited when he was born, then afraid again when he was in NICU, then excited again when we could bring him home. It’s been a huge emotional rollercoaster. But even with all of the fear and excitement, I still don’t feel connected to him.

It’s not that I didn’t have a chance. I was able to hold him when he was born, and I spent hours and hours with him in NICU. So it isn’t like they whisked him away before we could bond. We just … didn’t.

My husband would be so hurt if he knew. And my friends would think I’m crazy. So I don’t feel like I can talk to any of them about it. But every time I hold my baby I feel like apologizing to him. I want to love him, but all I can do is hope that I will in time.

Is it too late? Is it possible to force myself to bond with him?

Signed,

Terrible Mother

 

Dear Mother,

I am purposely not using the first part of your name because you are not terrible. You are a Mother, and you are suffering with some truly dark thoughts and fears. Doesn’t everyone bond with their babies? Why was there no magic? Something is seriously wrong with me. Will my son suffer?

Meanwhile you’re surrounded by people with tear-filled eyes and gentle smiles, cooing at a baby you’ve barely met yourself. You’re holding him right. He’s diapered and well-fed and yes, you care for him, emotionally and physically. But inside you feel like he isn’t even yours, and if people even suspected how you were feeling they would be appalled. So you hide those feelings, and in the spare moments when you’re not completely exhausted, you let them out, just to yourself.

But here’s the thing: Bonding is a myth. Absolutely yes, many (perhaps most) moms feel that magic lightning bolt of instant love. But not everyone does, especially when birth plans go awry. It’s okay that you’re working your way toward that connection. Trust me: It’ll happen.

My own birth plan went out the window when I had an emergency c-section. After 22 hours of exhausting labor, the doctor rolled me into an operating room, put a yellow cap on my head and a blue curtain over my belly, and tugged the baby out. Then they put me out.

Six hours later I woke up. My husband had been the first to bathe, diaper, and hold my son. While I slept he had rocked the baby and put his pinky in his little mouth. The doctor had gone home, my doula had left, and I couldn’t even sit up. Next to me, a small baby with black hair was lying in a glass bassinet. But the baby didn’t look like me or my husband. He had black hair, a big nose, and he was dark instead of fair. Still, he must have been mine. “Can I hold him?” I asked.

Even then, the first time I held him, I didn’t feel the lightning bolt. So I searched for it. I smelled his head, the way people do when they’re cooing about that beautiful baby smell. But my son’s head smelled (and still does, at age 14) like black pepper. I wrapped my hand gently around his leg and rubbed it with my thumb. Soft and cute—but still like it was someone else’s newborn. As for nursing, it didn’t go well. Three days later we named him and took him home.

That lightning bolt never did happen for us. But a seed was planted in my heart, and as it took root and began to grow I took comfort in knowing that the tallest, strongest trees begin as tiny saplings. Today, our love is not fragile. It’s unshakeable, solid the way the earth is under our feet, supporting every word, every action, every meeting of our eyes.

So yes, dear Mother. Some storms bring lightning bolts. But others bring gentle rain, nourishing those small seeds and strengthening the earth that supports them. They can be hard to see, and sometimes it takes faith to know they’re even there. But they are, and you are already bound together more tightly than you know.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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Oh...I totally relate!! It's easier whith the 2nd or the 3d, but even though, loving a child is something some of us have to learn day after day...I keep learning it, almost 12 years after
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