Dedicated to the millions of mothers who go through the special hell of not feeling love for their baby from the moment of birth.
Mothers in our culture expect that loving a baby should happen instantly, like being struck by lightning. As soon as the bundle is delivered, we should be struck by joy. Sure, that would be nice, unfortunately, that’s not how it works for everybody. Just like nursing, while for some mother-baby couples, bonding works fine from the get-go, for an astonishingly large number of mothers, bonding can take weeks, (sometimes months), before the mother can experience the all consuming love she is expecting (and expected) to feel.
What comes next is a time of extreme suffering. This suffering is the result of two cultural distortions:
1. The first distortion: whenever there is a big gap between expectations and reality, our reaction is to assume we are at fault, that there is something terribly wrong with us. We don’t stop to examine the validity of the expectation. Much suffering can be greatly reduced, even eliminated, when we expose the expectations as unrealistic. But chances are nobody told you while you were pregnant that many many many very good mothers go through days, weeks, or months, without feeling any love for their baby. This distorted expectation is a leading cause for postpartum depression. Of course it is.
Let’s think of it like an equation for a minute:
(Hormonal changes) + (Body recovering from pregnancy & labor) + (Huge identity shift) + (Acute sleep deprivation) = Extreme Vulnerability
In the absence of bonding adds this to the mix:
(Something is terribly wrong with me) + (I’m a bad mother)= Self Loathing =I’m Evil
Combine the two and you get
(Extreme Vulnerability) +(I’m Evil) = Suicidal Thoughts
The next “logical” thoughts are: I’m a monster that can’t even love her own baby. I cause everybody I care about nothing but pain, I should just do everybody a favor and get out of the way.
Repeat after me: Just because you feel like a monster doesn’t make you a bad mother. All it means is that you are a mother in pain. With the right help, coping skills, and time, this pain will go away.
When I wallowed in that terrible emotional state, the distorted thoughts felt like undeniable truth. This situation is not only horrid, it is extremely dangerous. For me, it led to an overdose of sleep +anxiety medication. Thank God I woke up, alive if not yet well, at the psych-ward of St.Vincent hospital in NYC. It was the first day of my journey to recovery. My mother wasn’t that lucky. She did not survive her PPD. I choose to believe that she somehow saved me from above. (The rest of my story is here. For the overdose story, scroll all the way down to the confession part.)
Imagine how much pain we could prevent if we educated expectant mothers that while eventually all mothers feel love for their child, there is a full spectrum of normal as to how long it takes before she will be able to experience the love and be consumed by it. We should prepare mothers not only for the potential absence of love, but also for the self-loathing thoughts are part of that territory. We should prepare family members to support mothers through this difficult time. I am so angry that our culture fails to do this. It’s one of my motivators with my endeavor here. It’s what keeps me writing when I just want to hide. I want to change the cultural conversation around Postpartum Mood Disorders because when mothers are made aware of the danger, they can be equipped to withstand the assault of the PPDemons. Lives will be saved.Deep breaths. Writings about this is very hard for me. For the obvious reasons, but also for this one: I am one of the lucky mamas who were struck by the lightning-bolt of love at the moment of birth. The suicide attempt happened 8 months later. My son had health challenges and was waking up every hour. After much of that I lost my ability to sleep, and with it I lost access to my love for him. The only emotion left was guilt. But having the initial connection must have made it easier to handle the pain. I’m almost sure that if I had to endure the lack of initial bonding, I would have attempted suicide much sooner. Throughout my recovery, especially since I started leading PPD support groups, I see that mothers who struggle to feel love for their newborns are especially at risk. And there is a part of me that feels like I have no right to write about the lack of bonding, because my experience with the absence of love came later. It’s taken me over a week to write this post because of much of soul-searching and inner monster negotiations. I press on, because I know that I have a duty to write this post. I’m not exactly a religious person, but my life’s story makes it easy to believe in God. And as strange as this sounds, (and I’m utterly embarrassed to admit this) I have a feeling that a power far larger than me is helping me write all this.
Especially the this:
2. The second cultural distortion: we assumes that if we don’t feel love, there is no love. When it comes to motherly love, this is simply not true.
Repeat after me: just because you can’t feel your love for your child right now, doesn’t mean that you don’t love your child already. All it means is that you have no access to that love.
Hard to believe, right? But at the same time: undeniable. It requires a leap of faith. Faith in the power pf love.
If you are reading this and not feeling it, that’s OK. This magic doesn’t need you to believe in it in order to work. A good analogy is UV radiation: you don’t need to believe in it, you don’t even need to be aware of it to get a sunburn.
So here is the truth:
Your love is pooling inside you, in a secret, magical reservoir. You don’t know about it because it has been cursed by the PPDemons.
They didn’t make your love go away, because they can’t. Love cannot be obliterated. All the PPDemons can do is hide love. They put a curse on your inner spring of love so it can’t flow out, and then put and invisibility spell on the pool that is forming inside .
This means that somewhere, inside you, there is a secret garden. With a fountain. Where your love keeps flowing into a clear pool. You are nourishing everything in the garden, whether you feel it or not.
Your kid, no mater how old, has the key to the garden.
You see, children are immune to invisibility spells.
It’s magic. It works regardless of whether you believe in it or not.
Your baby has access to your love even when you don’t.
Your baby can drink from your fountain, can swim in the pool.
Has been all along.
Someday, (and boy, do I wish I could give you the date) you will heal. Your PPDdemons will lose the the power they hold.
Gradually, trickles of love will find their way out of the secret garden. Fleeting at first, then they will come more often, and will last longer. Until one ordinary day, while doing something as ordinary as changing a diaper, you will find yourself nibbling on his toes, or inhaling the folds of her neck, and you will be struck by that lightning. The floodgate will open.
All the hidden love will wash over you in waves. Your kid, who has been benefiting from it all along, will glow in your happiness. You will bathe in the love, tears and all, until it would be, say, time to start making dinner. But that evening, doing the dishes will be easier. As will be everything else.
So if you are currently suffering form non-bonding fueled depression, please take this on faith: if you want to love your baby, you have the capacity. And it will come. In time. Waiting is the hardest part.
Even then, this feeling of love will ebb and flow.
There will be set-backs. (Dammit!)
Some days you will have trickles, other days gushes.
But your capacity to love your child, yes, even at times you cannot easily access it, is never going away.
You can love.
You are love.