Learning to love

Cross posted

I’ve been reflecting on two posts recently, Jessica Valenti’s column in The Guardian about learning to love her baby, and evil fizz’s response at Feministe, endorsing and resonating with her. Both women had similar experiences of not loving, not being blissed out by motherhood. Both women felt that other women needed to know that not everyone falls in love at first sight, and that better narratives are needed for early motherhood. Or if not ‘better’, then enlarged narratives, encompassing a greater range of experience.

This is my story. It resonates a little, and goes in a new direction a little.

I love my daughters dearly. Drag out whatever corny cliché you like about mothers and children and love and light of my life and all that, and it fits. They are the joy of my days.

It wasn’t always this way. It took me time to fall in love with my first born, even ‘though she was the most wonderful baby ever born. For the first few days and even weeks, I was curiously disconnected from her, even though I didn’t want to be parted from her.

I had a good pregnancy with my first baby: a few days of illness and up-chucking, and somewhat swollen feet towards the end, but nothing too worrying. My baby was due on 1 October and very obligingly, my waters broke that day, in a polite and genteel fashion, quietly enough that my midwife simply advised me to go back to having dinner with friends (a woman whom I hold in high regard for many reasons, including this, had invited us over to dinner that day to distract me from due-date-disappointment). By the next day, I was in the early stages of labour. But that was when things started to go not so well. I laboured for nearly a day, and then transferred to a standard delivery suite rather than a birthing centre, avoiding a c-section but having an epidural, then a Ventouse, then forceps, until eventually, after a second stage of hours of hard, hard pushing, our baby arrived. It had taken nearly 33 hours from when I woke with the first cramps of labour.

I was exhausted. Shatteringly exhausted. I was able to greet her, but there was no rush of love. I was simply too tired. And I stayed that way for a long, long time.

It took me a few weeks to start to process what had turned out to be quite a traumatic delivery, to think it through, and to realise what had happened. And then bit by bit, my love for her grew and grew and grew. It just took time.

But I never berated myself for not being blissed out on motherhood love. I think there were two reasons for this. I knew that not everyone fell in love at first sight, and that it was just as common for new parents to need time to develop bonds with their children. So I knew I was not abnormal, or wrong, or deficient. And I had watched my partner fall in love with our daughter in the delivery room. He picked her up from me, held her in his arms and sang softly to her. The most wondrous look came over his face, and I could see that he was deeply and besottedly in love with her.

Over time, I fell in love with her too. Some things helped along the way. She was a posterior presentation baby, meaning that although she came head first, she was facing up, rather than down, so the pressure from her head was not right, making the labour long and hard. But because she was facing up, she was, and still is, a star gazer, looking up at the sky in wonder. My own parents’ deep and abiding love for me reassured me, as did their great delight in my daughter. And knowing that my partner loved and cherished our daughter comforted me. No matter what, she was loved, just as she ought to be. As for me, it just took time. That was all.

The curious thing was that by the time my younger daughters arrived, it took no time at all. This time my pregnancy was not so straightforward, and we almost lost our babies early on. But we got through to the end, and at 38 weeks, a full-term pregnancy for twins, the babies started to arrive. Despite being a twin delivery, all went well, except that these babies were star gazers too. More long hard pushing, but this time, the whole thing only took about twelve hours from beginning twinges to beautiful babies in my arms. The labour and delivery was much more straightforward, despite being a twin delivery. Our magnificent obstetrician Cathy Gillies helped immeasurably in this regard. In addition to that, I think my neural circuits had been primed by our elder daughter. I had learned how to love babies, and I was ready to love these little girls, right from the start. The next few weeks were very happy for me, despite a lamentable failure in breastfeeding, just because I was so in love with all three of our little girls. Second time around, it was all so much easier.

I cannot speak to Jessica Valenti’s experience of having a tiny premmie baby, nor to evil fizz’s experience of epic disaster and maternal ferocity. Those are different strands of new motherhood. This is my strand to add to the narratives about birth and early motherhood. Time. Time and experience. And a bit of being easier on ourselves. A bit of realising for ourselves, and reassurance from people around us, that those long hard labours can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, so much so that new mothers, and fathers, may need time for healing first.

Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of time.

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4 comments on “Learning to love

  1. suze says:

    I read the Guardian piece the other day and strongly identified. Although my own experience wasn’t quite as life threatening for me, it was similar, in that I had pre-eclampsia/emergency caesarian and then my premature baby, weighing only 1.5kg, was in hospital for a month. And I continued to have high blood pressure for some weeks afterward, which I found very disturbing psychologically. I found it hard to feel anything but a desparate protectiveness for the baby – I felt intensely about him but it didn’t feel like love, just anxiety. I can remember the first time I felt love towards him, when he was about six months old. That felt quite surprising.

    I even shared this woman’s experience of referring to him as ‘the baby’ for the first several months of his life. I found it hard to call him by his name. (I had a problem with his name, actually, as when he was taken to the NICU, the nurses asked my partner if he had a name and she said ‘X’, which was at the top of our list but in my mind we hadn’t actually finally decided on his name. But they put a name tag with X on his crib, so he had a name, before I had even been there (I was too ill to visit for the first 24 hours). So I spent months feeling like I hadn’t had a say in his name and couldn’t bring myself to use it. This, I realised in retrospect, was an expression of how alienated and shocked I felt by the emergency birth.)

    Looking back, I feel jealous of those women who do get the baby-love experience. I think if you are struggling to survive, emotionally and physically, and you are struggling to keep your baby alive, then love feels like a luxury. You’re just not relaxed enough to allow love to flow.

    But like you, I felt quite confident that the baby was getting enough love and affection from my partner. And I was very fortunate that breastfeeding, when it finally happened (when he was a month old) went well for us, so I was able to connect and give to him in that way. And of course, certainly by the time he was one and ever since, I have adored him with an intense passion.

  2. homepaddock says:

    My first baby was delivered by emergency caesarean after the placenta tore. My first sight of her was a photo, it was next day before I held her and she was in an incubator for nearly a week. In spite of that I loved her unconditionally from the start.

    That doesn’t happen with everyone. The arrival of a new baby is supposed to be a happy time but hormones, pain, tiredness, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge . . . . so many things affect the way you feel.

    Those who were slower to love will take comfort from your words which also reinforce the importance of family support.

  3. macondo mama says:

    I identify with so much of what you’ve written. I don’t know how much I attribute to my own traumatic birth (which was a healthy, natural home birth, but way way too fast and broke my tailbone) or just to my inability to snap out of how surreal everything was, I just couldn’t connect. But like you, seeing my partner’s love for my baby right from the start let me feel okay about not quite feeling that overwhelming feeling, though I really would have loved to.

    I had no problem with caring for my baby, nursing and co-sleeping and wearing him all the time, but I did have problems talking to him for many months — I had to force myself to do it, basically faking it, until it started to come a little more naturally.

    For me, too, it was so important to have already heard somehow, somewhere, that ambivalent feelings are also “normal” and falling in love can take some time. I think that had I not heard these things before, I would not have been at all confident, as I was, that things would eventually be fine.

  4. […] of a Certain Age talks about learning to love after having her […]

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