“We’re expected to fall in love with our children at first sight,” says Jessica Rach. “But what happens if it takes a little more time than that?”
I will always remember the conversation I had with a mother in the bathroom of a cafe, three months after giving birth to my son Marley last August. “It gets even better”, she said. “You just wait until you can start having conversations”.
That remains one of the most valuable and honest pieces of insight into parenthood I’ve had.
A year on, and I regularly ask my partner if it’s normal to love your child as much as we do. I wonder how it’s possible to love him even more from one day to the next. Because for me, the feeling of ‘overwhelming love’ wasn’t immediate.
You hear about the sudden ‘lightning bolt’ of love that comes straight after childbirth and ‘makes all the pain worth it’. My love, though, grew silently over the months. The strength of it took me by surprise – but not until about five months into parenthood – when I was finally able to properly enjoy it.
Of course, I felt love for him from the beginning, but it was more of a protective, ‘navigating the new world of motherhood and keeping us both happy’ type of love, sprinkled with anxiety and not helped by lockdown alienating us from other new mums and babies, and their true experiences.
Social media is full of expectant mothers, gently cupping their stomachs and admitting that their unborn child is already the ‘love of their life’. And that’s absolutely fine.
But the unspoken side of motherhood comes from those who struggle with the physical and mental strain of pregnancy and don’t feel an instant bond every time their baby kicks.
My first feeling post-birth was relief. Relief I was no longer pregnant – and that my son was healthy and happy.
Marley was born by c-section, and it wasn’t until about 15 minutes after he was born, cleaned and weighed, that I held him. Childbirth was therefore less of an emotionally charged experience for me, and more of a clinical one.
However, I’m not sure this really impacted that elusive lightning bolt feeling. And it wasn’t that I struggled to bond, it was more a case of, ‘right, he’s here now, what’s next?’ Even skin-to-skin wasn’t something I fully appreciated until recently.
The pressure of keeping these feelings silent comes not only from the overly maternal images of motherhood we are fed, but is also internal. Admitting it comes with an immediate feeling of guilt, as though you’re a bad mother or disloyal to your child – or even ungrateful for being able to be a parent.
I’ve since realised, though, that it’s more common than society admits.
The first refreshing conversation I had was when I confessed to my friend, who has two older children, that I didn’t realise parenthood would be as hard. I described feeling as though I almost had to relearn how to live, and how completing simple tasks such as grocery shopping or venturing into a cafe alone with a newborn had become a huge triumph.
She then admitted to not feeling an instant bond after giving birth, and said her love grew over time as she adapted to her new life. Her admission made me feel instantly relieved, as it’s not a side of parenthood that is often discussed.
Psychologist, author and founder of Get The Village, Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari, tells Stylist: “Studies suggest that 20 percent of women do not feel an instant connection with their newborn baby.
“The parent-baby connection, attachment and bonding can happen in many different ways.
“For some, it is from early pregnancy and for others it can be a few weeks after labour. It is a process, and the transition to parenthood can be overwhelming, with all of the changes to your body, hormonal changes, and a great sense of responsibility for a tiny human being.
“Some women feel guilty as there is a cultural expectation to fall in love as soon as the baby is born.”
Dr Ben-Ari adds: “It is the first ‘standard ‘our culture places on women, with breastfeeding, natural delivery, and a child’s academic success becoming unfair markers which measure the ‘success’ of our parenting skills.
“Skin-to-skin and support from family and friends all help towards the bonding process. But how quickly you bond certainly doesn’t say anything about who you are as a mother or what type of mother you will become.”
Celebrities aren’t immune to this, although rarely seem to speak about it. Indeed, actor Kristen Bell made headlines when she admitted to not feeling a connection with her bump.
And it seems fatherhood can also be romanticised. McFly star Harry Judd recently revealed that he didn’t feel an ‘instant connection with his second child’ and admitted the first six months were the ‘hardest of his life’.
“The actual reality of parenthood is a lot different to what gets put out there,” he said, encouraging parents to talk about their struggles in the first months.
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Of course, many in the spotlight – from Princess Diana to Reese Witherspoon – have bravely spoken about postnatal depression. Growing to love your child, however, isn’t necessarily the same thing. And labelling or writing off postpartum journeys that don’t conform to the ‘norm’ as a problem isn’t helpful.
Personally, I hope society starts helping new mothers to realise that adapting to parenthood is an ever-evolving journey, and stops placing a one-size-fits-all expectation on it.
After all, we don’t fall in love with strangers instantly – it takes time to grow.
Images: Author’s own
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