The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

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.

6 responses to “Learning to love

  1. Isabel August 22, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    These stories resonated powerfully with me too. My first pregnancy was plagued by minor complications inflated to terrifying proportions by carers who presented the worst-case scenario as certain to occur and my own new-mother fretfulness. My waters broke three weeks before my due date and my labour was long and difficult. My posterior baby blessedly turned at the last moment and I pushed him out as the doctor with the vonteuse literally banged on the door! My son was early, jaundiced and stoned out of his tiny tree and would not wake to feed. I was terrified something was horribly wrong and it took three days for anyone to tell me that his behaviour was completely expected for a 37 weeker. I was fiercely, primally protective of him from the beginning but it was like I held a part of my heart in reserve until I knew he would be ok. When he was two weeks old he woke up and started feeding well and I was able to start falling in love.

  2. Msconduct August 23, 2011 at 12:34 am

    If I can put my psychologist’s hat on to add something to this:

    It’s absolutely true that it’s important for women to know that not falling in love immediately is as normal an experience as an immediate rush of love. What’s more, it’s not restricted to situations in which it’s not clear the baby will be OK: it happens even when the pregnancy and delivery are trouble-free. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that for some women it’s one of the signs of post-partum depression. I hate the idea of women struggling on their own with depression, thinking that’s normal, when there is actually help available for them.

    • Isabel August 23, 2011 at 9:30 am

      The period after my first birth was one of the few times I was grateful for my earlier experience of depression. I was very clearly able to see where the line between exhaustion and worry, and actual depression was and, when I felt myself nearing that line was able to tell my partner what to look out for if I crossed it. I was lucky that once I got into the swing of caring for my son I came right but I know lots of women who have really struggled with post-natal depression.

  3. Tamara August 23, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for your story Deb. I can relate to this too. I had a normal birth with my first but nevertheless, I did not fall in love at first sight. I am not a very emotional person anyway, and tiny babies are strange little things! I did bond with her over time. I think that the act of caring for her day after day made me more and more attached to her. When her sister came along it happened much faster. I guess I was “primed” for it.

    I was also not worried, I figured it would come in time. It was a lot like when we got our kitten a couple of years beforehand. He needed a lot of care at first as he had a runny tummy, and then he got into a lot of fights and needed care after surgeries (massaging scar tissue etc). All the physical caring for him made us fall in love with him. I found having a newborn took me through a similar process!

  4. Emma August 23, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Evil fizz’s column really resonated with me, both round the experience, and the importance of the message. Because I’ve spoken to friends who’ve become parents, absolutely devastated and believing there’s something fundamentally wrong with them as a person, because they didn’t fall in love with their baby straight away. And sure that if it didn’t happen then, it wasn’t going to happen at all. Because that myth of universal instant bonding is so strong.

    My experience of my daughter’s birth was pretty awful. It wasn’t so much the violent, precipitate labour, but the simple fact that, traumatised, I went into shock. I wasn’t capable of feeling anything when I looked at her. A couple of years later I wrote about it, when things were better, and said that if she’d been born “in the wild”, I would simply have got up, walked away, and abandoned her. I felt horribly guilty about that, and made a conscious effort to give her time and attention, much more than I had her older brother, with whom I also didn’t do the “instant overwhelming bond” with. And eventually, things came right.

    We need, as you say, to expand the narrative of pregnancy, childbirth and parenting because (as with sex, and this is an idea I’ve been trying to column for about a month now) people need to know their experiences and emotions are “normal”.

  5. dimsie August 24, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I recall one of my husband’s well-meaning relatives talking about ‘loving more than you ever thought possible’ when it came to having a baby, and that remark stuck with me as a sort of marker, so that when I eventually did have mine I remember thinking ‘no, that’s not quite it’. I was very happy with him, and fascinated by him, and protective of him. But I also felt as though I would have to work up to the adoration part, because in a way, we’d only just ‘met’. You know?

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