Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that my birth stories and feeding stories with my two boys are very different. They are very different children. But there is one thing that is the same – the time it took for me to fall in love with them. And that is the same because it is about me rather than about them.
It took me 6-8 months to fall in love with each of my children.
This is not a post about birth trauma. Despite my births being very different they were both positive experiences. With Edward, my eldest, I had the birth experience that we are all told will lead to good things for mum and baby: homebirth, no pain relief, skin-to-skin, delayed cord clamping, physical ease of breastfeeding, continuity of midwifery care and a fantastic health visitor. With David, I had a very different experience due to his congenital heart defect. Yet even having a c-section that was only decided upon the morning of the operation, and not knowing for how long David would survive, I had a positive birth. I was treated with respect and compassion by all of the team at St Mary’s and have nothing but positive memories of that day.
So how did I feel when I first met my boys? I gave birth to Edward on all fours on my bathroom floor, and he was passed underneath me so I was looking down at him and he was looking up at me. I was asked if I wanted to hold him. It hadn’t occurred to me, I was too exhausted. I wanted a shower and a sleep. Getting into my own bed, clean and being able to, finally, lie comfortably in any position, was the best feeling I had that day. I remember that feeling. I remember the elation of having had a homebirth despite going to 42 weeks. I don’t remember feeling anything for Edward.
Meeting David was different because there was jeopardy. Due to his condition we were told that he could be born blue and listless. He came out pink and yelling his head off (he’s been noisy ever since). So I remember shouting “good boy!” along with Phil and being so pleased he had made a good start. With David I had “tick boxes” for success. I wanted to meet him, to hold him, for Edward to meet him and so on (back in those days we had no idea if he would survive beyond a few days old). So each tick box achieved was a little success that I could record, share on social media etc. Expressing colostrum for him was a source of pride. But although I was interested in his progress I had no problem being away from him for that first night and not holding him until he was 2 days old. I certainly didn’t experience the distress I know some mothers in that situation have felt.
This is all hard to record as of course it makes me question myself. Am I just an inherently selfish person? My own pain and discomfort were always my primary concern. Is it because I have never had to step up and be responsible for my newborns? Phil is such an excellent, hands on father, that he has let me “get away with it” if you like – whenever I had had enough he just took over. It wasn’t until Edward was over a year old that I did a “bad” night with him all by myself (we were staying with my parents and he just couldn’t settle) and I realised that I COULD do it and survive to live another day.
What I experienced was not the rejection of my babies that some mothers experience, particularly with PND. I cared about them. I had no desire to hurt them. But as long as they were safe with Daddy I could happily leave them for hours at a time. Once I had stopped breastfeeding Edward I slept across the road in a friend’s house many a night and delighted in the sleep. Being away from my 10 week old baby for a night gave me no trouble at all.
First time around, I didn’t even realise that I wasn’t in love with Edward. I had never had a baby before, and was appalled by how hard it was, mentally and emotionally. I found it ridiculous to imagine that anyone could enjoy those newborn months, I think I assumed people who did were making it up. I had good times and was proud of my baby but enjoy it? No.
Then about 6 months in something changed. Suddenly I could FEEL how much I loved him. It was a gut, physical reaction. I loved him so so much. He was my boy! And I have loved him ever since.
Second time around, I knew what was happening and accepted that is just the way I am. I cared about David, I was happy when he survived his surgeries, I cared for him as best I could. But it was still Edward that I loved. David was a bundle I was caring for.
Then sure enough 8 months in I fell in love. I felt it happen. I had two boys and I loved them so much I could burst. There it was, that feeling people describe as happening the moment they see their children. It has just taken me some time.
The photo record doesn’t tell the story, or at least I don’t think that it does. I look like a loving mum in each of these photos, yet I know how I felt on each of those days. Very different emotions in the earlier ones. Two of these are from my first Mothering Sundays with each boy, which were tough going both times.
So what was going on? Well with the benefit of hindsight I firmly believe that this was all to do with anxiety. I had 9 months of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy when Edward was a year old and realised that I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder. What I didn’t know then that I have learned since is that anxiety dampens down most emotions. Anger I could always access (sadly), that wasn’t a problem, but all other emotions were buried under a layer of anxiety. Trying to cope with the day to day discomforts and difficulties and exhaustions of having a baby was all I could do. Just keep plodding onwards. I couldn’t access any deep emotions. And it was only when those emotions came flooding back that I realised they had been missing.
It was particularly noticeable with David, as the stress of having a baby with a heart defect took its toll and I fell into a brief but horrible depression when he was 8 months old. It was only as I pulled myself out of that and started to put myself back together that my love for him was able to surface.
Breastfeeding was fortunately a help rather than a hindrance with David – I did experience the hit of oxytocin with each feed that makes it a pleasurable experience, and I didn’t experience any pain. I was also better able to cope with the broken nights, partly through the perspective that comes with experience and partly because I was no longer averse to bedsharing. So I have been able to nurse David up until the time of writing (he will be 2 next month).
Yet even with the benefit of having done it all before I wasn’t able to enjoy the newborn months with David or to build that bond early on. Does that matter? I used to think it didn’t. Unfortunately though I have now read a number of things about attachment and the 1001 Critical Days and worry that my initial detachment may affect my boys in the long term. Sure, they had cuddles and got told that I loved them (you still say it, regardless). But they also got shouted at when I was exhausted, and on one occasion I threw David onto the bed. Phil’s reaction to that really brought me up short. Apparently that was not what you did to a baby, no matter how frustrated they made you feel.
Would anything have helped? Yes, thinking back, if I had my time again I would hire a postnatal doula both times. They would have helped me to bond and to do it all for myself, with support, rather than taking the pressure off me. CBT has taught me that to conquer your anxiety you have to face your fears. Had I faced my anxiety over caring for a newborn I may have overcome it and accessed the love sooner. Who can say.
What I do know is that the lake of love was always there, within me. I just had to break down the dam of anxiety each time to get it flowing. Once it was flowing it never stopped. I love them both more than I can possibly explain, certainly more than I can tell them. But I do tell them. As much as I can. And I am so glad that they are with me. I am an incredibly fortunate mum.