By Ursula Hildebrandt, PHD, MSW
When I first laid eyes on my newborn daughter, I was pretty sure they had handed me the wrong baby. She had a shock of black hair, a turned-up nose, and long flat cheeks. She didn’t look anything like I expected, and certainly nothing like me.
This was not the baby I had imagined for the last 9+ months. Okay, let’s be honest: she wasn’t the baby I had imagined for the last 20 years. At age 10, I had already imagined my newborn in great detail, and the baby I held in my arms was not that child. I felt vaguely catfished, as if I had entered into an online love affair, only to find out that my long-awaited correspondent had been a phony the entire time.
People claim to find their babies beautiful and lovable the moment they are born, but I suspect that more often than not, mothers and fathers secretly find their newborns strange and unfamiliar-- and (gasp!) not always even very cute.
This feeling of disconnection can happen to any parent, but especially so for a parent whose pregnancy, labor, and delivery may also have been unexpected and disappointing.
For me, it took me a year of trying to get pregnant, and some chemical assistance to get my eggs to cooperate. My pregnancy was uneventful, but I ended up needing a C-section when my baby refused to turn head down. My fantasies of natural conception and childbirth had already been extinguished, but I convinced myself that it didn’t matter-- I just wanted a healthy baby, right?
Then when my baby was born, instead of feeling a flood of love and adoration, I felt like she might be the wrong baby—the culmination of the wrong conception, wrong pregnancy, and the wrong delivery.
Much is touted about the natural “love hormones” that are supposed to magically permeate the room when the newborn suckles for the first time (that, and a chorus of angels and rays of heavenly light). For some mothers, even the surge of oxytocin at birth cannot over-ride their feelings of disappointment and lack of connection, especially when compounded with a physically and psychologically traumatic birth, sleep deprivation, difficulty with nursing, and a dramatic drop of in pregnancy hormones.
This is can be part of the extremely common cluster of symptoms of what is colloquially known as the “baby blues.” Most women start to feel better after a few weeks, but that doesn’t make those few weeks any easier.
If this happens to you, here are a few suggestions for easing the malaise:
- Tell your story. Try to seek out an empathetic close friend (ideally another mother who has “been there”) and tell your story. Narrative Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps people find coherence and strength in painful and confusing past events. It can be enormously healing to talk through your journey, from trying to get pregnant, to the play-by-play of giving birth. If you don’t know other mothers, a post-partum support group (like the ones we offer at Village Maternity, or through PEPS) can be helpful, as can writing out thoughts in a journal, or seeing a therapist.
- Bonding takes time. Ask for help with chores, and spend as much time as you can getting to know this strange child. There is nothing wrong with spending the whole day in bed, nursing, napping, and cuddling your newborn. There is no need to stuff your baby into clothes and go on outings, if you don’t feel like it. Skin-to-skin contact is another way to get the oxytocin and dopamine flowing, as is smelling and gazing at your baby.
- Find a mantra. When you feel yourself starting to doubt and judge yourself, simply repeating comforting words can be helpful in breaking out of a negative thought cycle and help you feel present and mindful. If you are religious, use a short prayer or verse that gives you comfort. If you aren’t religious, try: “That was then, this is now, “One step at a time,” “I’m enough,” “I can do this” or “My baby’s okay, I’m okay.” Find other suggestions here.
- Have a conversation with your baby. Another powerful way to feel a connection in those early days is to wait until your newborn is awake and alert (often right after nursing, if she hasn’t fallen back to sleep), and have a conversation with your baby. Start by mirroring everything she does. Then, ask her a question and let her “respond” in whatever way she can (a grunt, a coo, a tongue protrusion). Look into her eyes and comment quietly on what she is doing in that very moment. Your baby will learn to expect your attention and seek it out. Around 4-6 weeks, you may even get a smile! Here are a couple videos of moms and dads having conversations with their babies.
- Take a break. Be sure to hand baby over to your partner often-- with no guilt attached. Non-gestational parents have a similar surge of “love hormones” and neurotransmitters in the brain’s reward systems when they cuddle their newborns, and most can even walk around and do things in those weeks after birth without pain or discomfort! You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after a solid nap, a bath, and a hot meal.
- After a few weeks, if you still don’t feel better—especially if you still don’t feel bonded to your baby—it’s time to seek professional help. When post-partum depression is the culprit, it is crucial that your partner recognize the signs and help you find some support. The Swedish Center for Perinatal Bonding and Support is an excellent resource for those in the Seattle area. If you suspect that family of origin issues are starting to bubble up, you can also always talk to a therapist who specializes in post-partum issues (I do this, and I have a lot of excellent references for others in the area who work with this population – feel free to email me with questions.)
My daughter just turned 11, and it is easy for me to look back on those early days of new motherhood and laugh at how much pressure I put on myself—and my baby—to meet all of those expectations I had been building up for years. Why couldn’t I just go with the flow? It is natural to want to prepare for this enormous journey, and certainly there much planning required when having a child. However, parenthood is more like a “choose your own adventure,” not a finished novel. Open yourself up to all the twists and turns that await you! Try and find peace and humor in expecting the unexpected, and give yourself plenty of grace and time to find your way.
All grown up, and pretty darn cute. Featured with her little sister who was ever more funny looking as a newborn.