I wanted to be a mom ever since I was a little girl and held my baby sister on my lap for the first time. Oh, her little fingers! Oh, her tiny toes! I was intoxicated by her whole delicious, precious self, and I knew I had found my calling. It was almost as if I spent the next 25 years counting down to the moment when I would become a mom and have a tiny, perfect baby of my own to love.
I have a confession to make, though. It’s one that still hurts my heart when I think about it. When I did become a mother, I didn’t love my baby, at least not at first. And not in the way I expected to. In fact, maybe it was all the expectations I had – the years of longing for the exact moment when I could meet and fall in love with my baby – that made it so difficult to absorb the actual feelings I was having when it finally happened.
My first son was born after a really beautiful, warm, loving, hippie homebirth. We had a birth pool set up in our living room, and he was born into the water after only a few hours of labor. Parts of it hurt like hell, but I felt entirely supported throughout the process – surrounded by the female power of my two doulas, my midwife, and my supportive mother-in-law. The birth itself was actually easier than I expected it to be (yes, really!).
But somehow I was totally unprepared for what happened next. As soon as the midwife placed my son’s wailing body on my chest, I thought “Is this real? Is this really the baby?” Shocked is probably the best word for it. I felt shocked, and slightly detached from the experience. I don’t know what it was, really, but it was almost as though I didn’t expect a baby to come at the end of the process of giving birth.
Really, the first few days postpartum were among some of the most difficult and dark days of my life. My baby and I were healthy – thank goodness – but my son was fussy, sleepy, and he would not nurse.
Nursing my baby was the thing I was looking forward to most – it was what I thought would define my experience as a new mom – and it wasn’t happening. Not at all. Every time I tried to latch my baby on, he would turn away, as though he wanted nothing to do with my breast, or me.
I remember looking in the mirror when my son was about 48 hours old. I looked so tired, like I’d aged 100 years. Nothing felt right. “I am failing my baby,” I thought. And then, the thought that I’d never imagined thinking flew right into my head: “I hate him.”
I had a bit of a breakdown then, as I realized that the thing I expected to happen – that I’d fall madly in love with my baby as soon as he was born – just wasn’t happening. Not in the least. I didn’t love him, not at all. I was a terrible mother, a monster.
Looking back now, I can see how ridiculous this all was. Having a baby is hard, so very hard. Babies don’t always come out cooperative. Not all babies know how to nurse at first. Most importantly, motherhood isn’t something you know how to do going in; it’s a learning process.
But no one told me that it would feel like I was failing at first, and that that was normal and okay. Everyone told me I’d be a natural mother. I was born to do this, they said. I had all the right instincts. And no one, not one single soul, warned me that I might not love my son at first sight.
I was lucky in that my darkest hour – that moment when I truly felt like I hated my son – was a passing thing. I had the self-awareness to realize I was tired AF, and that there was no way I was going to be the world’s worst mom. I also had a wonderful postpartum team who eased me through those difficult days. My midwives visited several times, called me daily to check on me, and my doulas came by the next day to teach me how to latch my baby.
I think it was maybe a week in – a week after my baby and I had to work our asses off to make latching work, and after it was finally, finally working – that I began to feel love. My baby had one of his best nursing session ever, had unlatched, and lay happy and satiated in my lap. I held him there, looked him right in the eyes and thought “Oh my God, I love you so fucking much I don’t know what to do.”
And then I sobbed. I sobbed all over him. It had been a week of hell, and I realized that we had made it. We had pushed through it, both of us fussy and exhausted and starving and stressed, but we had done it. In that moment, I loved him so damn much. I had fallen in love with him because of how far we’d come, how much we’d shared already as mother and child, how we’d struggled.
I realized in that moment that I could do anything — anything — for this child. I would lay my life down to save his.
I think we do a huge disservice to mothers when we tell them that they are going to fall in love as soon as they meet their babies. Yes, some do. I felt instantly in love with my second baby, so I know it’s possible. But I also know that sometimes it doesn’t feel like love at first sight. Sometimes it feels like confusion, shock, even disgust. Sometimes it feels like “How the fuck am I going to do this?”
And that’s all right. Because sometimes falling in love with your baby takes time. Sometimes you are in survival mode at first. Sometimes you have to get to know one another. Sometimes it takes a few hours, a few days, a few weeks.
Obviously, if you are having thoughts of harming your baby or yourself, or thoughts that scare or concern you in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare professional. However, for most of us, what we need most of all is to know that “love at first sight” when it comes to parenting is a big, fat myth.
We all learn to love our babies at our pace, in our own time, and in our own ways. And that’s okay.
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