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Bonding in Early Motherhood: When Angels Don’t Sing and the Earth Doesn’t Stand Still

written by Tara Haelle
This post is part of the May evidence-based parenting blog carnival. Check out the main post at School of Smock here, and I will updating this post with links to the other posts.

Here’s a list of things that did not happen when I had my son in June 2010:

  • Angels did not fly into my room singing
  • Fireworks did not go popping out my window
  • The earth did not visibly tilt on its axis, or stop in its rotation
  • No nearby Richter scale needles jumped even the slightest

And you know what else? My husband and I did not weep tears of joy and love, and I did not fall madly in love with the creature in my arms, suddenly realizing in a flash that my entire world had changed. In fact, he wasn’t even in my arms. He was clumsily placed beside my head in a tightly wrapped bundle, while I was still waiting for the placenta to make its exit (it never did – I required emergency surgical intervention for the doctor to manually remove it). I looked at him and thought, “Huh! He’s actually a little cute-ish. Not scrunched up and weird like most newborns. Cool.” And then someone asked me if I was tired, and I said, “F*** yeah!” and everyone laughed. One moment there had been a cantaloupe-sized head lodged in my vagina while I impatiently waited for the doctor, and the next, there was the grating, tinny cry of a newborn in the room, and nothing else was really different.

Because of my surgery, the next time I saw him was a number of hours later, after my shivering body had shed all the anesthesia and I was able to sit up. Although I had a vaginal delivery, I had lost a lot of blood and was on transfusion-watch if my body didn’t replenish itself quickly enough. I was wheeled to the nursery to breastfeed first thing, as I’d requested; he was being watched for low oxygen levels. And I remember it was kind of awkward and cool and whatever. I’m trying to figure out how to hold this little thing and get him to latch and feeling like a clumsy child learning gingerly learning a new skill..

And all of that was fine.

Hook 'em horns! After all, my husband and I were both attending UT when we had D.

What wasn’t fine was the guilt I experienced over the next few weeks when I realized that I was NOT madly in love with this strange, needy little critter. I thought he was cute. I enjoyed looking at him. I liked taking photos of him. I felt a (usually) unburdensome duty to care for him in every way possible. I wanted to soothe him. I was determined, hell or high water, to breastfeed him exclusively, no matter how excruciating it was (and it WAS excrcuiating for a variety of reasons). His crying frustrated and pierced me. But when I looked at him, I felt as I might about a new little puppy: a cute, clumsy, odd sort of creature who relied on me for everything. Boy, wasn’t I a horrible mother! I thought of my child as nothing more than a pet?!

Here’s the thing: I was normal. I am normal. And now, almost three years later, I’m utterly in love with my son and sometimes love just watching him as he tries to do something as ordinary as clipping and unclipping the cat collar in his little hands, working on those fine motor skills. If muses aren’t whispering love sonnets in your ears in the first hours or days after birth, that’s okay. Completely okay.

I was at high risk for postpartum depression because of a history of a mental illness, and I was very consciously on the lookout for myself, as were my husband and mother. I did not become depressed, but I experienced the roller coaster of emotions that most new mothers experience while their hormones go haywire. For at least two weeks, I cried almost every afternoon for reasons I couldn’t explain or fathom. But I was actually pretty fine, just an exhausted, stumbling new mom.

The only problem was this societal expectation I had felt, that I was supposed to be so in love with my child that I would hang the moon for him, given the chance, and why wasn’t I clambering up to the stars for that chance already? I just didn’t feel that. And I wish someone had told me then that my feelings weren’t just okay, but as normal as those who DO feel the incredible love wash over them on day one. I was doing the skin-to-skin contact, I was co-sleeping, and I was exclusively breastfeeding. So why wasn’t I feeling that intense bonding I was “supposed” to feel? Would my child be ruined for life? Was I a “refrigerator mother” (even though that theory is BS)? Was I not cut out to be a mom?

This inner conflict is precisely what two motherhood researchers, Mira Crouch and Lenore Manderson, explored in a 1995 paper called “The Social Life of Bonding Theory.” Tracing the idea of maternal-infant bonding from its early popularity in the late 60s through the paper’s publication, they discuss how the loaded meanings of the term, whether used scientifically, culturally or popularly, have shifted — and even been used to make women feel guilty (perhaps to “keep them in their place”?) as the feminist movement raged and then settled down a bit.

For example, they quote a 1980 undergraduate textbook whose unequivocal description of a “sensitive period” immediately after birth would lead any new mom to feel inadequate: “An intimate psychological unit between mother and infect can be achieved in the hours and days after delivery. Such a relationship has profound beneficial effect on the child… and for the mother. The opportunity for creating this bonding exists only in the immediate puerperium [period after childbirth] and should anything interfere with its establishment then the bonding will be at best inadequate, at worst non-existent.”

Well, hell. I was screwed, wasn’t I? I had just pushed a watermelon through a donut hole, and if I’m not fawning over the little alien, we’ll never have another chance to bond.

It's completely normal for those first several weeks of motherhood to be a period during which you're simply getting to know your new little human, regardless of whether you're overwhelmed with love or not.

Obviously, that idea is, as the English would say, bollocks. The authors quote women in parenting magazines who talk about the “spiritual experience of giving birth,” who cried with joy along with their blubbering husbands, who felt a “deep sense of loss” when separated from their child for 11 hours during an emergency. All these feelings are valid, and I don’t mean to minimize those who felt similarly in their own situations. But my own feelings deserve validation as well and were no more “wrong” or “right” than those of others.

In fact, as the authors point out, this love-at-first-sight construction is almost entirely cultural, restricted to the “Western world in the late modern period.” In other parts of the world, or in other eras, where child mortality is higher, women “give birth to many children, invest selectively, based on culturally derived favored characteristics, and hope that a few survive infancy and the early years of life,” as they quote from an anthropology publication.

That’s not to say there is no physiological basis for the bonding that should occur, sooner or later, immediately or gradually, between a mother and her child. The paper discusses the way in which this bonding was scientifically and anthropologically explored in primates and other mammals, and there have been explorations into chemicals like oxytocin, which appears to influence the bonding process (though the popular ideas of this “love drug” are often overblown or oversimplified). But the idea that this one crucial “sensitive period,” in the 24 to 48 hours after birth, is the only window of opportunity for a sudden bonding does not have much evidence to back it up.

In fact, the authors of the 1976 seminal book Maternal-Infant Bonding (published at the height of the feminist movement), Marshall Klaus and John Kennell, later clarified what they had been trying to say in their highly influential, and controversial, work. Their research partly laid the groundwork for changing obstetric hospital practices, bringing mothers and babies together immediately after birth, emphasizing skin-to-skin contact, and so on – all good stuff by any measure. But they recognized that some people were taking their idea too far when they wrote an editorial in the Journal of Pediatrics in 1983, one year after their second edition had been published with the altered title Parent-Infant Bonding, quoting themselves from another paper:

“The human is highly adaptable, and there are many fail-safe routes to attachment. Sadly, some parents who miss the bonding experience have felt that all was lost for their future relationship. This was (and is) completely incorrect… Some misinterpretations of studies in this area may have resulted from a too literal acceptance of the word bonding and so has suggested that the speed of this reaction resembles that of epoxy materials.”

To be sure, early and sustained contact between a mother and her newborn are important, as are skin-to-skin contact and rooming in, and studies do show weakened or poorer parenting practices in those who did not develop an early bond with their child. But a mother like me, who felt more of an affectionate obligation to her child than some Shakespearean overwhelming “love,” per se, toward her child in the early days is no less a mother, and no less likely to be a loving mother in the future, than those who do have that earth-shattering falling-in-love experience.

The latter experience, whose mythology has grown out of a movement that puts the glorified “childbirth experience” on such a high pedestal that it has spawned whole mini-industries and dangerous home birth practices, is little more than folklore for many women, perhaps even most. Yet there are so many “birth stories” out there in baby forums and parenting magazines that unhelpfully lead women to feel otherwise, as articulated by Crouch and Manderson: “The message from these stories is clear—there is an ideal model to live up to, even if one is told not to ‘worry’ if one’s own experience does not conform to it.” If you do see your life flash before your eyes and feel your heart will burst the first time you lay eyes on your child, great! Good for you. If you don’t, great! Good for you. You are just as normal and okay. (And if it seems like I’m saying that a lot, it’s because I am. It bears repeating.)

Some of the ways I tried to bond with my son, strangely enough, were taking photos of us smiling — even though I often felt awkward.

The bottom line is that “bonding” is a slippery term. “While ideology is more obvious in the popular representations of ‘bonding’ than in research, the diffuse meaning given to the term by its use in science facilitates the reading of moral and ethical connotations into ‘objective’ results,” as Crouch and Manderson note. So even when you come across the term in the research literature, be careful. “Bonding” is a long-term, complex, interactive process that occurs in unique ways for different individuals.

If you feel nothing at all for your child or feel animosity toward your baby or feel unbearably depressed, that’s a problem – seek help for postpartum depression. But if you’re just taking your time to get to know this peculiar miniature human who requires your assistance for nearly every life function imaginable, and your affection feels more biological and perhaps even a little clinical sometimes rather than Petrarchan (because face it, the child does not requite your “love” at this early stage), then you are no less a mother than anyone else, and you’re doing just fine.


Here’s a quick list of our contributors for  this second edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:

The Transition to New Motherhood (Momma, PhD)

The Connection Between Poor Labour, Analgesia, and PTSD (The Adequate Mother)

The Fatherhood Adjustment:  What Makes Men Ready for New Fatherhood (Matt Shipman)

What the Science Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Breastfeeding Issues, Postpartum Adjustment, and Bonding (Fearless Formula Feeder)

No, Swaddling  Will Not Kill Your Baby (Melinda Wenner Moyer,  Slate)

Sleep Deprivation:  The Dark Side of Parenting (Science of Mom)

The Parenting Media and You (Momma Data)

Reassessing Happiness Research:  Are New Parents Really That Miserable? (Jessica Smock)

40 Long Days and Nights (Six Forty Nine)

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9 Responses to “Bonding in Early Motherhood: When Angels Don’t Sing and the Earth Doesn’t Stand Still”

  1. Michelle

    I had the same initial experience as you did. To me my newborn was a cross between a pet and a doll. She was fun to dress up but my overwhelming feeling was more of duty. Like a pet I had a duty to feed, change, clothe her. Add to that the fact that I developed a breast abscess and breastfeeding for me was pure torture (that’s a story all on its own) and it should be no wonder that it wasn’t until after 8 weeks that I actually started to feel some definite ‘never let you go’ love. Now she’s almost a year old and I’m running the full rollercoster of normal motherhood feelings including pure absolute love.

    • Tara Haelle

      Yep! Cross between pet and doll is a great analogy. It took me longer than 8 weeks to feel even that kind of love – a lot longer. I very slowly, gradually fell in love with my son at about the same rate as I could see in him an actual little human with a unique personality I could communicate with.

  2. When I think back to my early days with my daughter, I realize that I *thought* I was instantly in love with her, but your description of how you felt about your son is actually more accurate. I think I was overwhelmed with excitement about her arrival, devoted to her care, etc., but the bonding part actually took a little more time. I just didn’t realize at her birth how much more room there was for attachment and bonding. It’s wild how that relationship grows and evolves, even as the baby is just learning to smile, etc.

    • Tara Haelle

      That’s interesting — it sounds kind of Petrarchan, actually: you were in love with the idea of being in love with your baby, perhaps? I really was worried, early on, that I wasn’t “bonding” enough, but then that has created a wonderful situation now where I feel deep gratitude every time I DO feel that love for my son now :)

  3. Rose

    This is exactly what happened (and is still happening) to me. I have those same awkward smiling photos. I gazed at them thinking “do I look like I’m in love with this tiny human being?”

    Seven weeks later, I feel a small growing bond. Silly things like helping him clear snot out of his nose (and the look of ease he gets afterwards) actually bonds me to him. As in, “hey, I’m glad I could figure out what’s wrong and help you out!” He’s adorable, yes, but the overwhelming shock I felt at an ACTUAL HUMAN BEING coming out of my body is still there.

    I’m not a “love at first sight” person, so I was not completely surprised that I didn’t fall in love instantly. Somehow I know that I will love him uncontrollably eventually, and it will be a long-lasting intense feeling based on our experiences together instead of a smack-in-the-face instinct that I somehow lack.

    • Tara Haelle

      Yes, it took a number of months for me overall. Basically, the more and more he becomes like an actual little person, with a personality and an ability to communicate with me, the more my love grows. I’ve noticed it started gradually, as it did with you and the snot nose thing (I had similar experiences), and then grew a tiny bit and then a tiny bit more and so on. I’m also not a love-at-first-site person (nor am I one of those “OMG THIS IS THE BEST XMAS PRESENT EVER!” types), so I kind of expected I wouldn’t feel that way, but it still concerned me when I still didn’t weeks later. I had to be patient with myself :) I’ve heard from friends with similar experiences that it was very different for their subsequent children. I don’t know yet, but we’re hoping to find out :)

  4. Leslie

    I so completely agree! With my first, it was love at first sight. But, with my second, I certainly liked him, was glad I had him, made sure he was well cared for, etc, but I didn’t feel the same overwhelming love that I had with the first. I was terrified, and so ashamed of the way I felt!

    Of course, now, I adore both my boys. I love each differently — because each is a different person — but I love both more deeply than I can possibly describe. I so wish that I’d known then that both experiences are normal, and that even good mothers feel that way!

    Please keep getting the word out, so new mothers don’t punish themselves unnecessarily!

    • Tara Haelle

      Thanks for sharing your story. I wonder what it will be like with my second, which we’re working on. I’ve heard both versions: love at first sight with first but not second and vice versa (and every variation for later births). The important thing is for moms not to blame themselves and just take what comes.

  5. […] Y’all know I am all about taking the word “should” out of my vocabulary, so this post on early maternal bonding really appealed to me. […]

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