My girls never cease to amaze me, and when they do, it reminds me just how intelligent children are and just how little credit we give them for that raw, unfettered intellect. Sometimes that intellect and inquisitive nature catches me off guard and stops me in my tracks, as it did a few days ago when my daughter said, “Mom, is it true that when we were born you didn’t bond with us and you were not happy?”
I was speechless. A relative had filled her in on something I had confessed while the girls were small: that for me, mother’s love had not been an instant and automatic response to my girls’ birth, but it had taken a bit to happen.
“Yes, it’s true honey,” I said, thinking of how to address her true concern: that she was not loved when she was born. “Sometimes it is hard for moms to feel immediately bonded to their babies. It happens when the chemicals in their bodies are not right and it is called postpartum depression. These moms get sad after they have their babies. Something in their body doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and it takes them a little bit of time to feel the bond with their baby. That happened to me, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love you and your sister very much and did the best I could to care for you.” In my rear view mirror, I could see tears rolling down her face.
As I drove, I had no idea how to explain the complexity of postpartum depression to a child, and I couldn’t believe an adult would be so cruel as to tell a child something they were not yet ready to understand. I could tell my daughter had interpreted “didn’t bond” as “didn’t love,” and nothing could have been further from the truth in my case.
I caught my breath and realized that I was angry, and that the anger stemmed from the default reaction I’d felt so long for what I perceived to be my many failures as a mother: shame. Shame for my “unnatural” lack of interest in becoming a mother. Shame for my inability to conceive. Shame for my inability to connect with the dream of motherhood while pregnant. Shame for the artificial way in which my daughters were born and my lukewarm response to being a mother. In my daughter bringing up my postpartum depression, I felt ashamed again because I couldn’t tell her (like many mothers can) that the first time I looked into her eyes I was madly in love right away, because this would have been a lie.
I was never one of those little girls who dreamed of her wedding or of being a mom, and the older I got, I wondered why. I was raised in a culture steeped in Mediterranean ideals where motherhood is the most lofty aspiration a woman could ever have, and giving it all to her children is the expected norm. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t sure I could be a mother after all – I wanted to study, go to college and have a career. The culture in which I was raised and living told me there was either career or motherhood. I wasn’t sure I could do both, and the lives of women around me seemed to confirm this. When I did decide to have a child, my road to becoming pregnant was rocky; fertility treatments meant I had to make a conscious choice to want to get pregnant every month, when in reality I wasn’t sure. So many times I wished I could just have a happy accident, because then I would have seen pregnancy as divine providence of sorts. When I finally did get pregnant, I had trouble believing it. This disconnect continued throughout the pregnancy and at the birth, which itself felt removed and unnatural. My girls were born through a planned c-section, where I felt nothing: not a single contraction, no pain, no work. And five minutes later, the staff handed me these beautiful, perfect and healthy children. At the same time, a nagging voice in my head said, “you did nothing to get them here.” I was so grateful, but I felt numb: no bond, no flood of love, no interlocking eyes.
I kept these feelings secret from most people because I was deeply ashamed and felt like there was something wrong with me – I couldn’t make babies, I couldn’t birth babies, and now I couldn’t even connect with my babies. I cared for them as best as I could, almost obsessively: I read every book, nursed them exclusively for 8 months, made all their baby food from scratch. It was autopilot at its best: they lacked for nothing, but I felt nothing for the first few weeks but lost. I sat on the rocking chair hours on end, feeding a baby, and wondering when I could have some time alone so I could run or read a book. When I did start running, I would get lost in the strides, aimless. Once, early on, a relative asked, “isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever done? Aren’t you the happiest you’ve ever been?” I gave her all the right answers, but my answer was no. I was not happy. I was lost and afraid. And I felt inadequate, defective, and broken. Did I love those girls? Yes – voraciously. But not like how I thought I should. Not like the relatives and the books said I should.
My girls are now nine, and time has helped me learn that I don’t have to conform to my previously perceived expectations of mothering to be a good mother to them – not my cultural expectations, those of my daughters’ families, nor those of the media. I now know that by pretending to feel a certain way and masking my feelings to conform to social expectations of what constitutes a good mother, I would actually do my daughters a disservice because I would be teaching them that being who they really are is not good enough. I want my girls to know they have the freedom to feel as they do without shame or fear of being deemed inadequate or defective.
Of course, I sincerely hope that if my daughters do have children, they get to experience the instant mother’s bond when they first meet their child. But if they don’t, I want them to understand that failure to have one experience does not mean you are irretrievably broken as a mother.
I also want my daughters to know that the magical bond may not have been there for me when I first met them, but it most definitely was in me, and once I found it, it was stronger than I could have imagined. I love them mightily, wholeheartedly. There is nothing they could do to make me stop loving them: not get a tattoo, nor fall in love with someone of the same sex, nor change their religion, nor fail out of school. Not even get thrown in jail. Nothing. My love is fierce, it is true, and it is indeed mighty. I had to find myself before I found it for them. But it was there all along, and having my girls was the start of a journey of self-discovery that continues to reveal itself as they grow.
These days I experience the maternal bond when J plays Beethoven on the piano so beautifully I feel her heart singing through the music, or when V questions my authority with strong logic and I look at her and think, YES! You believe in who you are, and are brave enough to stand up for it without shame.
Mothers out there, I want to share a phrase I find most wonderful with you: you are enough. However you become pregnant, or whether you choose not to be; whatever your road to motherhood looks like; whether you birth at home, at the hospital, with help, pain killers or without; whether you breastfeed or bottle feed; if you babywear or not; whether you like crafts or not. The pressure to conform and be the perfect mother is great, and no one deserves to be shamed for who they are. Be brave enough to be you– you are the best mother for your child.