I wanted to love my baby right away, but instead I found myself feeling shame. I’m not the only one.
From the moment I conceived my firstborn, I was enamored. I rubbed my expanding belly frequently, imagining what my daughter would look like and who she would be.
I poked my midsection enthusiastically. I loved the way she responded to my touch, with a kick here and a jab there, and as she grew, so did my love for her.
I couldn’t wait to place her wet, wriggling body on my chest — and see her face. But a strange thing happened when she was born because instead of being consumed by emotions, I was void of them.
I winced when I heard her wail.
Initially, I chalked the numbness up to exhaustion. I had labored for 34 hours, during which time I was hooked up to monitors, drips, and meds but even after a meal, shower, and several short naps, things were off.
My daughter felt like a stranger. I held her out of duty and obligation. I fed with contempt.
Of course, I was ashamed by my response. Movies portray childbirth as beautiful, and many describe the mother-baby bond as all-encompassing and intense. For many it is also instantaneous — at least it was for my husband. His eyes beamed the second he saw her. I could see his heart swell. But me? I felt nothing and was horrified.
What was wrong with me? Had I screwed up? Was parenthood one big, massive mistake?
Everyone assured me things would get better. You’re a natural, they said. You’re going to be a great mom — and I wanted to be. I spent 9 months longing for this little life and here she was: happy, healthy, and perfect.
So I waited. I smiled through the pain as we walked the warm Brooklyn streets. I swallowed tears when strangers doted on my daughter in Walgreens, Stop & Shop, and the local coffee shop, and I rubbed her back when I held her. It seemed normal, like the right thing to do, but nothing changed.
I was angry, ashamed, hesitant, ambivalent, and resentful. As the weather cooled, so did my heart. And I lingered in this state for weeks… until I broke.
Until I couldn’t take any more.
You see, when my daughter was 3 months old, I learned I was suffering from postpartum depression. The signs were there. I was anxious and emotional. I cried heavy, heaving sobs when my husband left for work. The tears fell as he walked down the hallway, well before the deadbolt slid into place.
I cried if I spilled a glass of water or if my coffee got cold. I cried if there were too many dishes or if my cat threw up, and I cried because I was crying.
I cried most hours of most days.
I was angry at my husband and myself — though the former was misplaced and the latter was misguided. I snapped at my husband because I was jealous and I berated myself for being so distant and downtrodden. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to pull myself together. I also questioned my “maternal instincts” constantly.
I felt inadequate. I was a “bad mom.”
The good news is I got help.I began therapy and medication and slowly emerged from the postpartum fog, though I still didn’t feel anything toward my growing child. Her gummy grin failed to pierce my cold, dead heart.
And I’m not alone. A
Katherine Stone, the creator of Postpartum Progress, expressed a similar sentiment after the birth of her son. “I loved him because he was mine, sure,” Stone wrote. “I loved him because he was gorgeous and I loved him because he was cute and sweet and tiny. I loved him because he was my son and I had to love him, didn’t I? I felt like I had to love him because if I didn’t who else would? … [But] I became convinced I didn’t love him enough and there was something wrong with me.”
“[What’s more,] every new mother I spoke to would go on and on and on and on about how much they loved their child, and how easy it was, and how natural it felt to them… [but for me] it hadn’t happened overnight,” Stone admitted. “So I was officially a horrible, nasty, selfish freak of a person.”
The good news is that eventually, motherhood clicked, for me and for Stone. It took a year, but one day I looked at my daughter — really looked at her — and felt joy. I heard her sweet laugh for the very first time, and from that moment on, things got better.
My love for her grew.
But parenthood takes time. Bonding takes time, and while we all want to experience “love at first sight,” your initial feelings don’t matter, at least not in the long run. What matters is how you evolve and grow together. Because I promise you, love finds a way. It will sneak in.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.