Sometimes my nine-year-old daughter’s intellect and inquisitive nature catches me off guard and stops me in my tracks, as it did a few days ago when one of 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 babies: that for me, mother’s love had not been an instant and automatic response to my girl’s birth.
I caught my breath and realized that I was angry, and that the anger stemmed from a default reaction: shame. For so long, I felt shame. This shame caused me to feel like a major failure as a mother.
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 non-natural way in which my daughters were born and my lukewarm response to being a mother.
My daughter had raised the subject of my postpartum depression, and I felt ashamed 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; to do so would have been a lie.
“Yes, it’s true, honey,” I said, thinking of how to address her concern: that she was not loved when she was born. “Sometimes it is hard for moms to bond with 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. That happened to me, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love you and your sister very much, and I did the best I could to care for you.”
In my rear view mirror, I could see tears rolling down her face. I could tell my daughter had interpreted “didn’t bond” as “didn’t love,” and nothing could have been further from the truth.
When my girls were born, through a planned c-section in 2005, I felt nothing: not a single contraction, no pain, no work. The staff handed me these beautiful, perfect and healthy children. I felt numb: no bond, no flood of love, no interlocking eyes. There were no tears of joy; instead, a nagging voice in my head said, “you did nothing to get them here.” I felt nothing for the first few weeks but loss.
I kept my feelings about motherhood 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 the best I could, almost obsessively: I read every book, nursed them exclusively for eight months and made all their baby food from scratch. It was autopilot at its best: they lacked for nothing.
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 the real answer was no. I was not happy. I was lost and afraid. And I felt inadequate, defective and broken. Did I love my girls? Yes. But not like 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 daughter’s 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.
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. I sincerely hope that if my daughters do have children, they get to experience the that bond instantly. But if they don’t, I want them to understand that failure to do so 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 getting a tattoo, nor falling in love with someone of the same sex, nor changing their religion, nor failing out of school. Not even getting thrown in jail.
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.
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.
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, because you are the best mother for your child.
Author: Valerie R. Maloof
Apprentice Editor: Rebecca Lynch/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Images: Melissa Morse/pixoto