Nine years ago, I was sold a lie. That in itself is bad enough, but the heartbreak of it was that I had no idea until it was too late. In fact, many new parents are lied to, every day, and in the most oblivious way. Well-wishers, proud parents, tell you how lucky you are and how much you are going to treasure your new child. When they’re born, you’ll look into those big eyes and your heart will swell.
Well, guess what? That’s not necessarily true. Let me tell you a story about what it was like for me.
My daughter was born the end of August on a day I can’t remember much about. It might have been hot, it might have been windy (it probably was because it’s always windy here). I honestly don’t know though, partly because I was busy getting ready to birth a child and partly because I had to be induced, so I was admitted the night before.
My mom had arrived two weeks beforehand because she wanted to make sure she was here whenever the kiddo showed up. Mom showed up on my due date and the kid… well, she waited the full two weeks. I didn’t mind though as I knew it was my time with my mom and likely to be the last bit of “free” time I would have. Or rather, on the surface I knew that. Every mother out there was telling me to cherish these last bits of time carrying her because it’s “so much harder once they’re on the outside.” I’m not saying they were wrong, but I really wanted my own body back.
That said, the pregnancy wasn’t actually difficult. My mood was fine, appetite and activity level were pretty normal, and I tested perfectly on all of my check-ins. I just really hated being pregnant. Some parents cherish the feeling of their child in them, but I found it creepy. There was a whole ‘nother human in there, waiting to get out. I didn’t like that. But I did like getting to have Mom all to myself.
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Suffice to say, delivery was painful. I mean, I don’t imagine anyone who has birthed a child would disagree, as all forms of delivery come with their own pains. I do remember the moment I accidentally turned the TV on with my elbow because Mike was suddenly distracted from counting me through my contractions. He denies it to this day, but I know better.
Eventually, she made her way into the world, 8 pounds, 14.7 ounces, scaly and hairy, and according to the doctors, absolutely perfect. It was that moment a parent dreams for, the moment you lay eyes on your creation for the first time, you lovingly cradle their hands and count fingers. A nursing mom is encouraged to bring their baby to feed in that first hour, and I appropriately obliged, but it was a little off. The nurse helped me reposition and latch correctly and gave us our privacy. My husband stared down at us, tears in his eyes.
But still, something was off.
I’m not sure when I figured it out, but eventually, I realized my magic moment was never coming. I cradled the child I had created, I did all the actions I was supposed to, but the feelings of love and awe never appeared. Everyone I had spoken to told me all the pain was worth it because when you hold your baby for the first time, you feel a fullness, a rush of joy and love.
It was a lie.
Or rather, it was a lie for me. At the time I didn’t know it, but not every new parent feels love and joy when they meet their baby. For some of us, it takes time to develop a connection. For me, it was over two years for that sense of awe to arrive. Two years. Somewhere between the bipolar disorder and the severe postpartum depression, it was impossible for me to feel that love.
Quick aside: this is actually something I have discussed with my daughter now that she is older. I have always tried to keep the conversation as positive as possible but also realistic. If she grows up with the same illnesses I have, I want her to be aware what it might mean.
So, we come to the meat of the conversation: how do you connect when you have no sense of connection?
First things first:
If you have postpartum depression, get to the doctor. Seriously. Postpartum is hard, but postpartum depression is scary. I was very grateful Mike and I had talked about it before Eileen came along because as soon as I started to feel unsafe, he got me help. Far too many horrifying things happen because parents don’t reach out when they start to feel off. So yeah. Talk to someone you trust and get help.
Second things second:
Remember, not everyone is going to feel like they’re in a magical wonderland when baby arrives. Sure, for my son, I felt my heart swell, and I wanted to constantly cuddle and love on him. But the first time around? No. The only time I felt love for her was when we were nursing, and you can probably blame that on the chemicals. So, if you’re a new parent and your heart isn’t swooning at the sight of your new creation, don’t worry. Keep them safe and alive, and chances are good you’ll get there.
So, how to stay connected?
Well, to that I have no answer. I wish I did, but it was all I could do to stay present during those two years. My husband (thank God for him) did almost all of the parenting, and ultimately it cost him his job. We lived with his parents for a good part of those two years, too, and they helped a bit then. But me, I was just too disconnected. I threw myself into work, telling myself we really needed the money so it was good I worked so hard. Sometimes, though, I look back and wonder if it was a lie I told myself to ease the pain.
Ultimately, I moved away to go to school full time while my husband and baby girl (who was 2 at that time, so not quite a baby anymore) stayed behind. We talked every night, and they visited as often as they could, but I was here, and they were most definitely there.
By the time we were reunited, I had missed years. It wasn’t until 2014, around my daughter’s 6th birthday, that we were finally living in one house. And, somehow, it was different. Somewhere in those six years, my heart healed. Maybe it was all that time. Maybe it was the realization of how much I’d lost that I would never get back, but finally, I felt the love I’d been promised so long ago.
I don’t know how it happened, though. I wish I did because I know so many other parents go through the same pain, and I wish I could hand them the key to fix it.
But I can’t.
Instead, I teach them what I learned. I tell them congratulations and wish them well. When they ask for advice, I tell them, “It’s OK if you don’t love your child right away. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. You will love them eventually, even if you don’t feel it to start with.”
It may seem an odd bit of advice, but I promise I will never sell a new parent the same lie I was faced with those two years. And I promise I will do anything I can to help them if they ever land in the same place.