Myth Busted: NOT All Mothers are Pre-Programmed to Love their Child

Turns out I was one such mother. Shocking admission, right? Imagine how I felt…

I have always loved babies and children, and this love was only cemented by having been an aunt to two nieces and four nephews. From around my late twenties I was seriously broody, but we only felt “ready” (bahahahaha) once we were well into our thirties.

So, when I fell pregnant I was beyond thrilled, finally it was my turn. After seeing friend after friend after friend fall pregnant and 9 months later witness them moon over their precious miracles, now I would get to experience it for myself. I would have my own beloved miracle, a creation that would illicit feelings so profound that they would overwhelm me.

I did experience overwhelming feelings, only they weren’t of love and wonderment, they were the total opposite. In those first few weeks, I struggled with my feelings towards my daughter, I honestly can’t say I loved her, in fact I more and more felt I didn’t even like her.

I have already shared the story of my daughter’s birth and to say it was not how I fantasised her arrival would be an understatement. And ultimately, I don’t think that helped my attitude. But the moment that signalled the beginning of my unravelling was the first weekend we brought her home – she screamed and screamed and screamed seemingly in unbearable pain – and I realised I was entirely unprepared for the mammoth job of looking after a tiny baby. But really, deep down what I realised was that I wasn’t sure I wanted the job at all.

Izzy has been an incredibly difficult baby – the picture of discontent for pretty much the first 12 weeks of her life. And while I am sure that her troubles contributed to my dark feelings and thoughts, they were not soley to blame. Add one unhappy baby, tortured by severe reflux and colic, to a woman with wild hormones and a history of depression and anxiety and you have the makings of the perfect storm.

In those first few weeks I quickly realised that you should not believe every hashtag you read. People do not portray the whole truth on social media. #Blessed, #lightofmylife, #lovebubble, #noregrets, #wishthistimewouldlastforever and #heartontheoutsideofmychest – these set me up for failure. Why was my experience not lining up with EVERYONE else’s? Why did I not feel what EVERY other mom seemed to feel? Why was I not getting it right, it looked like it came naturally to EVERYONE else?

As the days passed my mood disintergrated. I became completely disinterested in everything. Food became a subject of contention as my mom and husband tried to get me to eat something, anything. As far as diets go, it was effective as I lost 15kgs in six weeks, but I certainly don’t recommend the postpartum depression eating plan.

Sadly, the primary object of my disinterest was the miracle baby that for so long had been my wish. I felt empty, a shell, a husk. I barely engaged, except to reiterate that I knew I was not capable of doing this baby thing, or to unexpectedly burst into tears. I retreated into myself and my phone – Candy Crush became an obsession (still is if I am honest). Looking back it is incredible how I managed to remove myself emotionally and mentally – even her inconsolable crying didn’t reach me. A lot of the time I silently relinquished my responsibility to everyone else, anybody else really, knowing if I didn’t react someone would attend to her. I honestly would have given her to a stranger to look after if I thought they would agree to do it.

As I was still breastfeeding, I was forced to interact with her regularly, but I wasn’t present, I would sit and stare out the window while she fed (wishing to be anywhere but in that rocking chair, with her) or I would stare at her as if she were an alien being that I would never understand or connect with. Once she was finished, I would hand her over to my mom, sister, sister-in-law or husband and either go back to bed or to my phone.

I had been told that breastfeeding offered the most special moments a mom could experience. So many times I had heard that these moments, just the two of you, quietly bonding, were priceless. But for me the price seemed too dear. Being alone with her was my worst nightmare. And at 3 ‘o clock in the morning, in the darkness, in the quiet, in the rocking chair, I couldn’t be more alone. Alone with her and my thoughts. These were not moments I would come to treasure.

Daytime was a little better, because there was almost always someone with me, but whenever that someone looked like they were getting ready to leave, I could not help the tears from streaming, the voice from cracking, the nausea from rising and the sweat from prickling. My poor mother literally gave up three months of her life to care for two children – her’s and mine.

The lack of sleep exacerbated my depression, so my psychiatrist recommended that along with a change in meds (The Betty Ford clinic would even raise an eyebrow at the number of pills I was taking everyday – #yestohappypills) we employed a night nurse – without her help, I don’t know if I would have survived those first 12 weeks. Instead, I only had to survive 12 hours each day. The nurse arrived at 6pm and would take over till 6am the next morning. I began counting the hours from about 9am in the morning to her arrival, and glorious relief. Adversely, as dawn drew closer my anxiety sky rocketed. As soon as I heard the birds start their morning song, my stomach became a pit of dread and the tears welled at the thought that I would soon have to take over caring for the baby, my baby.

At 4 weeks I stopped breasfeeding with the hope that it would alleviate the stress and anxiety I was experiencing. But even without breastfeeding, I was still living in groundhog day. Every day was the same, living feed to feed, every three hours. Change, feed, vomit, cry, rock, sleep, hold. Repeat. I had nothing but time, but no time at all. And time passed achingly slowly. I wished it away, I wished her life away, desperate for her to reach these milestones that were promised to make things easier. 6 weeks, 12 weeks, 6 months… but of course for Izzy the adjustment meant 10 weeks, 16 weeks… the goal posts constantly moving away from me.

Now I am going to risk sounding heartless, but I think her helplessness was what disturbed me most, her neediness, her reliance on me. I couldn’t bear it. It was too much pressure. I was struggling to keep myself going, how could she expect me to keep her going too. She had trapped me, like a shackle, I was no longer free to go and do as I pleased. Try peeing while you hold a newborn, good luck if you need a number 2. I was anchored to a rocking chair and the anchor was my baby – my world had become the size of a pea, a very dry shrivelled sad pea. The long term permance of this shackle amplified the feelings of claustraphobia, would I ever get my freedom back? And of course, these types of thoughts and feelings are always coupled with the guilt of feeling and thinking them.

My friends and family were amazing during this time, regularly visiting and putting up with their ghost of a loved one. In that time, my mom-friends all confessed to how dark their thoughts had been in those first weeks, and they were dark indeed. Morbidly, this made me feel better about my own thoughts. As I often fantasised about getting in the car and not coming back, finding her a new family that could love her better than me, I even considered hurting myself, but worst of all were the times I wished I could turn back time and leave things the way they were – before Izzy.

And ultimately, that is what I wanted. I wanted my life back the way it was, the life I knew, the life where I was in control.

The shock of how permanent and devastating the change this baby brought was overwhelming, I couldn’t see a way through it. And the more everyone, and I mean everyone, told me it would get better, the more I didn’t believe them. Because as each milestone passed nothing changed, in some ways it got harder.

I was obviously not coping to anyone who took one look at me, between my seriously unwashed hair and pajama uniform (each pair often worn day and night for more days than I care to mention). Suffice it to say I was pretty gross, cudos to my husband for turning a blind eye (and nose) and giving me cuddles whenever I needed them.

I remember my first visit to the paediatric nurse, Izzy screamed the place down from the moment we arrived, through the consultation and whilst I tried to pay. The other moms were staring in simultaneous horror and relief that that was not their baby. The nurse and her assistant were worried enough about my state of mind that the assistant took Izzy and ordered me to go into their kitchenette and make tea. After about 10 minutes of “making tea” (i.e. crying and wishing for a different life), I retrieved my still crying baby and exited with a stream of pitying looks and words of encouragement. My amazing nurse and her wonderful receptionist still tell me that some of the moms who were there that day ask, “How is that mom, with that crying baby?”. AHA, I am now the stuff of legend, the mom that others measure their experience against– “OMG, Debs, you won’t believe this poor mom at the clinic… I won’t ever complain again when Ollie gives me a bit of a hard time.”.

As I have said in previous posts there are two sides to every story – especially those relating to motherhood. And while everything I have written above is absolutely true and absolutely distressing to admit, there was eventually light at the end of the tunnel.

After seeing a therapist several times, she managed to get me to realise that what I was feeling was OK, that I needed to reframe my language. I didn’t like Izzy, now. I didn’t enjoy being a mom, today. These feeling were time sensitive. She gave me permission to not like my baby, “What’s to like at the moment? She is not very likeable or enjoyable at the moment but that’s OK, she won’t be like this forever.”. She was completely right, no one in their right mind would enjoy those first 12 weeks of Izzy’s life, but 12 weeks in the great grand scheme of things is a drop in the ocean. It’s just almost impossible to see that when you are drowning in that drop.

Another thing many people tried to get through to me was that I kept saying, “I can’t do this!”, but I was doing it. And even if what I really meant was, “I don’t want to do this!”, I had no choice and as my husband resorted to reminding me (with the delicacy of a sledgehammer) – “You wanted this, you still want it, you just don’t see it right now.”. What I slowly realised was that actions speak louder than thoughts or feelings, I was caring for Izzy, maybe not in the way I hoped, maybe not with the joy people expect, but regardless she was thriving. A prem baby with severe reflux and colic – she was gaining weight week by week, catching up to the 50th percentile and reaching her age appropriate milestones.

I was actually doing a really good job – and my paediatrician, nurse, friends and family all praised me for it. And that felt good, knowing despite her mom being a bit of disaster, Izzy was getting all the right things from me. She didn’t care that I had these negative feelings. Why? I can’t say for sure, but I think that for a newborn the best sign of love is care – food when she is hungry, warmth when she is cold, changing when she is uncomfortable and a gentle touch when she needs comfort. She didn’t know that my feeling were left wanting, because as far as she was concerned, she was getting all that she needed. I was speaking her love language, even if I wasn’t particularly fluent or poetic.

I am embarressed to say that my daughter, with only a few weeks on earth under her belt loved me right from the beginning. And I was too disconnected to recognise it. I was the person her blurry squint little eyes sought out, the person who she wanted as her comforter, the first person she smiled for and the person she shrieks for most loudly. These latter signs I see, I see her now clearly, as a little person who is struggling as much as I have been. I didn’t hate her at all, I hated her problems and how they made her behave. I now take the wins, big and small, I only wish I had been able to see them sooner. But better late than never.

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