Mothers who ‘felt nothing’ for their babies at birth and the shame of late bonding

The midwife hands the baby to her mother, she looks into his eyes and boom, she’s in love. It is the first fairytale moment of motherhood: an integral and unassailable part of the postnatal experience. But that instant connection doesn’t happen with all new parents.

“When I saw my baby for the first time, I didn’t smile or feel joy; I felt nothing,” says Caroline* (not her real name), whose daughter is now 15 and far from alone. Around a third of UK mothers have difficulty bonding with their babies, according to the National Childbirth Trust, but the subject is rarely discussed openly because it is fraught with guilt and shame.

“I felt like I was a terrible person and that there was something very wrong with me,” says Amy*, who didn’t feel a connection to her son, now one, until several weeks after the birth.

A third of UK mothers have difficulty bonding with their babies (Photo: YDL/Getty Images)

It is a topic that I explore in Shut up, my first novel. I felt an immediate bond with my children, now seven and five years old, but during my pregnancies I worried that it would not.

A couple of friends had shared their experiences of feeling numb when they first met their babies. They told their stories in whispers, years after it had happened, and made me promise not to repeat them.

“I only feel comfortable speaking up now because I’ve reached a stage where I love my son and feel very close to him,” says Amy, who says she kept quiet at first due to the stigma surrounding the topic.

Rarely had he seen the taboo reflected in contemporary fiction. She could only think of one recent example: We need to talk about Kevinin which the baby grows up to be a crossbow-wielding serial killer: was he born that way, or was his mother’s ambivalence the cause?

More in Rising children

I wanted to write a more relatable story about struggling to bond, so I created Stevie, a woman in her late thirties who decided to have a child on her own using donor sperm and IVF. She hopes that the baby will be the missing piece in her life, but she doesn’t experience the oceanic bliss that is advertised, and after a high-flying career, she is unprepared for the reality of being home with a newborn. born.

So why do some women join right away and others don’t? There are a variety of reasons, says psychotherapist and author Julia Bueno. “I talk to a lot of women who might have a hard time bonding with their baby because of a history of miscarriage. To them, a pregnancy can seem quite tentative or bracketed: it’s scary to believe the baby is going to live, so they protect themselves by not bonding.”

Sleep deprivation and exhaustion can also inhibit connection, Bueno says, as well as fear of repeating the mistakes their own mothers made with them. “I have a lot of men and women who come to me and say, ‘I’m afraid of becoming my mother or my father,’” he says. “That’s their biggest fear and they don’t want to replicate it.”

“When my son was born, I thought he was beautiful,” Amy says, “but I also thought my life was over, that I would never sleep again, and that I would be a terrible mother. I felt a great responsibility and I was worried that any false step he made would mark him for life.

Gradually, as the weeks passed, Amy began to develop feelings for her son. “As her personality became more pronounced, I felt like they were showing me some love and needed me for more than just milk,” she says.

“I was touched when he smiled and laughed. At night, when she was putting him to bed, she would list all the people who loved him. One day I told him that I loved him and I no longer felt that he was trying to convince myself.”

Another common factor in delayed bonding is a traumatic birth. “This can cause a delay in oxytocin [known as a “happy hormone”] being released,” Bueno says. “Pairing can start hours or even days later, but sometimes it will take longer.”

Kate Maxwell: “I felt an immediate bond with my children, but during my pregnancies I was worried that maybe not” (Photo: Charlie Hopkinson)

Caroline was born with spina bifida and had to undergo a caesarean section under general anesthesia. “It sounds like child’s play,” she says. “They put you to sleep; you wake up and there’s a baby. But it didn’t turn out that way.”

They gave him painkillers during the operation, which should have been refilled before he regained consciousness, but they didn’t. “I woke up in absolute agony in the recovery room on my own, it was like I had been stabbed, and I saw my baby asleep in his tray,” she says. “You’re supposed to feel warmth and joy, but all I felt was pain.”

Caring for her daughter in the first few weeks felt like a chore. She says: “She was going through the motions of what she had to do. In terms of affection, she just wasn’t there.”

Only in the last five years, since requesting her birth notes from the hospital, did Caroline begin to understand the damage that associating her baby with the agony she felt after delivery and not being able to hold her right away had done to their relationship. . EMDR therapy and talking to an anesthesiologist and obstetrician at the hospital about her experience have helped her.

“I wanted to tell them that women are missing out on something when they don’t get the aftercare they need: the opportunity to bond with their child,” she says.

More of Lifestyle

Many women in this situation, including the character in my novel, worry about the long-term impact delayed bonding might have on their child. Well he says they shouldn’t worry. “We know that the first two years of life are very important, but a couple of months of adjustment is not going to cause much damage,” says Bueno.

“Women underestimate how much bonding is taking place: their babies are warm, snuggled, soothed and fed, and they’re attuned to them; they’re just being too hard on themselves.”

Above all, adds Bueno, new mothers should try to be confident in their abilities: “We are mammals with an innate and built-in care system. We know how to be a mother instinctively and we know how to do it very well.”

Shut up by Kate Maxwell (Virago, £16.99) is out now

* Names have been changed

See also  How to break fast fashion | Earth.Org - Past | Present