I Couldn't Love My Baby ... Not at First

baby in incubator

I fell fast and hard for my husband, swooning with one kiss. So when I gave birth to our daughter a decade later, I assumed I'd stare into her eyes and feel an instant, intense bond: good old love at first sight. Instead, when I first lay eyes on my daughter, "love" was just about the last thing I was feeling.


It started with how I gave birth.

While I'd hoped and expected to give birth vaginally, after 12 hours of pushing and panting at the hospital, I was told that my baby's heart rate had spiked and that I needed an emergency C-section. Before I could digest the news or ask if I had other options, I was wheeled into a blindingly bright room and slit open.

And it hurt.

I screamed.

One technician in the room, clearly annoyed by the noise I was making, told me to stop screaming. Meanwhile a nurse warned that I was losing a lot of blood, while the surgeon grunted and tugged at my insides and griped, "I wish I'd made this incision bigger." Yeah, me too buddy!

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By the time they'd squeezed my daughter out of my too-small incision, I was in so much pain that my body told my mind I must be dying. And since this surgery was an emergency, I assumed my daughter could be dying, too. So when I turned my glassy eyes to the side and saw my husband awkwardly holding a baby, I did not feel a flood of love. No. I felt scared, and frankly angry at my daughter for ruining what should have been a wonderful first meeting. Of course, I knew none of this was her fault, so you can also add a heavy load of guilt to my emotional mix at that moment, too.

Plus, as much as I would have liked to recognize myself or my husband in my daughter's features, she looked like a stranger. She could have been anyone's baby. Then, within three seconds, she was whisked away. I didn't even have a chance to touch her, much less hold her before I blacked out.

When I woke the next day, I learned that my daughter would have to stay in NICU for at least a week. "Is she OK?" I asked over and over, but never got a straight answer. So when I saw her for the second time through an incubator window, as much as I wanted to coo and cuddle and bond, I couldn’t help but keep my emotions in check.

Why fall in love with her if she might not make it?

Within a week, it was clear that my daughter would survive. But even once I'd brought her home, the love didn't flow, because by then, I was struggling to breastfeed -- gritting my teeth as she nursed off cracked bloody nipples, then reluctantly hooking up to the breast pump to be milked like a cow, bursting into tears if I spilled a drop, convinced my daughter was starving.

Then a couple more weeks passed. At my daughter's 1-month appointment, doctors assured me that she was gaining plenty of weight and as healthy as a horse. Finally, I could stop worrying and just relax and bask lovingly in my baby's company. Only by then, I was sleep deprived and cranky. During the few hours of sleep I could get, I would cringe when my daughter's cries woke me up: Oh God, no, not again.

Meanwhile I hated myself for not feeling in love with my baby. Was I suffering from postpartum depression? Perhaps. But I had a hunch that my feelings weren't a psychological impairment, but just the way any mom might feel who had endured an emergency C-section, or a long stay in NICU, or a painful start to breastfeeding, or sleep in tiny two-hour stints for weeks on end. So I kept plugging away, waiting for that wave of love to hit. And the odd thing is, it never did, because my expectations of how love for a child should feel were way, way off.

Up until this point, "love" -- as experienced through meeting my husband -- was an emotion filled with excitement, pleasure, possibility, romantic dates and trips to Italy. No wonder I fell so hard so fast; it was fun!

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Meanwhile, meeting my daughter was a whole different animal -- a blur of pain, confusion and worry. My world shrank to endless cycles of sleeping, breastfeeding, and babbling to a baby who just lay there, unable to talk back or likely even understand what I was saying. Honestly, is it any surprise that this lonely scenario didn't feel like "love"?

During these first few hard months, my husband hovered nearby happy to help, but remained sidelined and of little consequence. And that's how he helped me realize that even though I didn't feel in love with my daughter, I was so obsessed with her that it had completely eclipsed my feelings for him.

"All you care about is her," he pointed out one day -- half jokingly, half-seriously. "What about me?"

My husband? Jealous of a baby? Well, why not? My entire world revolved around her. And it still does to this day, four years later (although I've since made more room for my husband, too).  

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My message to moms: Don't assume that love for your baby will hit with a wallop. Instead, it may build incrementally, or feel nothing like love at all, at least at first. And even if you swear it's not there, it may be helpful to remember that love doesn't always feel all glowing and good. It can feel frightening, angry, awful. But it's love nonetheless.

How long did it take you to feel "in love" with your baby?


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