I wish I could say that I took to motherhood immediately. My own mother did. She says that the first time she saw my sister, her firstborn, she had an overwhelming feeling of love. Scientists attribute these all-encompassing feelings of love to the surge of oxytocin that occurs during labor and the postpartum period. My mother, who recalls waking many hours after my sister’s birth via C-section, may not have had the hormonal surge during labor, but she nonetheless instantly bonded with her newborn. Even though I gave birth vaginally, I didn’t feel that instant bond with my son. My initial reaction to motherhood was more akin to shock.
History is full of idealized images of motherhood–from Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child, to Mary Cassatt’s wonderful renditions of everyday interactions between mothers and their children, to June Cleaver in the 1950’s, to modern-day, airbrushed photographs of celebrity mothers, hair coiffed and in full make-up, holding their smiling babies. Although I love Mary Cassatt’s paintings as well as Raphael’s Madonna and Child, none of these representations accurately reflects my initial experience of motherhood. If someone had painted a portrait of a sleep deprived, bleary-eyed woman, shirt soaked with leaking breast milk and splotched with spit-up, that would have more accurately portrayed me in my first few weeks of child rearing.
Modern childbirth, only relatively recently (and thankfully) out of the closet from a private affair between a woman and her doctor, has also developed its own mystique. Some people have very strong opinions on “natural” childbirth versus births with some sort of intervention like an epidural, etc. Having given birth both ways, I believe that people should do whatever makes them most comfortable. If a detailed birth plan, a water birth or a home birth is the way you want to go, then more power to you. Likewise, if you end up having a cesarean section, then I’m happy that medical interventions can help you and your baby stay healthy. Many times, no matter how much you plan, your body has different ideas.
In my own case, I assumed that I would have a cesarean section, because both my mother and my sister had to have one. I also assumed that I would go into labor past my due date. In reality, I started having contractions 3 weeks before I was due. My water broke, so I went to the hospital. My labor, however, wouldn’t progress even after the doctors gave me Pitocin. Because the contractions under Pitocin were so painful, I asked for an epidural, which relaxed me enough that my cervix could finally begin dilating. After three hours of pushing, my son was born. Without warning, the doctors put my infant son on my stomach. Because I had closed my eyes while pushing, I did not realize that my son had even been born. I didn’t have any idea what they had put on my stomach. When I finally realized it was my son, they whisked him away to weigh him and check his vitals. The doctor, who had not been my regular obgyn, soon left and let a medical student stitch up my torn perineum.
I was lucky. I did not have any problems breastfeeding. My son was born healthy, and I went through childbirth in a relatively short time. I did not, however, feel elated. Instead, I felt exhausted and wholly unprepared to take care of this tiny being. Add to that some incontinence, pain from my tear, and the fact that the medical student had mistakenly left gauze inside of me (something I would discover 12 days after giving birth), I wasn’t in the best of spirits.
I also felt unprepared to suddenly accept my new identity as a mother. The nurses, unaware of the jarring feeling one can have when becoming a first time mother, stopped calling me by my name and started calling me mom. I was prepared to have my son at some point call me mom, but not four or five adult nurses.
To add to my feelings of incompetence, my son choked a couple of days after he was born. He slept in a bassinet right next to me, and I didn’t even notice. A nurse happened to be in the hospital room and rushed quickly to his bassinet, picked him up, flipped him over and slapped him on the back. I was shocked and worried that he might choke in his sleep, or while I was sleeping. The nurse told me that I needed to watch my child constantly, so that I could intervene if he started to choke. She said that I, as a mother, would be able to sense when he was about to choke, even if I were asleep. A couple of days later, my pediatrician informed me that the nurse was completely mistaken, that babies never choke to death while sleeping on their backs. However, prior to that initial well-check appointment with my pediatrician, I was terrified.
The first night home, I didn’t sleep because my son wanted to eat constantly, to bring in my milk supply, and also because I was so afraid he would choke to death. I remember wondering in the middle night if this was really what motherhood was all about. Nothing can really prepare a person for the prolonged sleep deprivation involved in caring for a newborn. Jennifer Senior, in a Fresh Air interview about her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, divides new parents into three groups: those who can function with sleep loss, those who are “compromised and cranky,” and those who are just complete “basket cases.” In those first few months, I probably fluctuated between the latter two. I was especially an emotional wreck when we had to return to the hospital two days after coming home, because my son had jaundice. Watching the doctors put an IV in his tiny arm was simply too much for me. I may not have had that initial outpouring of love, but my connection to him was more primal. I simply couldn’t stand to see someone hurt him.
I was fortunate to have a great deal of support from my husband, who fell in love with my son instantly and completely. He wanted to spend every waking moment with him. My husband was the type of father who took off his shirt to hold our son because he read it was beneficial for newborns to have skin-to-skin contact with their parents. My mother and sister also staggered their visits so that I had someone helping us the first month of my son’s life. All of their support took a lot of the stress away from adjusting to motherhood. However, during those first weeks that I cared for my son, held him, changed his diapers, and breastfed him, I still felt more overwhelmed than “in love” with my newborn. It wasn’t until everyone had left, my husband had grown accustomed to having our baby in the house, and I had the chance to sit alone holding my son on my chest as he slept, that I began to appreciate and get used to motherhood. Since that day, I haven’t looked back. Like most mothers, I love my son more than anything (except of course my other child), and that love continues to grow. I also have earned my stripes as a mother. I have gotten up in the middle of the night with sick children countless times, cleaned up vomit and excrement and urine, wiped tears, kissed cheeks, snuggled with my boys millions upon millions of times, and fallen completely and utterly in love with my children.
However, in a time when popular media still represents motherhood as an instantaneous bond between a mother and her newborn, it is important to remember that, for some of us, the whole motherhood thing might just take a little longer to take in.
***As an aside, I may have had one negative interaction with a nurse, but the rest of the nurses were rock stars. The second time I gave birth, I returned to that same hospital with a different doctor, and I had the most wonderful, empathetic and caring nurses.