When A Mother Feels The Wrong Way

Yesterday I read a Facebook post of author, Elizabeth Gilbert. In it she talked about a time she went to a therapist because she didn’t want to have a baby, even though she was 30 and married. Rather than joy, she felt dread, at the thought of a precious bundle. She was afraid that she was feeling “the wrong feeling.” After all, wasn’t she supposed to want a baby? Her therapist explained that her feeling wasn’t the problem, but her inability to accept it as legitimate was.

She detailed beautifully many examples of people who had the “wrong feeling” given the situation- a woman who felt grief on her wedding day, a lively man who responded to his terminal illness with happiness, a woman who was relieved when her sick father passed away, and the mother who was joyful when her children moved off to college.

I thought about how I felt after my second son was born. For days, weeks, and maybe months, I felt detached and underwhelmed. I didn’t have motherly love spewing from me. I didn’t feel that instant connection. I knew what I was “supposed” to feel because I had it with my first-born. With him, I followed the nurse down the hall when she took him for his hearing test. With my second, I easily passed him to the nursery so I could get some rest. I even flat-ironed my hair in the bathroom. The feelings themselves weren’t as difficult as my struggle to accept them. I kept saying to my husband in between sobs, “I’m not supposed to feel this way!” I felt terrible, alone, and ashamed.

I kept saying to my husband in between sobs, “I’m not supposed to feel this way!” I felt terrible, alone, and ashamed.

When Asher was born, I was worried about how my relationship with my first-born would be affected. I knew it would forever be changed, and although I trusted all would be well, I grieved the loss of our intimate twosome. Undoubtedly, the adjustment to a family of four was hardest on me. I thought about all the women who gushed over their new babies on social media, declaring their divine love, and all I thought was, “What’s wrong with me?”

I scoured the internet looking for women who had similar experiences with their second child, and I didn’t find much. Nobody wants to talk about it, let alone write it on the internet, for shame over feeling like a terrible mother. I desperately wanted to know I wasn’t alone, and that things would get better, but I was too trapped inside myself to even speak my truth to anyone but my husband.

I needed to say, “I don’t feel that excited about my new baby” and have someone tell me I wasn’t wrong or crazy or terrible.

With time things did get better. As the months went on, we adjusted more, my hormones leveled out, and our baby’s generosity with his smiles helped. I never did seek help, but I wish I would have.  How I felt wasn’t intense, but dull. I didn’t want to hurt myself or the baby. I took care of him, and nursed him, and showed him affection. I just didn’t feel all that attached. I’m not sure what I needed, but emotional support alone would have been great. I needed to say, “I don’t feel that excited about my new baby” and have someone tell me I wasn’t wrong or crazy or terrible. Luckily, my husband was good at accepting my reality and assuring me that lots of people experience the same feelings and that it will get better, but seeking someone outside our tight bubble would have been wise. I trusted him though, and doing so got me through. (Oh yeah, and those sweet smiles.)

At the time I didn’t think much of postpartum depression, but in hindsight I wonder if I had it. It’s easy to honestly pass the screening questions at postpartum check ups when the experience isn’t extreme, but perhaps PPD comes in many different forms and severities. I struggled with accepting my feelings as they were, and felt shame which prevented me from owning my truth, and doing what I had to do, which was open up and talk about it. When I finally did, I realized so many others felt the same way, and it was so comforting.

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  • I felt the same way with my first born when she was just a newborn. I did not know if it was because of the hormones, stress or fatigue I was feeling, but I had thoughts of feeling trapped with her and thinking that having her was a complete mistake. Luckily, I had a heart to heart talk with my OB a few weeks after I gave birth. He opened up and asked me how I was, that’s when I told him everything that I felt and asked him why I was feeling that way. He said that I was experiencing PPD and that it was a good thing that he noticed it instantly (though I did not know how he saw it). Overall, it was because I had to give up my growing career to become a hands on mom. But after a few months, I finally grasped the idea that choosing to be a stay at home mom over my career was the best decision I have ever made.

  • I actually felt the same way about my firstborn and I am slowly trying to nurture the bond that should have developed back then

  • Thank you so much for posting this! I have very similar feelings with my first baby who was born two months ago. Time is definitely helping strengthen our bond but for the longest time I was just wondering what was wrong with me because I didn’t have the excitement and loving demeanor my friends had. It’s nice to know that other people feel similarly and you get through it.

  • I wish I had read this 45 years ago when my first baby boy was born. I felt terrible and depressed and I thought I must be a horrible person because I was not bursting with love and affection for my little baby. Then, about 3 weeks after his birth, I got up one morning, felt wonderful, and loved him so much my heart hurt! Amazing what your body can do. Hang in there if you get this depression. There is nothing wrong with you! Talk to someone who knows what you are going through. You aren’t the only one!

  • This was my experience with my first child- I’m still too scared to have a second for fear of repeating it. My feelings were more severe, and I did seek treatment for PPD. I am now, two years later, so glad I found help. But still, reading posts from new parents who are head over heels is still hard for me, because I still regret how long it took to bond with my son. Thank you for this well written piece.

  • Great article. I didn’t feel this way with my second child, but I definitely did with my first. That dullness you described was exactly how I felt, and the instant connection I had with my second made me realize just how disconnected I was from my first. It did resolve itself with time (and, yes, with those smiles), but I felt an immense guilt over feeling the way I did, especially because I had wanted to be a Mother so very badly.

    Part of me wonders whether my birthing experience played into this… I had a very long, intervention-filled and traumatic birth with my first, while my second was in the comforts of my own home, without any assistance, and I was even able to catch this one myself.

    • My birth experience was very similar and left me a bit traumatized and I do feel like it affected my immediate bond (or lack of) with my son. That was over a year ago and time has helped heal me (us) but I will always carry guilt and regret over that missed connection at the beginning. Glad to hear that your second birth was a healing experience for you!

  • Thank you for being so beautifully honest. I’m so excited about having a second child, but I’ve waited a while and my son has been my world for the last almost 6 years. I’m overwhelmed by unwanted thoughts and worries and it’s so much different this time around. I feel like I’m playing tug-o-war with myself.

  • Thank you for this great piece. I’m currently pregnant and have been wondering if I’m likely to feel the same way when my child is born. Especially since I had this experience, both times, when I adopted dogs. It took me about 6 months to grow attached and stop regretting my choice to adopt them. Now I love them both deeply and. I’m glad they are in my life. I believe the same will be true for my child, even if I start out with a lukewarm response immediately post birth.

    While it is of course possible you had postpartum depression of course, I think it would be a mistake to automatically chalk up such feeling to PPD. I actually think it is probably well within the range of normal healthy responses to such a huge life change and to getting to know and bond to a new family member. It took time to fall in love with my husband, why not with my baby. I think the hallmark, fairytale story our culture sers out of us about how we will/must feel about our children does everyone a disservice and, as you alluded to, makes people who have a different but also normal experience feel shameful.

    How much healthier for us to all know that you may immediately be smitten by your baby or you may take time to feel deep attachment. Both are ok.

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