My mother dreamed she was floating in velvet stillness, swimming among the stars. She noticed one of the glittery specks glow a bit brighter than the others. She squinted at the star and knew it was her daughter.
“I picked you,” she told me, tucking the bed sheets around my schoolgirl body.
As my mother retold her story at my wedding, I looked at my new husband and thought that someday I’d tell the same tale to our children.
But when I pushed my first daughter into the world three years ago, she felt less like a fated bundle of starlight and more like a stranger.
The blue drape of a doctor shoved a slimy, floundering heap over my bloody bed sheets. I ripped down my hospital gown to expose my breast, an action I knew to be essential to bonding with my newborn daughter. The creature thrust her hand into my mouth. It tasted salty. I wanted to feel a thrill, tasting the flesh of my flesh.
Instead, I gagged.
“Gross,” I thought, and felt a curtain of guilt fall over me.
How could that be my first reaction to my child?
An earnest reader of Dr. Sears, I had done my attachment parenting homework – reading Goodnight Moon to my ample belly, singing songs of welcome in English, Hebrew and Spanish, imagining aloud the adventures I planned for the two of us.
But when I first stared into Sasha’s eyes, the flat gunmetal grey of a newborn, my plans evaporated. Horrid thoughts replaced them: She is taking my career, my identity, my rest, my life. She doesn’t even look like me. I am too young for motherhood. She won’t stop screaming.
Everybody trumpets the instantaneous mommy-baby bond. “You’ll feel it the first time you see her,” other mothers told me. Instead of sparks of connection, I felt an immense weight on my shoulders. I would have run in front of a stampeding herd of elephants to protect her, but my devotion stemmed from obligation.
I did what I thought I should. I snuggled her in the rocking chair and nursed her every time she rooted or fussed; I held her while I danced in front of the giant dining room mirror to lousy children’s music; I toted her outside and pointed out the smooth green leaves, the vast blue sky, the boxy brown houses; I hummed beside her crib for hours every night, resting my hand on her tiny back long past when my fingers numbed. But I didn’t do these things because of some intense, otherworldly affection. I did them because I felt shackled.
At times, just a glimpse at her smooth, round cheeks covered me with elation. But that joy was chased by a nasty dose of self doubt. Looking back, I think I was terrified. Maybe I hadn’t grown up at all before then, although I’d moved across the country, held a good job, scrounged enough to buy a house. I had been counted on. But never by someone so precious and full of potential.
Toting Sasha around the neighborhood in a Bjorn, I began to look more like an experienced mother. I offered a pregnant friend tips on swaddling and gas relief and recommendations for baby massage classes. But, curled in bed with Sasha, I wondered if I’d ever be able to stop faking it.
It turns out I’m not the only one.
My friend Kate tells this story: Weeks after one of her twin boys began locking eyes and cooing at her, the other one wouldn’t even look in her direction. One afternoon she sat for ten minutes putting on her best happy mommy face, singing and joking and baby-talking him. He didn’t even look at her. Then he started crying. She put him down. “You don’t love me?” she hissed, cursing at him. “I do all this for you and you won’t even look at me!”
That stoic infant has grown into an exceptionally squeezable toddler who often breaks away from the action during a playdate just to lean his head on Kate’s shoulder.
I didn’t know Kate when Sasha was born, and other friends who later admitted to harboring the same feelings of ambivalence would – like me – never have revealed them at the time.
On the internet, I read trite pieces of advice that were supposed to encourage bonding. Among them: sing, tell her you love her, read, talk constantly, breastfeed on demand, use baby signs, react swiftly to her needs. I had done all of it. The checklist exasperated me.
One article, by prenatal psychologist David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D, advocated the usual techniques but also advised parents to “Make the quantum leap in your mind that this communication channel can bear all sincere and earnest messages.”
I had to believe I was good enough to be her mother. I had to believe she was mine; I had to believe I was good enough to be her mother.
I finally called my mom, in tears. She was the first person to tell me that spending all day caring for a baby was not just challenging but some days awful, tedious, or nightmarish. She told me I was doing everything right and called me a wonderful mother.
“I have seen you with Sasha and you love her,” she said. “Stop worrying and believe me. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Okay, I thought. I closed my eyes and imagined Sasha as a young mother. Her honey hair would be pulled off her face in a lopsided ponytail. She’d be swathed in a spit-up encrusted T-shirt and bawling at me over the phone.
I’d tell her all about it. I’d tell her it’s impossible to get mothering right because we never know the results of our actions, and it’s okay to feel unnerved. I’d tell her that she shouldn’t beat herself up for feeling ambivalent, for wanting to get away from the baby, for wanting to work. I’d tell her that we’d rather not do a lot of the things we must do as a mother – scrubbing poop off the living room carpet, for instance, or staying up all night with a screaming child. But we wouldn’t let anyone else do it for us. I’d tell her it’s okay to hate those things but love your baby.
A little something in my heart stirred as I thought of Sasha all grown up.
But change didn’t come swiftly.
Sasha said her first word – duck – very early. As she expressed her interests, we could agree on things we loved to do together, like scattering breadcrumbs at the duck pond.
Every day, I completed the tasks that added up to loving her – even when I didn’t like them. I also took on a few editing jobs, joined a book club and left Sasha with a sitter once a week despite screams of protest.
One day, she pointed above the line of trees surrounding our house and said, “boo sguy.” She had been listening after all. We rambled around town, learning new things – she about the world, me about her. Like me, Sasha could spend hours at the library, engrossed in a new book. We toured the parks in our small town and picked a favorite playground for picnics. She developed a sense of humor, giggling if I put my shoe on my head or called a banana an apple, then copying me and laughing even harder at her own antics. My love bubbled up and swelled into something too big for a name.
I felt so deeply attached to Sasha that when I learned I was pregnant with a second baby, I worried I’d lose my tight and tremendous bond with her. But the feeling passed. Experience told me the hard parts get easier, the bad things reveal themselves to be important – or even wonderful: Looking back on Sasha’s birth, I remember the brackish tang of her tiny, wrinkled fingers in my mouth and I’m glad to have that memory. (Even if it was gross.)
When I didn’t immediately recognize my second daughter’s place in the weekday routine I’d carved for Sasha and myself, I didn’t panic. I just gave it time. Sasha immediately warmed to Mimi, begging to hold her constantly, singing her to sleep, even sharing her toys.
Eventually she was mine. So I rocked and rocked and rocked my new little stranger. I smelled her sweet milk breath. I avoided the online bonding checklists. I just let her be herself. And eventually she was mine.
Now I look into my daughters’ eyes, four bands of gold ringed with ribbons of blue – so different from my own coffee brown eyes – and know for certain we were made for one another.
I tell my mom’s bedtime story like this: “I noticed two perfect stars dancing together. As I reached for them, they twirled their way into my pocket and I knew they would be my children. I picked you, and you picked me back.”
“That’s a good story, Mommy,” Sasha said the first time I told it, sitting on a pink kid-sized chair wedged between the two girls’ beds.
“That’s because it’s true,” I said.