The Mysterious Romance Between Mothers and Infants

newborn babyI am totally, madly in love with G, who is now 12 weeks old (adjusted age 6 weeks). After a long day at work away from her, I can’t wait to get home to get my hands on her. As soon as she’s nestled in my arms, I just sort of smell her wee noggin, and run my hands over her still very tiny person to make sure she’s all there. At night, I want her as close to me as possible (in our case that means a co-sleeper attached to my side of the bed, and she usually ends up actually in the bed with us – my side – by 2 am.) When she cries, my toes curl. I cannot BEAR to hear her cry. If someone else is holding her and she starts to cry, I am like an anxious mother cat, pacing back and forth until that person hands my unhappy baby over to me to soothe. I like bathing with her and rocking her. I love changing her teeny, tiny cloth diapers and powdering her little bum. I revel in dressing her up in adorable little outfits and calling people’s attention to how cute she looks. Really, if people wouldn’t look askance, I’d probably sometimes compulsively lick her all over like other mammal mamas tend to do. (Don’t worry. I won’t really do that…at least not in public)


In short, we’re attached, she and I. We’re bonded. We’re not really two distinctly individual people at this point, but a dyad, together enjoying what is a lot like a fourth trimester of pregnancy. And even after five children, the mystery of how that happens – how a mother and baby fall in love with one another so completely – is fascinating and somewhat unknowable to me. There has been a lot of research around how mothers and infants bond, and we now know a lot about what kinds of factors promote attachment and disrupt it. But it’s never a simple input=output kind of equation when mothers and babies fall in love. Like falling in love with your romantic partner, there is also some chemical component that we can’t quite figure out. It’s one of life’s great mysteries, this baby bonding stuff. I should know, since I’ve now given birth enough times to qualify as a sort of human laboratory.

What I mean is that the circumstances in which I began mothering each of my five babies has been quite different every time. And yet, the outcome was ultimately the same: a deep and powerful bond with each of my individual children. But the development of that bond during the first 12 months of each of their lives has taken place in distinct ways.

With Baby #1, I was very young (23), very insecure about my own role as my newborn son’s mama, and I only breastfed him for a few weeks. His grandparents took care of him a lot in the first two years, while I worked as a wage slave as his father finished college. All of these things made it harder for me to feel as strongly bonded to him as an infant as I did once my son started to babble and reach for me after 6 or 9 months to proactively express how bonded he felt to me. Before that, I always secretly suspected that he didn’t really know that I was his mother because he had so many other doting women in his life (grandmothers, great grandmother, aunt, etc). But he made it clear as soon as he could reach out for me that I was his and he was mine. Then the love-fest began.

With Baby#2, my daughter J, it was love at first sight. Instead of postpartum depression, I felt postpartum euphoria – seriously. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her and I barely put her down for two years. I was working at home by then, and she was fully breastfed. In fact, she continued nursing until she was four years old. Bonding with Baby #2 was instantaneous and powerful.

Then came Baby #3. As soon as he was born, he was whisked off to the NICU for a three week stay with a potentially fatal heart condition. I couldn’t even really touch him for the first week; I could only use the rubber gloves attached to his isolette to reach in and try to feel him – and have him feel me – through the latex. It was during this period that I realized how critical smell and touch are to the connection a mother feels to her newborn. I couldn’t smell him or touch his skin while he was in the incubator, so I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel like he was really mine once I finally got to hold him. After three weeks, we were sent home, with my now healthy baby boy breastfeeding like a champ. That brief semi-separation did slow down the development of our sense of mother-baby connectedness. I remember that it took a few more weeks at home before I really felt like I knew this baby. But once that connection took hold, we totally fell for each other.

I was anxious when Baby # 4 was born, nine years after her next youngest sibling that I wouldn’t be able to love her as much as her much older brothers and sister, who had been my only babies for so long. I also worried that the older kids would feel displaced by the new baby, so I didn’t want to spend too much time with her at their expense. Last, I had to go back to my demanding full time job when she was only 8 weeks old, at which point she began going to work with her daddy every day. I breastfed her when we were at home and she took bottles at the office with her father (and grandmother, who also helps). I actually think that Jon bonded with her more quickly than I did. He seemed to know more instinctively than I did – right from the first – who she was and what she needed on a minute to minute basis. I often let him take lead with her when she was a tiny baby so I could give more attention to the three older kids, who were adjusting to our new addition. The attachment I have with C is powerful, but it developed differently than the one I have with her siblings. Even now at age 3, she sometimes prefers to have her Dad meet her needs for cuddling and rocking, rather than me. However, she and I have from the very start shared one very special ritual together, which is that I am always the one who gets her to sleep. It’s our bonding time. Also, at three, she still sleeps with us much of the time, which makes me happy since I am separated from her at work all day. She and I recharge our physical connectedness during the overnight hours.

And that brings us to Baby #5, Miss G. She was the result of an unplanned and to be honest, not altogether welcome pregnancy, during which I was – for the very first time – MISERABLY sick for many months. My job was totally kicking my ass during the whole pregnancy, plus I was frantically worried about my eldest baby, 18 year old Henry, who was growing more and more ill with drug addiction, a fact which I was trying to keep a big, fat, secret. All of this stress caused me to suffer from some very real depression for one of the only times of my life, and as a result, I fretted constantly that I felt almost no connection to the pregnancy or the baby.

Just as I felt the pregnancy couldn’t get any more stressful, Henry was beaten and suffered a drug overdose, resulting in a torturous five week hospitalization for him that ended with his death on May 31, 2010. During the whole time Henry was in the hospital, I basically just forgot about the fact that I was pregnant at all. I was completely focused on my critically ill child. The baby-to-be seemed like a stranger – and not necessarily a welcome stranger at that point. After Henry died, I was in shock, and I don’t really even remember the three weeks between losing my son and giving birth to my daughter.

Even as they wheeled me into the operating room for my c-section, I was worried that I would never, ever be able to bond with this baby, or fall in love with her. All I could think about was how much I wanted Henry back. I didn’t want THIS baby; I wanted my OTHER baby, who had been taken from me so recently.

As soon as she was born (because she was six weeks early), they whisked her off for a few hours of observation, but at about 3 am, they finally placed her in my arms. And suddenly, without warning, and very, very dramatically….WHOOSH! That oxytocin rush hit me and I was in looooooove with that baby! I have rarely felt a more powerful emotion than the one I felt for G in those first hours and days. I felt like a 12 year old girl at her first Justin Bieber concert.

Everything was working against us from an early bonding standpoint. I was grieving. I had had a very tough pregnancy. She was premature. I had a surgical birth. They took her away for several hours before I got to hold her. I went back to work full time when she was 5.5 weeks old, and I work 40-50 hours weekly. And to top it off, I wasn’t able to produce any milk, so she isn’t being breastfed.

And yet, despite all these apparent strikes against us becoming attached easily and well, I connected with G more quickly and organically than I have with any of my previous babies. You see what I mean? It’s a mystery how this all works. Different babies, different mothering circumstances, different ways of developing attachments. It’s kind of miraculous, really.

And now? I think I’ll go lick my baby to sleep.

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