During the post-birth flurry of visitors, a friend eager to know what motherhood felt like asked me the mother of all questions, “What’s it like, being a mum? Do you feel this intense rush of love for him?”
I was unprepared for this question, to put it mildly. For one thing, I was a little bit put out at being caught off guard with what felt to me like the ultimate personal question, even though it was one that, like with many things to do with pregnancy and motherhood, seem to become public property. Deeply personal questions that we deflect with a standard response rather than cause a fuss.
I was also flustered because I knew I couldn’t find a way to balance my tendency towards honesty and oversharing without disappointing my friend with the truth. Because the answer to the question, at that point in time, was no, I don’t feel a rush of love towards him.
My unexpected pregnancy had occurred at a stage in my early twenties where I was thinking about everything else BUT having a baby. Deciding I didn’t want to live with the regret of not having this baby did not, unfortunately, directly equate to suddenly WANTING this baby right now.
I waited and hoped for some maternal instinct to kick in during pregnancy, or a magic bullet of instant love to hit me on sight when he was born. But it didn’t. I didn’t feel any negative feelings or regret. The best way I can describe it (which feels heart wrenching to say now) is a complete indifference. And mild terror. Because deep down I was shit scared of the unknown.
Meanwhile everyone around me assumed I was excited!! and up for this!! and “ready”, whatever that means.
The question my friend had asked me about love was one I had asked myself continuously since the moment of his birth. I set little tests for myself – in the first few weeks I’d often find myself thinking “How would I feel if I left him outside the house right now, closed the door, and came back inside?” The answer always came back the same – indifferent. I wasn’t planning on doing any of this. I wasn’t depressed. I just felt that I needed to test the limits of this new relationship I found myself in. To tug on the line that supposedly connected the two of us and see if anything tugged back.
Every scenario I imagined and every intrusive thought, was me repeatedly asking myself “How much do I love you? How much do I love you? …Do I love you?”
Had the accepted version of new motherhood been that it’s common and normal not to feel instant love, would I have wasted so much precious energy being consumed by these thoughts? Imagine if I had just simply been allowed to relax into my new role without all this PRESSURE that a new mother so often perceives is put upon her.
Imagine if all mothers, all parents, all people knew this from day one:
Motherhood isn’t the most perfect thing you could ever experience. It’s not THE single best thing you can do with your life. Every moment does not have to be wonderful and joyous. There are momentous rewards, and day to day moments of enjoyment to be had, but the funny thing is, they tend to hit you later on rather than at the time. That’s why people are always telling us that hugely frustrating phrase, “Enjoy every moment!!”, when we know that that is an impossibility.
I hesitated to mention the fact that I was young and unprepared to have a baby. Because although it plays a significant part in the story of my life, I am not sure it has any link to not feeling an instant rush of love. I would be confident betting on the fact that I would still have found that same experience whenever my first child had been born. Because can anyone ever be truly ready for how it just turns your life on its head?
During the ‘parade of visitors’ stage, countless people would coo over my newborn and how cute and special and amazing he was. I watched my boyfriend, who REALLY hadn’t wanted to become a dad aged 24, fall absolute batshit crazy over our baby in a mere matter of hours. Why hadn’t I?
Puzzlingly, newborns seemed to be a drug that worked on everyone else except me. I didn’t feel that thing that you are meant to feel, the innate invisible thread that makes you love them and want to care for them. I didn’t feel it till much, much later, I don’t even know when it happened but I don’t remember feeling it in his first year. I found new motherhood overwhelming. When I searched my feelings, all I found was “This is my life now. HE is my life now”.
I hadn’t been ready for this, and I certainly didn’t feel a natural at it. So, I conducted my days in the only way I knew how: I treated new motherhood as I would the first few weeks / months of any other new job. Head down, diligent worker, no time to stop whilst learning the ropes. The initial period of a new job is always intense, it’s only later than you can sit back and relax a bit more, appreciating the job once you have full confidence in your role.
My new job was to feed and clothe and make sure this little person was comfortable. I didn’t need anyone or any thing getting me off task by invading my thoughts to tell me that I should be feeling MORE. Newborns don’t need love, they just need someone to care for their needs. And I ACED that job. Future me would like to have been able to tell past me that there was no need to feel guilty because I was doing a GREAT JOB.
Instant love, finding a new meaning to your life, being naturally good at a job just because of your gender and anatomy. Measuring our worth not by who we are, but by what we do for someone else. These prevailing stereotypes of new motherhood continue to persist and make us feel guilty if our experience doesn’t tally. To make us unnecessarily question EVERYTHING we do when it comes to parenting. Because romanticising motherhood sets us up to fail.
Men are permitted to feel their way around new fatherhood. Time and time again on TV, in real life, and even on social media, we see the trope of the hapless father struggling to learn the ropes, often to comic effect. The man’s stereotype of new parenthood is that it’s OK, and largely expected, to admit your struggles at such a big change. Women are not afforded that same permission – and, sadly, this tends to have a subtle yet profound effect on new mothers. The stereotyping and fetishisation of what it TRULY MEANS to ‘become a mother’ is really damaging – it’s been linked as a contributing factor for women dealing with postpartum mental health issues.
For many years, we’ve been subjected to film and TV portrayals of motherhood dreamed up by people who aren’t mothers. (A male dominated industry with many female writers / directors / actors being pushed out of the business once they become mothers was never going to generate an abundance of realistic portrayals, was it?) It is improving, slowly. Social media has helped change the narrative, giving real mothers a platform to speak honestly, in real time. But we can always do better. Towing the line of a rose tinted motherhood is not a very easy notion to fight against, it feels unnatural, it feels outing. I don’t think we should stop talking about the good parts of motherhood, and the things we find joyful. But, I would love for there to be more welcoming spaces for women to talk about their own experiences where they haven’t correlated with the normal romanticised version of events.
I did find that becoming a parent exacerbated my anxiety and OCD (something I think I will always be dealing with). I did not experience postnatal depression. There are many, many women who experience serious postnatal mental health problems, their failings magnified by the largely unrealistic romanticising of the journey to becoming a mother.
Why is motherhood seen as one of the most worthwhile things a woman can do in her life? In the eyes of the world, generally speaking, what happens to us as we become new mothers is that our worth is suddenly transported into someone else, and so our worth becomes all about the way in which we go about caring for someone else. It’s an odd time, and it’s wholly unfair to put motherhood up on the pedestal that it has been sitting on for so long.
Some people are lucky enough to quickly find love for their babies and for their new role. I experienced it myself, with my subsequent children. It was almost as if with each child, the earlier the love came, because I had the benefit of hindsight and knew how this would go, that the love would come, slowly and sneakily, as it always has done for me in the past.
But I actually believe that, with most big events or experiences that happen in our lives, you don’t process it in real-time. Acceptance, mourning, an appreciation for life lessons learnt – all of that comes later, not all at once, but in stages.
I wanted to tell a different experience that might strike a chord with someone who has been feeling alone. And that is why I’m telling you about the (short, in the grand scheme of things) period of time 9 years ago, where I obsessively thought about leaving my baby outside in the cold to test how I’d feel about taking that action. Even though I’ve never written about that before, or really voiced it to anyone, that I can remember.
So…no, I didn’t welcome motherhood with open arms, nor did motherhood turn me into someone better, more worthy. I was neutral towards my baby – I don’t think I had the brain space for much more, in all honesty. Mental health aside, extenuating circumstances made the first year or two…or three of parenting altogether pretty shitty. And during that time, I don’t think I ever once said, “This is a bit crap”.
I have since learned that my intrusive thoughts and testing myself on the unthinkable is actually part of my OCD. It’s my mind’s safety net in a way, working to reassure me that I AM doing a good job because I’m NOT doing the terrible things that my mind can think up.
I still do it now. Think about the unimaginable when I allow my anxious mind to run riot. But I know now that the reason I do it is because I love them. A part of being a mother, for me, is living with a primal protective instinct that leads me to search for the worst, my brain’s futile attempt to prepared for the things that you can never be prepared for.
It turns out that a love I had once speculated was as short and imperceptible as a whisker could actually stretch to the moon and back a thousand times. That love has been consuming me from day one, before I had the time and hindsight to perceive it myself.
Using flowery language feels a bit romanticised, though. So I will leave with this:
Motherhood is not perfect. There may be long and short phases that are largely unenjoyable. Motherhood can never be a stereotype. It is not a definitive experience. Even within our own lives it grows and shifts and evolves with us and around us, throughout a lifetime.