Let’s just say it out loud. You might not fall in love with your baby the moment you set eyes on him or her. Birds won’t sing. The light won’t be rainbow hued. Your baby, covered in ick, will be struggling to open their brand new eyes to the outside world. You will be exhausted, overwhelmed, sore and shocked. Your baby will be getting APGAR’d. You may even have someone sewing your body back together. At some point when those little eyes meet yours, you might feel a tinge of recognition and pride. But more likely you’ll be staring in wonder at this baby who actually exists. Who came out of your body. Who you created.
Because of the myth of an instant love when you clock your child for the first time, these initial moments can already lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Why didn’t your heart burst at the seams when you first saw your baby? Well, you’ve just been through the most physically exhausting feat, your life has changed completely, you are holding in your arms the most precious thing you’ve ever known – it’s a lot to take in! Like any relationship, it will develop over time and in the weeks and months to come you’ll get to know each other and slowly fall more and more deeply in love with one another.
Entering into motherhood can feel a lot like being ripped in two – between the individual that you once were and the mother you are growing into. You might feel completely obsessed with your new baby, but unable to talk about it because it feels so unusual. Or you might be panic stricken at the enormous sense of responsibility you now hold. From having been a well functioning member of society, suddenly your universe revolves around a miniscule bundle, the sofa and bed. A day is no longer a day but broken into segments of feeding, sleeping and pooing. At the back of your mind you may remember the person you were before, and marvel that she ever existed without this baby. It may feel as though a bubble begins to form around you and your baby, sometimes a sanctuary from the world outside but at others a place of immense loneliness that nobody can truly enter with you. It can become difficult to focus on any conversation, your partner can feel lightyears away and you may oscillate between a gentle serenity and manic terror.
This pinpoint focus is actually a crucial step in becoming a mother, which the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott termed ‘primary maternal preoccupation’. At this stage, your newborn doesn’t yet know they are a separate being, and is turning to you to regulate every experience – whether that’s hunger, pain, discomfort, wetness, cold or, at times, abject misery. Your preoccupation with him or her allows you to tune in to every need, physical and emotional, in order to ensure a sense of safety in this brand new environment. Winnicott also said ‘there is no such thing as a baby’ – implying that a baby cannot exist without a mother (or another consistent caregiver).
If you can allow yourself to enter into the bubble, you can enter a world where everything feels deliciously different. Time is altered, hours can go by when you feel you’ve done nothing but gaze at your child, or you can be shocked that only minutes have passed since the last feed. You enter into a new state, neither asleep nor awake, just existing together in an unfamiliar symbiosis.
Whether or not you are able to enter into the bubble depends on many things – your own parenting history, your external circumstances, and the support of those around you. If you have to return to work, it can feel too difficult to enter such an intense relationship as it will be too heart wrenching to leave. Instead, your bubble may quickly expand to include other caregivers. Your own history can also influence whether or not you are able to submerge yourself in this bubble. Another psychoanalyst, Joan Raphael Leff, talks about a model of mothering which explores how focused you are on your babies’ needs versus your own needs. She describes three types of mother, although we will shift between these at different times. The Facilitator adapts to her baby, the Regulator expects the baby to adapt to her, while Reciprocators stand in the middle. A Facilitator, therefore, may find these initial days thrilling – all she has to do is nurture her baby, and cast off her own needs or desires. As her baby grows in independence and needs her less, she may miss the intense neediness and mourn for those newborn days. A Regulator, however, may feel terrified at the idea of submerging herself in another’s dependency. The change may feel too different from that which was before.
Our society too promotes a more ‘Regulator’ type of approach to mothering. We are impatient to put our babies into routines, to manage them like we have learned to manage our busy lives, to continue our separate lives and deny their importance to us. Shops are full of devices which allow us to distance ourselves from the business of mothering, from prams which rock themselves to bears with heartbeats. Others are full of ‘shoulds’ about how you ‘shouldn’t nurse him to sleep, you’ll create a rod for your own back’ and that you ‘shouldn’t pick her up every time she cries, you’ll teach her to seek attention’. It can feel easier to follow these than to exist in the uncertain state of learning to look after somebody you don’t really know yet.
Of course, using a swing to calm your baby while you have a much-needed cup of tea may, at times, be necessary for your sanity. But trying too much to fit your new baby into the life you had before can only lead to resentment when they inevitably don’t sleep when they’re supposed to, cry for ‘no reason’ and…well, need you just to be there. Allowing yourself to immerse in it all for a little while, letting yourself drift into chaos just for a few weeks, will also mean that you can give yourself time to settle into becoming a mum. This is a new job that you are creating moment by moment, which no-one else can really tell you how to do. Although full of advice, nobody knows your baby like you do. And while you might seek that one amazing fix-all tip which will make everything feel manageable again – and might even find it – it’ll only last for a week or two before your baby changes again.
Enjoy the bubble. Relish the chaos. It won’t last for long. You’ll get your brain back. Rock your baby if you want to, lose yourself for hours in that little sleeping face and rest assured life will return to normal – if a new kind of normal. And don’t worry about making a rod for your own back. After nine months of carting that big bump around, you’ve got a very strong back.