“I was shocked,” Lewis-Schurter, who is originally from South Africa and now lives in Minneapolis, explained via email. “I really didn’t have time to know what I felt.”
The doctors whisked the 5-pound baby off to the neo-natal ICU, where he was kept for a week. Not allowed to sleep with him, Lewis-Schurter had to expose herself in front of the nurses, doctors, and other parents in the NICU in order to cuddle and breastfeed Tristan. She and her husband felt frantic with worry and had a hard time cementing the bond between herself and her son.
“The NICU’s not conducive to bonding,” sighs Lewis-Schurter. “It’s too bright, too sterile, and filled with noisy machines that monitor your baby’s every breath and heartbeat … Babies are on artificial feeding schedules that don’t jive with your mother-instincts. It takes a very clear head—which is distinctly not where you are after the birth of your baby—to keep a good sense of your priorities and to be able to bond with your child.”
It wasn’t until Tristan, who’s now a golden-haired preschooler with green eyes and a mischievous grin, was four months old that Lewis-Schurter felt truly connected to her son.
“Once I got him home, I felt more at ease,” she says. “But also terrified by my fatigue and the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn. To be honest, I only really stopped feeling insane at about three or four months, once our rhythms were a little more settled and he (and I) seemed less fragile!”
Although some new parents bond instantly with their new babies, others, like Lewis-Schurter, find that bonding’s hard won. Still, bonding between a baby and its caregivers is an essential component to a healthy childhood and a happy mother-child relationship.
“We humans are primates, animals designed by evolution to be physically and emotionally attached to an adult of our species,” explains one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Meredith Small, a cultural anthropologist at Cornell University and author of “Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape the Way we Parent.” “Without that kind of attachment, we grow up without the interpersonal skills to make relationships.”
Myth: Normal parents bond right away with their babies.
Reality: It often takes time to feel really connected to a new baby. If you’re caring for your child—holding him, feeding him, cuddling with him—even if you don’t feel deeply connected, you’re doing what you need to do. The bonding will come, in its own time.
“Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately swoon over the screaming, wet miracle that just gave you stretch marks and a prolapsed bladder,” says my friend Holly who found bonding with all three of her children to take more time than expected. “Just put in the time—the bonding will come.”
Meredith Small agrees. “You’ve met a new friend,” she says, “and just like meeting a new friend you both need to get to know one another.”
Reality: Babies have misshaped heads, scaly skin, half-closed eyes, acne, and a host of other not-so-perfect-looking features. Even if you would deny it vehemently, you may actually find your newborn bizarre-looking at best and unattractive at worst. This, like so many things in your life with the baby, will change.
Myth: Even after a hard labor, the pain is quickly forgotten and parents feel instantly connected to the new baby.
Reality: A physically traumatic labor often requires a longer recovery and may mean that it takes longer to bond. Disappointment, feelings of failure (over an unexpected C-section, for example), and postpartum recovery may all take attention temporarily away from the newborn and shake your self-esteem. For new dads who have watched their wives suffer, concern for your spouse's health may make it harder to focus on the baby.
That’s what happened to Margot Finke of Newburg, Oregon, when her son was born. Although she had no trouble bonding with her first two babies, her third labor exhausted her to the point of apathy. “The labor was long and then suddenly stopped,” says Finke. “I needed artificial hormones to get the contractions going again, and after many more long and miserable hours of labor, out he popped. I took a look at him and thought, ‘Who cares!’ I rolled over and went to sleep.”
“After a long hard labor, it’s no wonder women sometimes feel great distance from this little stranger who has arrived to take over their lives,” says Small. “Bonding is not instantaneous, but a process—a relationship that grows from being together over time.”