Not Everyone Bonds With Their Unborn Baby - Coping With My Uninvited Guest.
Jul 25, 2006 (Updated Jul 26, 2006)
The Bottom Line I know I'm not the only woman who didn't feel connected to her unborn baby, but that's the way I felt.
The birth of my daughter was impeccably planned.
I planned her on my first date with my husband when he asked if I wanted children and I told him I did. When he asked how old I wanted to be when I became a mother, I told him twenty-five. I already knew I wanted him to stay with me forever, and at nineteen, it seemed like forever before I would be twenty-five.
I planned her when my husband and I sat down with my doctor, two years later, and discussed aggressive treatment for my endometriosis. "We want to optimize your fertility in the next five years." he said, and my husband tightened his hand around mine.
I planned her when we moved out of our apartment in the beach town I adored and into a house with a backyard. My husband bragged about the high test scores at the elementary school down the road.
I planned her when those treatments were over and I didn't go back on the Pill, even though I felt no yearning for motherhood. My husband is older than me, and he desperately wanted a baby. Never mind that I finally felt like an adult, with a real job and an interesting life, and didn't particularly care for babies. Never mind that now that the treatments were over, I relished the feeling of having my body to myself and out of the hands of medicine. Never mind that at twenty-four, I was finally old enough to think about what I wanted, and not just what I was supposed to do. The winter before my twenty-fifth birthday, I learned that I would have a baby according to the plan I made as a lovesick teenager, and it wasn't what I wanted at all.
I know a baby is a miracle. I know I was ungrateful. I know Im an awful person.
While I sat on the bathroom tile with a positive pregnancy test on the ground beside me, my thoughts were too dark and painful to repeat. As far as I was concerned, the embryo erased me. Not only for the next 40 weeks, but also for the rest of my life, my body would be hijacked at gunpoint, and forced in a direction against my will. I thought of her not as a person, but an invader.
I know there are women who desperately want to conceive, but that made me about as pleased with my pregnancy as the starving children in China made me want to finish my vegetables as a child. My response was about the same: they can have it.
There are a great number of women who feel this way when they get pregnant, and I want them to know that they will be okay. My daughter is almost two years old, and we are crazy about each other. That sort of mutual affection doesn't happen in the womb, no matter what any Fertility Goddess friends or exuberant pregnancy books say about the bond between a pregnant woman and the unborn or newborn child. For these women, pregnancy is just something to survive. If you're interested, this is how I survived...
My first instinct was to hide my pregnancy, but my husband couldn't contain the news. Although conventional wisdom advises a pregnant woman to wait for the precarious first trimester to pass before sharing the news, I believe that is garbage, whether you want to be pregnant or not. Looking back, I think it's better to tell people right away so I could count on their comfort and support in the event of a loss. Even as an unhappily pregnant woman, I would have been devastated by a miscarriage, and I think keeping it a secret would have compounded the pain.
Another reason to share the news before the 12th week is that if you don't tell anyone you are pregnant, nobody can give you a break. If you don't want people to assume that your personality has taken a dive, your work ethic was an elaborate ruse, or you just don't like them anymore, do yourself a favor and tell them you are pregnant. Most people will bend over backwards to accommodate your "delicate condition", and nothing eases feelings of dread and nausea like pampering.
Most people will be thrilled to hear a baby is coming. It helped me tremendously to hear people say having a baby would be wonderful, that my husband and I would be excellent parents, and that the child was bound to be beautiful. Nobody seemed concerned that I was not cut out for motherhood, or that the baby would ruin my life. I didn't swallow their line, but I felt better knowing that society viewed me as a perfectly acceptable contributor to the gene pool. Every time I told someone and they did not react with horror, I felt less afraid.
Work through it
One of the best things I did was buy a pregnancy diary. I've kept a journal all my life, and had no idea what I was doing with this New Agey, fill-in-the-blank pregnancy diary that was more akin to a workbook. Subconsciously, I realized freeform expression would be my enemy, and I needed the structure. My pregnancy diary divided up the weeks and told me what was happening with the baby, then provided incredibly trite prompts for me to express my thoughts.
What doubts, dreams, and hopes do I have about the new life ahead of me?
Whether I know the sex of my baby or not, what do I think are some of the pluses and minuses of having either a boy or a girl?
Dutifully, I addressed every prompt, every week. I viewed them as an assignment, and not a creative outlet. My answers were honest, but not as full of resentment and lamentation as they might have been in my personal journals. I kept in mind that some day, my daughter could be an adult who felt like she was the only pregnant woman in history to not feel overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, and I made certain not to write anything that would be hurtful for her. Yes, there were questions such as Have I been having feelings of ambivalence that make me feel frightened or guilty instead of being able to accept them as normal? I got to write down my answer, but the book only gave me one page. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, I forced myself to think of answers to questions that probably come easily for happily pregnant women, and counted my blessings by rote until they came from the heart.
Take care of yourself
I couldn't bear to do many of the things my pregnancy books suggested, such as singing to the baby, because I didn't feel her presence. Even when my round belly shifted from side to side with her acrobatics, I couldn't think of her as a person. No forced bonding rituals were going to make me feel any better, but I did feel happier when I knew I was taking good care of myself. Staying active, eating right, and giving up the foods that weren't good for the baby made me feel as if I was taking care of her, too. This made me feel better about motherhood, because I was already making the right decisions on her behalf.
When I look good, I feel good. I'm shallow, but at least I know myself. I made sure I had clothes that fit well and reflected currrent styles, and I didn't pay any attention to people who said I shouldn't spend money on a wardrobe I would only wear for a few months. So what? If you think about it honestly, how many of your clothes do you wear year after year? Don't you buy new things when the styles change or your favorite department store has a half-yearly sale? It's also depressing to be broke, so it's not smart to go crazy, but there is no reason why any woman should go nine months without something flattering to wear.
Ditch the prego-nazi books
Pregnancy books such as What to Expect When You're Expecting made me feel like a monster. They reminded me over and over again that other women feel a connection to their unborn children, loving them as if they already know each other. I felt guilty and horrible. The worst of all was The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. This book is probably deeply gratifying for mothers to be who feel bonded to their unborn baby, but it made me feel unnatural and evil. The author connects mental illness in children to their mothers' feelings of apathy during pregnancy, without presenting any empirical evidence or peer-reviewed studies. Even though the claims were purely anecdotal, they haunted me. Could I give my baby schizophrenia by not feeling the euphoria of creation all day long?
I enjoyed the Bradley books because they focused on the woman, how she can care for her body, and gave me things to do. My husband and I faithfully did our exercises at night, which helped me feel confident that I could deliver the baby without either of us dying. They are very militant about natural childbirth, and if that is not for you I would stay away from them. The Pregnancy Bible: Your complete guide to pregnancy and early parenthood is very informative without being patronizing. I also enjoyed The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy because it made me laugh and didn't judge me for not enjoying my gravid state, although it's more of a memoir than a guide.
Choose books that focus on medical information or that make you laugh, but stay away from anything with a tongue-clucking, motherly tone.
Watch the baby grow
I subscribed to a pregnancy calendar on the internet, and every day it told me how the baby grew and changed. "You have a baby inside you", I would tell myself, "and it is growing eyeballs." I carried small, and until I was seven months pregnant there was nothing to see on the outside of my body, even though I could feel her kicking like a jackhammer. Some people thought I was lucky because my own body stayed unpregnant-looking for so long, but it only contributed to my feelings that the baby was either not real, or I was not capable of nourishing her. People would say things like "You're so tiny! Are you sure you're really pregnant?" and meant them to be flattering, but those comments fed my paranoia. Learning that my six-month-old fetus was the size of a medium burrito helped me to believe she was really there, even if she was hiding.
The ultrasounds were undeniably fascinating, but they did nothing to set aside my nightmare of being host to an alien invader and not a human child. I almost looked away when the technician zoomed in to check the heart for four separate chambers. The experience was beneficial, however, because of the information. I found out the baby was developing properly, and she was a girl. Learning the sex of my baby helped me to visualize her as a real person. Once I knew she was a girl, I could name her, decorate the nursery in an outrageous Bollywood Princess motif, buy tiny mary janes, and imagine our future together. I am not a baby person, and felt bored by most baby gear and books about infant care. The peaceful image of rocking a newborn and droning lullaby after lullaby also bored me. Knowing I would have a little girl someday spurred fantasies of ballet slippers, a shopping companion, and a helping hand around the house (I said fantasies). At the same time, I read reams of feminist literature, hoping to teach her that she could be anything she wanted. Some British relatives gave us a pink soccerball and an official Manchester United uniform as gifts, and I displayed them in her room.
My daughter bounced and kicked so vigorously, I felt beat up. Outsiders noticed how unusually active she was, and would tease me about eating too many peppercinis. Sometimes they would ask what I thought this said about her personality, and I would snap that I didn't know. I hated being expected to cosmically know what went on in her (barely developed) brain just because we shared blood and oxygen. Even worse, I hated other people's willingness to make up a personality for a child before they had any say in the matter. This unwillingness to attempt to divine who she was before she could show me herself made me more certain than anything else that I was not a normal pregnant woman and should not be allowed to have a baby, but now I believe it is one of my greatest strengths as a parent. I refuse to label her, and don't presume to know anything about who she will be when she grows up. I am here to exercise authority, to provide nurturing, and to teach her all that I know, but I am not going to tell her who she is.
After the Birth
My labor was no different from the rest of pregnancy. I felt disconnected from the experience and didn't look forward to seeing the baby, but I went through the motions. My husband and sister knew my wishes and fought for me to have things my way, even when I was beyond caring. Right after she was born, they put her on top of me and I didn't feel as if she were mine, but knew it was my job to care for her. She looked right at me and we introduced ourselves. Some sort of panic was going on in the room, and I heard my mother asking over and over if the baby was okay in a high-pitched voice, and I thought everyone was being ridiculous. I had the baby right in front of me and she was clearly fine. I was correct; the panic had to something to do with my placenta, not the baby, but the birth attendants were too busy handling it to explain. Right away, I understood that caring for the baby was going to come easier for me than growing her, and my natural tendency toward calm and patience would serve me well. I believe everyone has attributes which are especially appropriate for the care of their individual child.
Giving birth ended my depression. I experienced the baby blues in reverse. My expectations of motherhood were so low, the reality couldn't help surpassing them. My biggest fear was that I would not love the baby, but when you give someone all your days and nights, the personal investment leads to love. When I was young, I wondered if parents who adopted children could ever really love them as much as biological parents. Didn't the experience of giving birth, nursing, and the bond of shared genetic traits amount to more than legal papers and shared residence? Now I know that all parents taking care of their children, no matter how they became a family, love them unconditionally. Unconditional love means the child has nothing to do with how the parent feels. We don't love our children because they look like us, or because we bonded in the womb, or because they offer us anything in return. We love them because they are ours.
If you asked me while I was pregnant if life would go on, if I would love the child, and if I would be a good mother, I would have said no to all three. I was obviously wrong. My daughter is my muse, and if I loved her any more my heart would burst. It doesn't matter at all that I didn't feel like listening to her heartbeat over headphones or hated pregnancy for making me swollen. The love came when the waiting ended and the work began.
I can't believe this is how I chose to celebrate my hundredth review. Number two hundred will be a ridiculous top ten list. After all that drama, I need a beer.