We didn't love our babiesWhat happens if maternal instinct just doesn't kick in Three women break motherhood's greatest taboo…
Painful admission: Ruth Hagin resented her daughter when she was first born
We are conditioned to believe that the attachment between mother and baby will be instant and inviolable.
The received wisdom is that from the moment a woman learns she is pregnant, a lifelong bond begins to grow, linking mother and child for ever in the strongest possible manifestation of love.
But what if it doesn’t What if that much‑vaunted bond fails to materialise
Motherhood certainly didn’t provoke the sudden flood of love Ruth Hagin had expected to feel for her baby daughter Sandra.
Instead, she was consumed by anger, resentment and loathing.
‘When Sandra cried, I’m ashamed to
say I shouted at her,’ Ruth recalls. ‘I used to pace our flat
visualising ways of getting rid of her. I hesitate to say this, but I
felt my life would be so much better if she wasn’t here.’
It is a searingly honest — if
profoundly shocking — admission, and one for which Ruth is likely to be
castigated: mothers who are brave enough to admit to feeling ambivalent
about, or even hostile towards, their newborns are often stigmatised.
Ruth says: ‘Sandra was a beautiful baby. When my friends and family said: “Isn’t she gorgeous” I smiled, but said nothing. How could I admit that I deeply resented — even hated — this perfect baby I felt like a monster, the worst mother in the world.
‘I used to stay awake at night, staring at her in her cot, thinking how much better my life would be without her. The only flicker of affection I felt was when I was breastfeeding.
‘I was exhausted and felt completely numb. I kept waiting for the sudden rush of love that everyone told me I would experience — but it never came.’
'I began to deeply resent the intrusion of a baby into my ordered life. I was mourning the life I had lost'
Studies have shown that one in five new mums fails to bond with her infant, but feelings of shame and inadequacy often prevent them from admitting the fact.
Child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson, author of How To Have A Happy Child, explains: ‘The forming of a bond is absolutely crucial to a baby’s long-term emotional and psychological development, and there is a general expectation that a mother’s attachment to her newborn is instant.’
For some mums it is love at first sight. But for many it is a process of meshing that takes time: days, weeks, months, sometimes years.
For Ruth, 34, from Bristol, who works as an office manager for a voluntary organisation, it was two years before she fully formed a loving attachment to her daughter.
The irony is that she very much wanted a baby. She was a teenager and engaged to be married when she became pregnant.
‘I was determined to be the best mother, but I was so young and inexperienced,’ she recalls. ‘I was a perfectionist; I still am. I began to deeply resent the intrusion of a baby into my ordered life. I was mourning the life I had lost, the freedom my soon-to-be husband and I had enjoyed together.
‘He was brilliant with her — very loving and caring — but when I looked at her, all I felt was anger.
‘My relationship with my husband suffered: we had lots of rows as I was so angry and resentful, and after three years we divorced.
‘One day, just before Sandra was two, I’d left her with him and walked to the shops. Suddenly, I got the idea I could just get on a train and leave them both behind.
‘At that point, something clicked in my head. This was not normal. I was an intelligent, rational person so why did I want to abandon my child’
Struggled to cope: Ruth was a young mum and didn't immediately bond with baby Sandra
Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Sharon Lewis says: ‘The arrival of a first baby is a shock. No mother can be prepared for the round-the-clock care, and many have unrealistic expectations about parenthood.
‘Being a young parent, suffering from sleep deprivation and dealing with the drastic physical and hormonal changes that occur after a baby’s birth all inevitably affect the emotions. All these factors can impact on a mother’s capacity to love her baby.
‘Sometimes mums also displace the anger and resentment they feel towards a husband or partner on to their baby. Babies are very demanding and they are very powerful at evoking strong, primitive emotions.’
Ruth’s antipathy towards Sandra did eventually transform into intense feelings of love, but only after she confronted her negative emotions and sought help eight months after Sandra was born.
She attended a postnatal depression support group, Mothers For Mothers, which proved to be her salvation. Admitting to and sharing the ‘awful feelings’ she felt towards Sandra was a form of catharsis.
'I spent every evening in tears, thinking: “What's wrong with me Why can't I bond with this baby”'
However, it was two-and-a-half years before the anger and resentment were fully dispelled.
Ruth, who is now single, recalls: ‘One day Sandra fell and cut her head and I felt overwhelmed by a rush of love. I thought: “My life is nothing without her.” At that point I realised I loved her so much.’
Ruth’s experience is not uncommon. Ten to 15 in every 100 women suffer postnatal depression and can, as she did, reach such a nadir that they wish their child had not been born.
That said, postnatal depression is not always a factor in an inability to bond. Nor is the problem necessarily long-lived.
As Dr Lewis points out: ‘A relationship with a child can grow over time. Initial difficulties in bonding are not predictive of a future relationship with your child.’
From an inauspicious start, Ruth’s love for Sandra, who is now in her teens, burgeoned.
‘I can’t imagine life without her, and it’s hard to remember how I used to feel,’ she says. ‘I realise now that I was depressed, I was young and I simply couldn’t cope.’
The novelist Fay Weldon once quipped that the greatest advantage of not having children is that you can go on believing you’re a nice person. ‘Once you have children,’ she said, ‘you realise how wars start.’
Such painful truths are more palatably expressed through humour: no one finds it easy to accept mothers are capable of loathing their children as much as loving them.
Overwhelmed: Becky Bohan, pictured with her daughter Jessica, found maternal feelings didn't develop instantly
For full-time mum Becky Bohan, 32, the arrival of her first child, Jessica, 14 months ago prompted not the expected idyll of mother-and-child contentment, but overwhelming inadequacy and fear.
Becky, who is married to Kyron, 41, an installation company supervisor, and lives in Royston, Hertfordshire, says her problems began as soon as Jessica was born.
‘I felt bewildered and lost. I remember looking down at her and thinking: “Oh my goodness, what do I do now” Breastfeeding was the most horrendous experience. I couldn’t get her to latch on and my breasts were so sore. I began to dread her waking up. I actually became terrified of being with her.
‘I felt like the most unnatural mother in the world. I was just so overwhelmed and I couldn’t cope. I spent every evening in tears, thinking: “What’s wrong with me Why can’t I bond with this baby”
‘I’d prepared so much for the birth, but the reality made me feel like an utter failure. I dreaded holding her or cuddling her because I felt so lost. I’d been used to being a success in my life. I was really good at my job, so why couldn’t I do this’
Becky may have believed she was emotionally prepared for motherhood, but she wasn’t.
'You think: “I should be able to cope; it's just a tiny baby”'
‘So many mothers have idealised expectations about how they are going to feel and it is very difficult when reality does not match them,’ says Dr Woolfson.
To compound her feelings of inadequacy, Becky had been in control in her high-powered job, but felt defeated by her new role as a mother.
‘It’s very common that a woman who has held a responsible job and done it well feels like this,’ comments Dr Woolfson. ‘This small bundle is dominating her. She feels trapped. It’s a huge reversal of roles.
‘You think: “I should be able to cope; it’s just a tiny baby. I’m struggling with something so easy.” But the key is not to back away from a task because it makes it more of a challenge.
‘You have to recognise that you don’t have to be the most perfect mother in the world and just accept that you have L-plates on.’
The self-contained world in which couples are often compelled to raise their babies, because they are geographically remote from relatives, exacerbates the problem.
The African adage that it takes a whole village to raise a child is pertinent. Dr Lewis points out that warmth and affection do not have to come solely from a mother if she is finding it hard to bond.
‘We not only need to normalise the fact that attachment can be a slow process. We should recognise, too, that if a mother is having problems, someone else — a husband, grandmother, a great childminder — can act as a buffer. When babies are tiny, as long as they have affection, it doesn’t matter where the cuddles are coming from.’
Dark times: Elsa Cook found it difficult to love son Caspar, left, at first as she had wanted a sister for her first born, Oscar
For Becky, it was the fellowship of other mothers and doing a relaxation class that restored her self-belief.
As she learned to relax with Jessica, her confidence grew. Now Becky has qualified as a baby-calming teacher, and is anticipating with joy the birth of her second child.
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'No maternal feelings': Gwyneth Paltrow admitted she struggled to bond with her son Moses when he was a baby
Exhaustion, isolation and the absence of Johnny, 24, who was working long hours setting up a video and games business, added to her sense that motherhood second time around was a chore, not a joy.
‘I felt so guilty and disappointed as I’d bonded instantly with Oscar,’ she says. ‘I wonder if I felt this way because I believed I had let Johnny down by having another boy
‘It wasn’t rational, but then, I didn’t feel very rational. I was looking after two children under two 24/7, and I spent most of the time in tears. I kept thinking my feelings would change, but it got worse and worse,’ confesses Elsa, from Colyton, Devon.
It was Elsa’s husband who forced her to confront the fact that something was wrong. ‘Four weeks after Caspar’s birth, Johnny found me sobbing on the sofa and said I had to get some help,’ she recalls.
Her GP prescribed anti-depressants. Slowly they took effect, until Elsa felt she wanted to cuddle her second son. Then, one day, she noticed his smile.
‘It was only a little thing, a baby smile, but I suddenly thought: “I do love you.” I said the words out loud and Caspar smiled even more.
‘From that day, something clicked, and my normal maternal feelings rushed in. I began to take pride in his little achievements: learning to crawl, making sounds.
‘Today, I love him as much as I love his brother and it’s so hard to look back on those dark days.’
Sometimes we fail to heed the signs — the first real smile, that giggle of pleasure, the beguiling intensity of a gaze — that signal our baby’s unconditional love for us. They are such little things. But often, it seems, they are all a mother needs to form the bond that lasts for life.
Additional reporting: Diana Appleyard