When Motherhood Doesn’t Come Naturally

The public narratives surrounding motherhood highlight how difficult it is, but also how rewarding; how exhausted you feel, but how that is surpassed by the love you feel. Popular culture does not praise the emotionally unavailable mom who is shielding her heart from her fragile child.

For me, motherhood has been nothing like I expected.  My daughter was born at 25 weeks, after my doctor disregarded my back pain as “normal growing pains.”  After five days of hospital bedrest, she entered the world at a hearty two pounds (which is actually very large for a 25-weeker). I caught a quick glimpse of her, and then she was rushed off to the NICU in an incubator. I have recounted Lidia’s birth story many times in this exact way– giving the medical facts and highlighting themes of strength and endurance. That is the story I choose to tell most often because it is not acceptable for moms, especially moms of sick babies, to tell stories of how they don’t feel an all-consuming love for their children immediately after birth.

Moms-to-be are often fed stories of love-at-first-sight moments and painful yet empowering birth experiences. This was not my experience.  When my daughter was born, I felt oddly calm; I think that I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I shut down and started functioning on autopilot. Although I spent many hours lying skin-to-skin with her on my chest, I did not feel close to her at all; she felt like she belonged to someone else. I fulfilled all of my “motherly duties” - singing, feeding, bathing, cuddling - with an air of caution and distance.

It has only been upon reflection now, years later, that I have been able to recognize how truly detached I was from Lidia.  I felt obligated to be strong for her while she was in the NICU. She was the one undergoing painful procedures and struggling to thrive; to prioritize my own grief and guilt would have been selfish. So, I trained myself not to flinch when they would prick her foot or start a new IV. I made myself strong. At the time, my parents were also dealing with some serious health conditions, and I wanted them to know that they didn’t need to worry about Lidia and me. I had it covered.

I felt guilty and helpless as I watched her grow in a mechanical setting - she was supposed to be safe in my womb. All I could do was pump breastmilk to  provide her with the best nutrition I could and focus on getting her to her next big milestones: digesting milk, wearing clothes, breathing on her own, etc. I thought that all I had to do was get her safely home and everything would be “normal” from there, but when she did come home after 91 days, I was overcome with anxiety instead of happiness.   

Lidia did not feel like my child; it felt like I was babysitting someone else’s baby.  I missed the security of the hospital monitors letting me know that she was oxygenating well or that she was not dropping her heart rate while eating.  Lidia also suffered from acid reflux which made me nervous (Is she eating enough? Will she vomit while she sleeps?), and to add to my guilt, I stopped producing adequate milk and had to start feeding Lidia formula.  Although I realize now that feeding your baby formula does not make you a subpar mother, breast milk was considered “liquid gold” in the NICU because of its numerous health benefits, especially for preemies. I felt like I had failed my daughter yet again.

The birth of my second child was completely different:  he was born at 38 weeks thanks to a skillfully-placed cerclage.  The bond between he and I was instant, easy; even when he brady’d on my chest, I did not slip into a shroud of fear.  His birth enlightened me to just how different I felt with Lidia, and a new wave of guilt came over me – how could I bond so naturally with one child and have to work so hard to bond with another?  But by recognizing that this was my emotional reality, I was able to consciously build a better relationship with my daughter. I allowed myself to forgive myself and learned that there is more than one definition of a good mother.  Even if those feelings of love do not come naturally and all at once, relationships are always changing and building over time. I have raised a very loving, selfless, and empathetic child who teaches me something new about love every day.  

Although I can still hear the beeping of monitors, remember the way my hands felt after months of three-minute hand washes, and recall the smell of the NICU, the painful memories are steadily being replaced by years of happy ones.  I no longer harbor guilt towards the doctor who brushed me off, and I have learned to forgive myself for not experiencing motherhood the way society depicts it. Motherhood and its wide range of emotions is not something that can be approached from a one-size-fits all perspective, and now more than ever moms need to wrap each other in support and understanding.

By: Madeleine Michalik

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