I didn’t love my son when he was born. I didn’t love him by the evening of that first day either, or by the end of the week, or indeed for a good few months. He was a planned baby, a much-wanted baby, a settled, healthy, ‘good’ baby. But I didn’t love him.
This hadn’t happened to my best friend. Soon after she gave birth to her twin boys, three months before I was due to deliver my own first child, she called me where I was living in Scotland and spoke about the experience in terms both awed and exultant. I can still remember her words: “And then I just felt this giant wave of love overpower me, and I couldn’t stop looking from one to the other, drinking them in. They were so perfect that I thought my heart would burst.”
Greedily, I gulped down the details, caressing my own bump as I listened. My friend spoke with the fervour and gratitude of the converted, a king tide of emotion sweeping through her voice. When I hung up the phone I suspect I was trembling, infected with the anticipation of the epiphany to come.
Only it didn’t. When my son was handed to me straight from my body all I wanted was for someone to take him away again as quickly as they could. Even later, in Recovery, when we’d both been cleaned up and had had a chance to draw breath I can’t say I felt much for him. Curiosity, certainly, but only the garden-variety type. I think I would have been just as interested in viewing the placenta, or maybe even a jar of my own gallstones.
To be fair, there were mitigating circumstances.
My labour had been long and tiring, ending in an emergency C-section after three trials of forceps and two of Ventouse. Though I didn’t know it as I awkwardly cradled my newborn son in that recovery bed, an artery in my uterus hadn’t been properly cauterised after the surgery and was slowly filling the organ with blood.
Two hours later it would haemorrhage through the wound, landing me back in theatre and then onto a baker’s dozen of blood transfusions. When I came to a day or so later my son had been transferred to the Children’s Hospital on the other side of Edinburgh, his twisted bowel having been diagnosed while I was anaesthetised.
We were reunited three days after his birth. I was glad to have him back, but only because I felt guilty that my sister, who had travelled from Australia to meet her first nephew, was spending all her time racing between hospitals to check we were both alright. Now, at least, she could stay in the one spot.
And she was transfixed by the boy, blown away by him, as was my husband. I remember watching the two of them leaning over his crib in hospital, foreheads almost touching but oblivious to the fact, so engrossed they were in this scrap with whom they shared blood. I remember watching them, and feeling bemused. He wasn’t that interesting.
The few people to whom I have told this story all rushed to reassure me that my detachment was clearly the result of my illness and surgery. I had lost more than half my blood volume; I was in shock; I was unwell; no wonder I felt so blunted. I’m not so sure that I agree. I suspect these factors exacerbated my emotional state, but I don’t think they caused them.
After all, I’d felt nothing much for Declan in the hours after he was born and before I became unwell; my best friend, conversely, had endured a traumatic vaginal delivery for her first twin and then an emergency section for her second, and had still been transported with joy.
Things didn’t change when I recovered and returned home. I am a conscientious person, and I cared for my son conscientiously. He was breastfed, changed, walked, rocked and sung to. Because I was still too injured to lift him easily, he slept at night between my husband and I for ease of feeding. He was loved, cuddled and cooed over, though admittedly mostly by his father and aunt. I certainly didn’t hate him, or wish him harm. I was simply perplexed by him. This was the flesh of my flesh, my only begotten son. Why then, first thing in the morning, did I anticipate my cup of coffee more than seeing him? Why did I feel sometimes that he was someone else’s child, and wonder when she’d return to pick him up?
I wish I knew. I don’t. In hindsight, I realise I was shocked and overwhelmed by the transition to motherhood, but then so are plenty of other mothers, and the ones I knew all seemed to adore their children. Still, maybe they were as bewildered as I. We never talked about it. Women don’t, for fear of being judged, which is partly why I am writing this now.
In the end, there was no great epiphany. Or rather, there were a series of tiny ones: The first time he rolled over, bumping into my legs, his initial expression of surprise quickly followed by one of delight when he looked up to see that it was me he’d come to rest against. Leaving him with a babysitter for an afternoon and realising I was anticipating our reunion. Crying my eyes out after he had a febrile seizure at five months old, shocked by the scare into emotion.
The funny thing is that as the years slide past these moments have attained a synergy, becoming greater than the sum of their parts. As John Armstrong wrote, “Love starts as something we find and becomes something we make.” He was talking about romantic love, but I think it is equally true of the bond between parent and child. I didn’t feel a vast eruption of love when my son was born, but it has accrued steadily ever since. That baby who so bemused me is now the eight-year-old child of my heart. I love him fiercely, passionately, overwhelmingly. We swim together in its king tide every day.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)