I will tell you the truth.
When I first met my daughter, I wasn’t sure if I loved her. I only remember the sudden quiet of the operating theatre, the nurse at my side explaining the morphine drip, the excruciating pain from the wound in my abdomen, and my husband standing next to me, oblivious to my disorientation and pain, beaming. He held a tiny stranger in his arms.
I’d expected to feel an instant connection to my daughter. After all, I loved being pregnant with her. I was familiar with every little kick, jab and roll. I knew exactly when she was most active and knew that the train ride to and from work lulled her to sleep. From the moment I learned we were having a girl, I whispered her name as I rubbed my belly. I loved her, I was connected to her and I couldn’t wait to meet her.
At 38 weeks, I developed a dull ache in my stomach. It was nothing like the sharp pains I’d associated with contractions. I was certain it was food poisoning. The midwives at the hospital were not concerned – foetal monitoring showed my baby girl was active, and healthy. It was my obstetrician who stopped us from returning home. The problem was with me. I had a rare form of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome and with my liver failing and blood no longer clotting, there was no choice to be made – I had to have an emergency caesarean.
My visions of a natural birth were replaced with... what? I’d never bothered to learn the details of a caesarean – my birth plan had always revolved around a natural delivery. My obstetrician could see my apprehension.
“Even if we induce you, it could take up to six hours for you to go into labour. We don’t have six hours. We have to deliver your baby right now.”
I felt terribly alone and scared as they wheeled me into the operating theatre. I’d always envisioned my husband at my side, whispering words of encouragement. My illness however, meant he had to be left behind. As I was stripped down, I began to shake, initially from the cold, but soon from nerves and fright as the anaesthetist prepared to put me under. An epidural would have caused me to bleed into my spine. I don’t even remember falling asleep.
When I awoke, and saw my baby for the first time, there was no spark. The connection I’d formed with her all those months was severed. She was now a separate entity from me. I felt scooped out, empty.
My taut, round belly, once filled with active jabs and kicks, was now flaccid and inert. It had been just her and me for so long, that seeing her there, in my husband’s arms, was a shock. Though illogical, it instantly felt like betrayal. I’d always imagined I’d be the first to hold my baby girl.
I was moved into the high dependency unit and attached to machines for monitoring, with nurses regularly drawing blood to check my platelet levels. Bruises bloomed at the crooks of my arms. My husband visited sporadically, only for short periods. I waited hours for his return to learn that he was in the nursery with our daughter. I tried to remember what she looked like.
I was certain I just needed to hold her, to feel her close to me, that this would somehow rekindle our special connection. But even after they lay her on my chest, skin-to-skin, I experienced awe and wonder, yes, but no bond. It was gone.
We brought her home with hopes that the connection would form. But no, she refused to be settled by me, crying until I fed her or returned her to my husband. I barely had the energy to carry her, my wound still tender, the painkillers making no difference, and my body itself was still recovering from my illness.
I was constantly in tears. I was mourning the end of my pregnancy, of knowing exactly what my baby needed from my body. She cried and I was certain she did not love me either.
I don’t know when it changed.
The process was gradual. Every week, I found a moment of joy, a spark in the fog. I began to see her in detail: the gentle curve of her jaw, her perfect shell-shaped ears. She had my dark, serious eyes and her father’s winning smile. The day her beautiful face lit up when she saw me, oh my, how my heart burst with happiness! And as I healed and recovered, I realised that the connection had always been there. Her movements were completely familiar to me. I’d had ten months to learn all those kicks and jabs and they were no different outside the womb.
I loved her, yes, and a part of me knew I always had, but that love had been overwhelmed by shock and fright on the night of her delivery and by the long recovery process.
It was a strange thing, loving my child so completely in the womb, then learning to love her all over again once she was born. Now, there is no hesitation, no doubt. The love I have for my daughter is all encompassing and complete. As I hold her close to me, breathing in her soft, warm smell, I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I love this precious child of mine.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem