Oct 21 2007


One thing people say to you a lot when you’ve had a new baby is: “Enjoy your baby!” The baby books say it. The nurses say it when you’re leaving the hospital. Random people on the street say it. It’s nice, it’s fine, except: when I first brought my baby home, it seemed like the weirdest thing to say. Because the first few weeks were anything but enjoyable.

In the movies, when they put the baby in the actress’ arms, she gets a beatific look on her face and she says: “Oh. OH.” I was braced for my “Oh. OH” moment but it never came. Yes, tears sprang in my eyes when I heard my baby cry for the first time—the thought hit me that, after almost a year housing this little critter in my belly and thinking about him every day, I was finally going to get to meet him. And that was pretty overwhelming.

But I didn’t get to meet him then. Sam saw him, but I didn’t: the doctors whisked him away, for bathing and testing and medicating, and it was probably a half an hour before he was laid in my arms. And then I was worried about breastfeeding, because, you know, they say breastfeeding is more successful if it’s initiated within an hour of birth—and so our first interaction together was laden with stress and fear of failure.

I don’t know how much I loved him right away. Certainly not as much as I love him now. The thing is, I very much wanted him to thrive. I wanted to give him everything he needed, and I knew he needed love, so to a certain extent I loved him: but almost grudgingly, the same way I grudgingly got up when he cried in the middle of the night. He needed love, so I provided love, but it did not come in joyful abundance.

Now, two months later, I love him. When I see his face in the morning I feel delight. At first I felt only resignation: Oh no. Another day’s work starts now.

I might have been really at sea if I hadn’t known to expect this. It’s a very common experience for new moms, though it plunges some of them into depression, because they don’t feel the way they think they ought to feel. A new baby isn’t a bundle of joy. It’s a bundle of terror. It’s a completely helpless and vulnerable little organism that you must keep alive, you must teach and nurture and sustain, you must do everything for, and if you fail in the slightest instance it makes you a bad person even though you’ve probably never done anything like this before. My primary chemical response to my newborn was adrenalin. Those first days, I was pretty much running on fumes.

But over and under the stress, the fear, the need to succeed, other chemicals were working in my brain. Primarily oxytocin, the wonder drug. It’s really interesting to read about the chemistry of parent-child bonding. Oxytocin induces labor (pitocin, the drug they give you to induce labor, is an artificial form of oxytocin) and also causes lactation. These are broad-brush, unsubtle physical effects. But oxytocin also seems to play a key role in romantic pair bonding, and in parent-child bonding, and these alterations to brain chemistry are experienced more subtly. It’s something that builds up day to day, just a little dose every time you see your loved one’s face, until you’re addicted to the drug and can’t imagine living without the one you’re bonded to. People who lose a partner or child, in addition to the terrible emotional grief, are experiencing full-blown chemical withdrawal, comparable to what a heroin addict might go through without their fix.

I can feel it. I feel the rush when I look at my baby’s face for the first time every morning. And every day it gets a little stronger. I don’t know when it will stop. Maybe never, maybe it’ll just keep building up. I used to ask myself, looking down at the little guy as he sucked at my breast: would I die for him? And honestly, at first, the answer was probably not. Now, yeah, I’d stand between him and an onrushing bear. Definitely.

I don’t know that this story has a moral. If there are new mothers reading this, ‘what others say I say too’: it’s okay if you feel like you don’t love your newborn enough. It’s okay if enjoyment is not what you feel. You will. It might not come to you in an “Oh, OH” moment. It might come over days or weeks or even a couple of months. But the love comes, and it comes in joyful abundance.