Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Crushed by Mother-Guilt

I've known I was supposed to write this--needed to write it--for a long, long time. Today, finally, I am summoning the courage to share a story from the most vulnerable parts of my heart: the truth about my experience of motherhood.

I’ve never known love at first sight.

When women talk about how they felt when they first saw and held their babies, you hear certain familiar phrases: “head over heels in love”… “instantly smitten with this new little person” … “never knew it was possible to love someone this much” … That’s how I expected it to be. In fact, I never imagined there COULD be any other reaction. But that’s not how I felt when Elijah was born.

The day I gave birth to my son was not the best, most wonderful day of my life. It was the most traumatic. When Elijah was born, I felt more shell-shocked than anything else—not “love at first sight” but “what just happened to me?” I did not feel that tremendous, instantaneous attachment people talk about. And over the days and weeks that followed, I felt crushed by the guilt of not feeling like a mother “should” feel about her child.

The early weeks of motherhood were painful in every way: Physically, because I developed an infection, and because breastfeeding initially felt like some sort of torture device involving pliers and sandpaper. Emotionally, because I was miserable. Were my mothering hormones broken? I wasn’t loving motherhood like I expected to; I didn’t feel bonded to my baby. And socially, because my misery was compounded by a smothering weight of guilt. It was painful not just because I was miserable, but because I felt so very alone.

Eventually I spoke with a handful of women (you know who you are, and I will be forever grateful to you) who reassured me that not everyone has that “love at first sight” experience, and that it was OKAY—common, even—to feel as I did. And over the last year and a half, I’ve discovered that a stunning number of mothers—many more than I expected—have struggled just like me. Unfortunately, most of us don’t talk about it, because even as we feel relieved and validated to find each other, we still have a hard time letting go of the guilt and the shame.

Well-meaning people, including mamas who truly are thriving, are quick to say things to a new mom like, “Isn’t motherhood the greatest?” “Don’t you just love it?” But those kinds of questions don’t leave much room for the honest answer I desperately wanted to give: “Um…no.” If nothing else, I’ve learned to ask open-ended questions to new moms, not “questions” that expect shiny, happy, euphoric-new-mother answers.

I’ve put off writing this for over a year now. No other reason than fear, really. I am afraid to write it because I know I will be judged. There are women who have had that love-at-first-sight experience, who thoroughly enjoy motherhood, who will be appalled at my lack of warm-fuzzies. There are women who have never had children—who haven’t reached that season of life yet, or who struggle with infertility and have suffered through miscarriages—who will resent me for not cherishing my own blessing enough.

But today I am taking a deep breath and saying, so be it. Because there are also women who are scared, women who feel so alone, women who are looking at their babies and saying, “What have I done? How will I survive this?” There are women who are suffering in lonely silence, googling “not in love with my newborn” or “I hate motherhood”—and hating themselves as they type those words. And so I write for them. I write for me.

Part 2: Breaking the Silence
Part 3: A Mother in Process, Clinging to Hope
Part 4: Letter to a Mother


Anonymous said...

I can relate to you. Actually, it's looking back on it that I see more clearly that I did not love that baby time with my boys. I struggled the first month or so a lot. I wrote about it when the boys were a month old here.

I knew I was struggling at the time, but I don't think I realized how much I did except by looking back on it in hindsight. It was not that I was emotional about it. Quite the opposite, very unemotional. I think a lot of it was just sheer perseverance. But I also know a lot of grace was present too. I know I was not exhausted and being so surprised by that. Only one time I can remember having something like an emotional melt down and crying telling Josh I'd wished I'd never had them. Seriously. And feeling so guilty for wishing they'd never been born. It's hard to write that in black and white.

But I LOVE my boys in a way I can't even fathom now. Even with all craziness and discipline and them getting in to everything these days. It's amazing. I was snuggling with Owen the other day when he woke up early from a nap and just looking at him in wonder thinking how much I love him so much more than when he was a little baby.

Kelly said...


I love you!!!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your post! I'm glad you wrote this- don't be afraid of what people think of you. You're a GREAT mom!

I don't have a baby, but my lack of desire for having a child has also caused its share of judgement by "shiny, happy" moms!

Looking forward to more! I know you've helped a lot of moms.

Unknown said...

It's is interesting to learn new things about friends and family. Thank you for sharing Amy. I know how hard it is to share the painful stuff.

I remember looking at my girls when they were born and worrying about how I was going to be able to do anything as a father without breaking them. It took a number of tries before I felt comfortable holding, playing, changing, or doing almost anything with those girls.

Parenting is not easy work, but its one of the most rewarding things a person can do. I love you Amy and know that Eli is in good hands no matter what.

Sarah said...

As a new mother, I appreciate your words and vulnerability.

Zoanna said...

I'm glad you wrote this. I think other moms need to hear they're not alone, and not freaks because they aren't googoo gaga over their baby. Love isn't always romance, in marriage or motherhood. Why can't people accept that? Maybe if we realized how ostracizing the "isn't motherhood WONderful" comments can sound to the postpartumly depressed woman (or an even keeled woman whose hormones are causing a less-than-euphoric norm) we wouldn't do it. I like your open-ended question approach much better. Gives a woman an "out" and, if you sense she knows you understand, you have quite a ministry as a mentor in the making. (Sorry for the alliteration. Truly annoying sometimes, ain't it?)

Kristin said...

Amy...Thanks for being brave enough to write this. I am so thankful that God crossed our paths a year and a half ago when I so badly needed to know I was not the only mom who wasn't instantly in love with motherhood.

Michelle S. said...

Hi Amy! My name is Michelle, a good friend of Sondra's who happened upon your blog by clicking on a link from sondra's. My husband and I are in no hurry to have children AT ALL, and while most people respect our decision, there is always a few who just can't understand why we would be hesitant and want to enjoy a good 3-5 years of "just us" time before starting a family.
One of my best friends shared some similar feelings with me after she gave birth to her first child. She talked about how things just were NOT going well the first few months with her daughter, and how she questioned her decision to have a baby, her inadequacy for motherhood, etc. It really made me love her all the more for being so transparent and admitting that hey sometimes it's not all happy times. So thanks, Amy for being willing to put yourself out there and be transparent. It's comforting to know that if this does happen to me when we do start a family, that it's normal and ok to have feelings like this.

Emily said...
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Emily said...

Great post Amy. It's encouraging...even now with older kids where every experience is STILL not always wonderful. Struggles and guilt continue but so does the joy and the many blessings . I'm thankful to God for that.

dottie said...

Thanks so much for being so honest and sharing this!

Unknown said...

I'm not a mother yet, but I have feared this same thing. If it happens to me, I'll know I'm not the only one. Thank you for sharing.

Bethany said...

Love you. Totally not alone. I know so many people that struggle with this. Just to encourage you though the next might be the same but it also might be different. Every pregnancy and baby experience is a different deal. I really had the blues with two of my kids. Seriously sad and depressed. Thank you for being so honest and sharing your life. You will help so many.