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I Grieved a Healthy Baby

Photograph by Getty Images

After months of counting her kicks and monitoring her heart rate, I was overwhelmed with joy when my first baby burst into the world with soaring APGAR scores and a voracious appetite. Even through my new-mother exhaustion and postpartum depression, I held on to my gratitude for my great fortune — it was a rope I gripped with all my might as I climbed the mountain of motherhood.

Half way into my first year of motherhood, I realized I had a secret. I hadn’t told my husband, my therapist, my mother. No one. I couldn’t bear to let anyone know that I was grieving inside. I didn’t believe I was entitled to grief — who grieves a healthy baby? But the truth is that I was struggling to reconcile my then-crawling, fiercely independent actual baby with the baby of my dreams. And the reconciliation process involved a lot of uncomfortable feelings.

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In my imagination, my baby-to-be was going to cuddle with me at every opportunity. She’d crawl to me and fling her arms around my neck whenever possible. The baby I was actually mothering didn’t care much for cuddling — she wanted to explore, face outward and stare the world in the eye. The very first time I put her in the Bjorn (at 3 weeks old), she howled as if I’d submerged her in scalding water until I turned her outwards. Mine was not a baby who wanted to gaze into her mama’s adoring face. She had no time for that.

It wasn’t that my feelings were hurt. Not exactly. It was more that I had to give up my fantasy baby — the epic cuddler who would forsake the whole world for my loving arms — and embrace the baby I got. And because I was too ashamed to tell anyone the nature of my struggle, no one else could reassure me or tell me I wasn’t alone.

In that short conversation, I leaped forward in my acceptance of my daughter and myself.

I traveled my lonely road for months, alternatively berating myself for not simply appreciating the blessing I’d been given and pretending I wasn’t feeling what I was feeling.

Then I found myself plopped down in a new mother’s meeting, hardly paying attention when the leader asked if anyone was having any struggles. The first comment was about breast-feeding, and most of the heads bobbed in sympathy. Then, the mother of a 1-year-old spoke up. “I thought all babies were snuggly, but mine’s not. He’ll only crawl in my lap to snuggle if he’s sick or over-tired. I’m sad he doesn’t want to sit and snuggle with me.”

My mouth flew open in disbelief. Really? Someone else was feeling the same strange sadness that I was? I could hardly believe it. I noted that several other mothers who nodded in sympathy — just like the sympathy offered to the mother struggling with breastfeeding.

It never occurred to me to tell the group that I was struggling with accepting my baby for who she was and admit I was mourning my fantasy about who I thought she’d be.

After the meeting, I approached the mother who spoke up and told her I had a similar struggle. In that short conversation, I leaped forward in my acceptance of my daughter and myself. There was magic in that moment of connection. My joining with the other mother sapped the shame out of my relationship with my daughter.

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Now, I offer this story in hopes that it may help another mother who’s feeling ashamed or like there’s something “wrong” with her because she’s struggling to reconcile her fantasy baby with her actual baby. To you, I promise you’re not alone.

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