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I Didn't Love My Baby Right Away and That's OK

This photo is pretty much a lie.

I yelled at my newborn. I only remember one specific time that it happened, although it’s quite possible I did it more than once. I had taken my tiny son out for a walk along the lakefront in an effort to pass the time and get myself in shape and try to feel normal again not long after he was born. Strolling was always one of the times where he seemed most content, but despite the calming rumble of the stroller, not long into our walk he began to fuss. A fuss turned into a cry and a cry turned into a red-faced squall. I aborted the walk and returned home, the baby’s cry getting louder and louder with each step. “Shh,” I shushed over and over in vain, the air whistling through my teeth until it hurt. I shushed and shushed until it was more of a command. “SHHHH.” I hissed but I might as well have been cursing at him.

He didn’t let up and when we got home, his scream echoed through our entryway. “ALL RIGHT,” I yelled. “ALL RIGHT. WHAT DO YOU WANT?!”

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In retrospect, it was all very obvious. He wanted a bottle, one that I was too much of a newbie to pack for just a short walk. I felt miserable. I eventually fed him and all was well but I felt like the worst mother in the world. I had felt no ounce of sympathy for my son’s needs, no maternal instinct, only irritation and anger and maybe a little bit of fear. It was like I was pushing around a smoke detector that I didn’t know how to turn off.

I know that I am capable of being totally crazy-bonkers-in-love with my child even if it doesn’t happen right away.

I used to joke that I would be a really good mom to my son if he had somehow figured out a way to not be my first child. The fact was, unsurprisingly, I had no idea what I was doing—I had no experience with a newborn, no relatives with infants nearby, nobody to tell me how much of a tiny stranger your tiny stranger really is. I certainly cared for my son and loved him in a biologically primal way, but he was a complete alien to me. I have YouTube videos online of my tiny gurgling, clucking baby and me narrating exhaustedly, “Paul’s three weeks old today. Whee.” With just that inflection. According to the typical message one gets about new parenthood, I was supposed to be over the moon, full of baby love, completely smitten with this new addition to our family, but I know now, I was hanging by a thread myself, and needed time to get to properly know him in order to properly love him.

Now, of course, well, I believe my kid is so great that I secretly think everybody else must feel the same way I do, and I only tell myself they might like their own kids more just out of modesty. He’s the cutest and the smartest, the sweetest and the funniest. And I love him not just because he’s my son but because I just really like him a whole lot.

But in those first few weeks, I couldn’t tell you what it felt like to feel that way. My son might as well have been a very poorly behaved potato that I had paid a lot of money for. Basically, I needed some feedback from my kid in order to really love him. Eye contact. A self-supported head. I remember someone telling me a joke, once—“When does a baby first smile? Just in time!”—shortly after my son really started smiling and I appreciated it because I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on without that tiny reward.

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I’m glad I know all this now for my second child. I know now how hard it can be to take care of a newborn, how much trauma your body goes through after childbirth, how much time it really takes to feel “normal” again after the baby is born. I’m glad I know that being a good mom doesn’t mean feeling like you “know” your baby right off the bat. I know that I am capable of being totally crazy-bonkers-in-love with my child, even if it doesn’t happen right away. Knowing all this now takes the pressure off. It's one less thing that I have to worry about as my new son and I start our life together; that—on top of taking care of a newborn and a toddler and myself—at least I won’t be thinking, All this, and I have to be a natural, too? Just like with any new relationship, it takes time to fall in love.

Image via Claire Zulkey

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