“Sometimes I think my baby hates me” – when bonding doesn’t just ‘happen’

Planned or unplanned, pregnancy can be a time of glowing hope for the future, or a miserable experience of feeling so unwell and out of sorts in your body that you can’t understand what the fuss was about. Often it is somewhere in between. I have written elsewhere about the impacts of a difficult labour, but once that is done then you can start enjoying it right? That early bonding period, that time of pure joy and love, that instant feeling, the wonder etc. Well, not everyone gets that, and certainly not everyone gets it from day one.

Mixed feelings about your child can start in pregnancy, and can be tough to voice. The amount of pressure on new parents to get it right, to make the most of the precious moments, has left some mothers I’ve worked with to feel guilty and anxious about almost everything.

I have known mothers who have felt unwanted and unloved by their baby, reading into every time their child turned their head away to look at something. The pain of noticing that your child seems to avoid eye contact with you, or is more easily soothed by their Dad, or their Grandmother, is too much to bear.

We underestimate the impact of sleep deprivation on our mood, irritability, and capacity to think straight. If you have a ‘colicky’ baby, a baby with reflux, a baby who cries a lot, those long nights can be torturous. How could they not affect your relationship with your child?

Some women find it helpful to hear that what they are experiencing has a name – Post-Natal Depression. I think that we all experience low mood at different times in our lives, and to describe all of these as ‘depression’ actually makes it seem scarier and rarer than it really is. I like to think of most emotional problems as being ‘on a spectrum’ – that we all fall somewhere on the spectrum, and we move up and down it at different times. It can lead to severe illness in some cases, but there are far more women (and men) experiencing ‘baby blues’. Hardly surprising as we always have an emotional response when we have to adapt to a big life change.

The monotony of the daily routine is something rarely talked about in parenting social circles. You can only imagine the looks you might get if you were to admit how boring it is sometimes. Many parents miss feeling like they are an interesting person in their own right, who can have adult conversations about things. Everyone asks about the baby, pays attention to the baby, and it’s hard to be brave enough to say ‘I have needs too, I’m still a person as well as a mother’. We often carry so many ‘shoulds’ in our minds to beat ourselves with ‘I should be enjoying this’, ‘I should be a natural earth mother’, ‘I should be like my best friend who seems the perfect Mum’. Sometimes other mothers can be helpful, but often groups designed to be supportive can get into idealising and competition, they can struggle to acknowledge the darker side of motherhood.

Having a tiny person depend on you is such a weight to carry. We can feel disturbed by how the feelings we had in our relationships with our own parents pop up when we are interacting with our baby. I believe it is Psychologically necessary to be able to acknowledge the mixed picture – black and white thinking is dangerous, the reality of life is that ‘the rough comes with the smooth’.

In the therapeutic work I have done with mothers, through feeling supported to make sense of the dark feelings that arise, they begin to start seeing their child as a separate person,  with their own temperament and characteristics. This helps them separate the new baby from the tangle of memories and projections from the past. We can often see our relationships through a lens, early templates make us carry a story for example ‘I’m hard to be around’ or ‘I’m difficult and angry’. This can stop us seeing the exceptions when we are easy, likeable, kind etc.

Brene Brown talks about how important it is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. I think she’s right, we need connection and to tell our story to get away from the power of shame. If you have people in your life you can open up to in this way and feel safe and supported I urge you to do that. If you don’t, or you feel they don’t understand enough to help, you can get professional help. Early relationship problems with your baby can lead to bigger difficulties later on, prevention is always better than cure.