On bonding…and the lack thereof


For the first 5 weeks or so after his birth, I wasn’t sure if I liked my baby, and I was pretty sure he didn’t like me.

I didn’t lie down for hours beside him, playing with his toes and stroking his cheeks. In fact, I pretty much avoided him as much as I could. Postpartum depression was largely responsible for this. I could hardly be near him without being a taut mess of anxiety and dread. I would feed him, maybe change a diaper, and then I would slump into the sofa or my bed, blankly watching him from across the room, trying to rest but finding it impossible.

But then the blues faded away, and I was still left with an inexplicable feeling of disconnection.

I’d felt closer to Michael when he’d been safely wrapped up in my tummy. I’d translated his kicks and head butts into an imaginary tiny baby with big, placidly blinking eyes and a sweet little giggle. (Obviously, I had no prior experience of a baby.) So when he arrived roaring into this world, a big flailing bundle of raw emotion, nerves and aggression, I didn’t recognize him as mine. He seemed so angry, so intense, so foreign. In Baby Whisperer terms, he was “Spirited” with more than a touch of “Grumpy”. It didn’t help that he didn’t look anything like me at that point. Although I would say with relief, “He has my dimple.” If nothing else, he had my dimple.


Other than his apparently difficult personality, there was a bigger and more practical obstacle to our bonding. Michael initially hated being carried or cuddled by me. Only me. He would calm down and snuggle with everybody (and I mean everybody) except me. If he cried, I would go to him and pick him up, saying “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay”, whereupon he would cry even harder, and attempt to violently pitch himself out of my arms. The moment I handed him to someone else, he would calm down immediately, like magic. At first, I was bewildered but not too bothered by it. There was always a willing family member around on consoling duty. And I figured, as everyone else did too, that it was just a matter of my carrying technique, which I would figure out soon enough.

But when Ralph’s family left weeks later, and I was alone with Michael in the mornings, it got tougher. I still hadn’t figured it out. What do you do with a screaming newborn who hates being cuddled, but desperately needs comforting? I would attempt to calm him by rocking him first, whereupon he would take a long look at me, and then appear to scream in terror, eyes searching the space above my head like he needed something or someone else. Maybe he just disliked my face. Was it my glasses? Was it because we were always wrestling during those sweaty nursing sessions? Was it because he could smell my milk through my shirt and was getting too excited? Maybe he could sense my apathy? I had no answers.

I hated comfort nursing, but it was the most effective calming tool I had. Pacifiers had a 50% success rate, or less. One morning, in desperation, while giving him a tour of the laundry area, bouncing him up and down, I remember saying loudly, “I love you, Michael. Mama loves you.” It was my first declaration of love to my baby, and I probably didn’t mean it. Maybe it was the change of tone in my voice, but he stopped screaming for five seconds and looked straight at me, as if that was what he desperately needed to know. I felt terrible. I couldn’t assure my baby that I loved him. I was the one who fed him at my breast, and it felt like we were estranged.

One day, I came up with a plan. If he was refusing to be carried by me because he was reading my nervousness and anxiety (even though I thought I was covering that up pretty well), then I would have to get rid of those emotions before I picked him up. Truly get rid of them, instead of pretend to him and me that they weren’t there. So on that morning, each time I approached him, I would say aloud, “Come here, my little sack of rice! Come to mama.” Back then, he weighed about the same as a 5kg sack of rice. Calling him a sack of rice made me smile. Riding the wave of that good humour, I would scoop him up as casually as I would a sack of rice. No careful manoeuvering, no worrying that I would hurt his neck or his twig-like limbs. I just went for it. And magically, it worked! Thank God, it worked. I was calm, and he was calm. “My little sack of rice, my little sack of rice” I would smile and mutter, as I learned how to rock him into quietness.


The tide started to turn.

But it was still a difficult journey. During the colicky weeks (up till week 7), I was too much in crisis management mode to feel anything but adrenaline. He was frequently crying, and I was frequently working to console him. It was work. I would be exhausted at the end of every day, and occasionally in tears.

Around week 6, he started to learn how to smile and coo. He would do this for 30 seconds in the early morning, right after his first bottle of milk. I clung to these moments like a drowning woman to a raft. These 30 seconds were often not enough to get me through the whole day, but it was the chink in the wall of the dark room that I was in. Light was starting to spill in, and I started to see who he might become. Rather, who he really was, under all the layers of trauma and that he was working through. I hadn’t realized how difficult it was for him – for any newborn – to get through the fourth trimester and settle into his newfound existence in the real world. I’d misjudged my poor baby. He wasn’t difficult. He wasn’t angry and aggressive. He was frightened and bewildered.

Loving Michael – the way I do now – was always a foregone conclusion. It just took a little longer than expected for me to get here. It was a complex process tangled up in hormones, fumbling inexperience and exhaustion. Embracing him as a new member of my family took weeks – maybe months – of fiery and honest courtship. Of pushing and pulling, crying, playing, cuddling, sleeping, cooing, together. Singing. Lots of singing. What started as activities of necessity and survival became more interesting, and then more joyous. He began to see me, and I began to see him. Our relationship took form and colour.


I’m now a crucial part of his world. And he is a frighteningly precious part of mine.


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