Really, it was postpartum depression that I expected.
I waited for my first baby to be born, wondering if I had what it takes to love a baby, worrying that I'd lose myself in motherhood. I was going to be depressed
-- I knew it!
What I actually felt in the days and weeks after my son's birth was a surprise that changed the course of my life. It sent me on a quest to know more about other people's experiences, and I learned that the postpartum period is far richer, more interesting and varied than we've realized. It's more than the "blues," and it's more than "postpartum," for the bonding time can bring amazing changes to fathers and adoptive parents as well.
I want to describe one of these changes, one that many of us have known and yet few of us have talked about. As I look back now from beyond my childbearing years, I see it as something so precious and powerful that it can hold the world together. Though our experiences in newborn time are as unique and personal as our fingerprints, over and over again one word comes up. The same image glows at the center of many parents' postpartum memories:
"I felt connected..."
BONDING WITH BABY
We may have heard of bonding; we may have assumed that we would feel something special for our own baby - and yet the power of the actual experience takes many of us by surprise. "The first unusual thing I noticed," says one mother, "was a feeling of 'connectedness' with my baby. I hadn't expected this." "To be truthful," says another, "I never knew such contact between human beings was possible!"
Sarah was unconscious at the time of delivery, nearly dying of a hemorrhage. She didn't meet her newborn daughter until twelve hours after the birth. "My husband was in the room with me," she recalls. "He says he will never forget the look on both of our faces when my baby and I saw each other for the first time. He says we were locked in a gaze that was so strong, so committed. I remember feeling that I was seeing someone I knew already in the most intimate and personal way. It was like a reunion, and from that moment on I was 'in love' with her in the deepest sense."
Fathers may be more hesitant to put their emotions into words, but they too can be swept up in the intensity of bonding. Richard was amazed to feel a close communion with his baby right from the moment of birth: "As soon as I caught him, it was as if we were one person. I thought that I was feeling what he was feeling. We were communicating on a telepathic and empathetic plane."
Adoptive parents may be even more surprised by such reactions. Before adopting her baby son, Lisa feared she would "lack some sort of cosmic connection" since she hadn't given birth to him. But instead, she says, "I couldn't believe how aware and how connected to him I felt." Another adoptive mother marvels, "The connection feels so deep... I am knit to my child."
DISCONNECTEDNESS AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Sometimes I wonder if it is all right to talk about these experiences. When I first felt the power of bonding with my newborn, I was awestruck and mystified. Love - I thought I knew it! Romantic love, sexual love, friendship, even "divine" love... I'd known or heard or read about them all. But no one ever prepared me for the shock of falling in love with my baby! I honestly wondered if this was a taboo that everyone else understood: "We just won't talk about our passion for our babies." Maybe silence really was golden?
When I wrote about the experience, my mother-in-law confessed that she was a little sad, seeing what she'd missed in her own postpartum days, when the babies were routinely filed away in the "newborn nursery." With a pang, I saw that talking about happy experiences can make others feel sad, inadequate, cheated and upset. Sure, the feeling of connection can be blissful - but it's the opposite painful sense of dis-connection that surprises many of us in newborn time. Our baby may seem like a total stranger. Love and bonding may develop slowly or be eclipsed by other emotions. Maybe one should keep quiet about the wondrous possibilities, out of consideration for the parents who face a rocky postpartum period?
And yet even the most "perfect" births and bonding times are sure to include some disappointments and things we'd like to change. Recalling my own birthing and postpartum days, I realize that most of the problems I met were caused by lack of communication: the questions I didn't know to ask, the details they thought I didn't need to know. (Like, "If there's even a trace of meconium in the waters, you won't get to use the birthing room after all!") Sometimes, when we try to spare people's feelings, what we're really doing is withholding the information they need for their own decision-making.
When we know the possibilities, we can make choices that favor the happiness of babies and parents - choices that preserve all the connections between them.
"Connectedness" is a treasure worth protecting in every way possible. Its blessings go far beyond baby and parents, for this bond, that begins in the loving response to our newborn, has a way of expanding outward in widening circles of connection.
It touches the relationship of the parents. A couple's empathy and love for one another may deepen as this sense of connectedness enfolds them. During that first postpartum week, the bond between my husband and myself felt like a nourishing cord of light and warmth. One mother describes it this way: "I knew a great closeness and openness with my husband. I felt his grief at the loss of his job as in the saying, 'When one cries, the other will taste salt.'"
In newborn time, many women experience a deep bonding with mothers everywhere. Says Sarah, "I remember feeling as if I was connected to all the other mothers of the world. It was something like this: all of us were trees and our roots went down into the earth and were connected together. But that is an inadequate description. It was much more spiritual than earthy. The best I can do is to say that, in the most profound way, I felt connected to all the mothers of the world from the beginning of time."
And the sense of connection goes on expanding outward. In Ina May Gaskin's classic Spiritual Midwifery, Mark describes his experience: "Holding Louisa for the first time was the most awesome part for me. Her eyes opened right away and it looked like the Universe being unfolded before my eyes. Her face would go through many changes so that she looked like different people that I knew, and I felt telepathic with those folks through her... I saw that place in Louisa that was in all those people and could feel connected and One with the entire Universe through her."
This loving bond can expand until it seems as though it embraces the world. As one mother exclaimed, a week after her first child's birth, "We are so in love with our baby and each other... and our cat... and everything!" More sedately, her husband explained, "Our baby has brought a feeling of being more connected with the entire community - with all life." I remember marveling that the baby at my breast seemed as mysterious and beautiful and vast as the planet. I felt as though I held the whole world in my arms.
These experiences can permanently change us, making us more compassionate and empathetic human beings. Since becoming a mother, Kate says, "I feel as if every baby were my baby, and I feel most sharply that - what? - we're all one? I am you and you are me? I have a new, deeper love for all people. All baby plants and animals are my baby."
Another first-time mother explains how profoundly she feels transformed by this perception of connectedness. "I stopped belonging just to this generation and became part of the entire human race. Simple daily events that I never questioned before loomed large in my mind. I stopped reading the local paper and its profusion of murders, rapes and fires. No longer could I read or listen to stories of children being abused or abandoned. These would bring on my tears and an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
"Not only did human suffering come out of the background but also I felt strongly about all life on earth. My focus became both smaller and more expanded. I cared deeply about our family - baby, husband, and me -- and spent my energies at home focusing on us. But at the same time I thought more about the world and our place in it. The world opened up and everything took on a new luster."
If we have been closed and disconnected, the bonding time offers us a chance to change. In a way, we come full circle as we surrender to the trusting gaze of our baby. We feel our own "newborn self" come awake within us. Love melts all our boundaries for a while, and we can open and connect to life once again with the undefended heart of a newborn child.