We're all familiar with the cheesy childbirth scenes in films, or on TV: a shrieking mother gives birth to a baby (miraculously born without an umbilical cord, and often on the side of a road or in the back of a car), holds it in her arms, and cries with delight and love as the dad looks over her shoulder and does the same.
Idyllic, isn't it? However, unfortunately, this is not always what happens in the harsh world of reality. Some mothers and fathers find it difficult to bond with their newborn child, and this can last for hours, days, weeks – even months.
"My maternal instincts were strong, I cared for him and I did love him, but I couldn't relate to him at all." says a mum who told me her story but preferred to remain anonymous. "He was five hours old before I would hold him."
There are a number of factors that can contribute to delayed bonding with your newborn. The list is almost endless, and includes the mother's physical and emotional health, the support provided to the mother, and the relationship between the new parents. Severe depression as a result of an abusive relationship was the reason for a lack of bonding for one mother who contacted me; another struggled to bond with her premature newborn because he was in an incubator for five weeks. The fact that she had to leave the hospital at 10pm every day, coupled with other mothers telling her about their immediate bond with their child, resulted in her feeling isolated. "I loved Reiss," she recalls, "but not in the all encompassing way I thought it would be."
It is important to know the difference between love and a bond. Every parent who contacted me stated that they did love their child, but there was something missing: a spark, a rush of joy that formed the bond that friends and family spoke of. There is no English word for it, so it is difficult to describe, but every parent who has a bond with their child will know how it feels. The Koreans call it 'Jeong': an affection so powerful that you would give your life for someone else.
It is telling that almost every parent who approached me to talk about their experiences with delayed bonding were reluctant for me to use their name. The world, through the media, tells us that we should have an instant bond, that the surge of love and joy should be instantaneous – even our peers gush about how they felt that inseparable bond straight away; so much so, that any parent who has ever struggled to bond with their newborn feels that they can't talk about it, that it is a taboo subject, that they are, in the words of Reiss' mum, "abnormal".
This is obviously a misperception, and any parent who has not bonded with their baby is encouraged to talk to others about it: friends, family...anyone with a sympathetic ear who is willing to listen to your struggles. Some parents find it especially useful to talk to those who have been in the same situation – if nothing else, to reinforce the fact that there is nothing abnormal about not bonding with your child at first.
The process of bonding with your baby is a gradual one. Parents are encouraged to have as much skin-on-skin contact with their newborn as possible, to talk to them and play with them whenever a spare minute arises. Fathers who are struggling to find their Jeong should feed their children regularly – bottle feeding, of course – and perhaps learn baby massage in order to stimulate that paternal instinct.
But although the process may take time, the actual bond itself can happen as if a switch has been flicked. The mum who held her newborn five hours after he was born struggled to bond with him for a year; but when she did, it was in the blink of an eye. "I saw him playing with his big brother," she remembers fondly, "and I remember just staring at him and crying because I was so happy to see him laugh and play."
Reiss' mum found that once her son was home from hospital the bond soon formed. "Things soon changed," she says, "and within a couple of days I had 'that' feeling."
As I read the story of another parent, there's a knock at the door. It's my mum, who has come for dinner. Intrigued, I ask her what it felt like when she first bonded with me.
"I'll let you know when it happens, dear." she says, with a wink.
Read one mum's story of when she bonded with her baby here.
Did you bond immediately with your baby or did it take time?
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