Every mum falls madly in love with her baby from day one, right? For some mums, it is an intense love affair from the moment of birth. But they are the lucky ones. It doesn’t always happen overnight. For some mums, it may seem elusive and take longer. Just like your relationship with your partner, it needs to be worked out. But that doesn’t mean to say it won’t be just as rewarding in the end.
Some mothers have a secret, one they may not share with anyone, not even their partner. Instead of feeling love for their child, they may experience indifference, resentment or even something approaching dislike. Alongside this, they may feel guilty and conscious they’re not experiencing the same emotions as other mothers. This makes them feel isolated and reluctant to reach out for help with what they see as a failure in themselves.
To appreciate the feelings of mums going through this, it helps to understand Attachment Theory. This concerns the way we develop emotional bonds with one another, and how the power of these bonds affect us all through our lives. It draws on our knowledge of the way the brain develops and our understanding of mental well-being. Attachment theory explains that when a baby or small child has the love, attention and nurturing he needs, he feels secure. He becomes able to cope with the hard knocks of life, and he is less likely to become anxious or stressed. If his needs are not met, the effects can be lifelong – and may have a profound impact on the next generation, too.
Therapy can break the legacy of poor relationships that may have begun several generations ago, and give the current generation a chance to start anew.
MAKING A CHANGE
It’s enormously beneficial if mums can put aside feelings of guilt and alienation, and seek help early on. Baby and toddlerhood is a time when the brain is uniquely sensitive. The technical term is that the brain is ‘plastic’ at this time – capable of being moulded and shaped. Your child is soaking up experiences, and the development of the limbic system – the part of the brain which governs emotions – is entirely dependent on the quality of early relationships.
So babies and toddlers may be affected when their early relationships don’t meet their need for responsive, loving nurture, even if their physical day-to-day care is fine. But the good news is therapy, and support can change things. Difficulties with bonding often originate in the parent’s own past, so therapy frequently focuses on emotions and childhood experiences. This can be painful and intense, but even early on it can bring relief and a sense of hope. Therapy can break the legacy of poor relationships that may have begun several generations ago, and give the current generation a chance to start anew.
Events linked to pregnancy and birth may also have an impact on how you relate to your child. Sonya has six-year-old twins, born after a traumatic labour which left her with a serious bowel injury and in great pain. ‘My relationship with the twins was detached for a long time,’ she says. ‘I feared I would hurt them, I shouted at them and I considered discussing adoption with my partner.’
Sonya was helped by her health visitor. ‘One day, I was watching her play and interact with the twins. As they giggled, I felt a tiny bit of light, and that feeling finally transformed into a very deep love which continues to deepen with every breath my children take. Looking back, that moment was a door into a world I didn't know how to live in.’
Emma had problems after the very difficult birth of her second baby, Noah. ‘I told my GP I didn't feel I loved him. I was physically doing all the things I should be doing to care for him, but inside I felt desperate.’
Alerted by the GP, Emma’s health visitor began seeing her at home, and she also had regular help from an early years worker. ‘My health visitor listened to all the thoughts I'd felt too ashamed to share, and the early years worker helped me do normal things with the children like go for a picnic in the park. It’s soon Noah’s fourth birthday, and I feel we’ve started to make up for lost time. We’re making lots of happy memories now.’
Some parents are reluctant to seep help from health visitors, fearing they will be judgmental, or even report them to Social Services!
Mental health for families is under-resourced, good services are not available everywhere and they can be hard for parents to source. Health visitors can be a good first point of contact for parents. Some parents are reluctant to seep help from health visitors, fearing they will be judgmental, or even report them to Social Services! This would only be a very last resort when a child was deemed to be at risk of harm. Health visitors are there to help. The important first step is to reach out to someone you trust, who can help you to source the support you need.
NOW SHE IS MY BEAUTIFUL AND WONDERFUL GIRL
Nicola, who lives in Wales, is in her early forties and has a five-year-old daughter Chloe.
‘I never wanted children, and because of a long-standing gynaecological condition I never thought I would. I got pregnant unexpectedly on my honeymoon – and I was devastated. I decided I would go ahead with the pregnancy, because it felt like a chance I had to grab.
When Chloe was born, it was like a bomb going off in my head. I couldn’t actually believe she was mine. It didn’t feel real.That feeling lasted for over two years. I resented her and the impact she had on my life.
My mental health got worse over these two years, and I was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I was suicidal and at my lowest, I hated so many things about my daughter – it sounds appalling, and it hurts me to think of what I felt, but this is the truth.
I was referred to a psychiatric unit for counselling and therapy and it was my counsellor who helped me see she really was my child, not another mother’s. Gradually, I started to see the joy in her and the benefits of connecting with her. With support, I grew to love my daughter and now I love and adore her more every single day. She is my beautiful and wonderful girl. To not have her in my life would now be unimaginable, but I’ve gone down a long road to get to this point.’
Jo, from London, is in her early thirties and has a two-year-old son Daniel.
‘When Daniel was born, I was worried he would grow up with the same sort of anxieties I had. I was also very afraid of becoming like my own mother. For a long time, I couldn’t look after him on my own. I always had to have my partner Ben or his family with me. I knew things weren’t right. I’d become obsessive about cleaning. I’d think to myself: ‘I’m pushing my son away in favour of cleaning out the oven’.
I know now I was just terrified of loving Daniel. Deep down, I felt scared that if I loved him, he might not love me back.
My doctor referred us to the infant mental health services, and the therapist and I talked about the pain of my childhood. I was mentally abused, isolated and belittled by my mother. Now, I have no contact with her, but she’s still powerful in my head. I can still hear her voice, telling me I’m nothing.
The therapist has given me so many insights, and helped me relate to Daniel – she explained things from his point of view, and supported me in understanding why I felt the way I do. Over the weeks and months, things have turned around. I’ve become able to love Daniel the way I should, the way he deserves to be loved. Along with Ben, he’s the dearest and best thing in my life. I feel I missed his babyhood – then I tell myself it’s ok, we have the rest to look forward to.’