Nope. There are plenty of women who stiffen at the sight of kids but are still great mamas. You’re allowed both. And if it’s any comfort, I naively thought the fact that I love kids would make motherhood a breeze. I was mistaken.
For those who find comfort in a controlled environment where social norms are followed, kids can be jarring enigmas. If you’re one of these people, you might feel like you’re missing a part of the brain that allows you to relate to the littles, which could understandably make you uncomfortable interacting with them. And there is nothing wrong with feeling this way. We all have different things that make us tick and trigger discomfort. If kids are one of your discomfort triggers, it doesn’t mean you’re a monster, it means you’re a human who finds it hard to relate to people who seem to be in their own world half the time, and who poop their pants.
Something that will have your back (and heart) as you get to know both your child and who you are as a mother is oxytocin, the “love hormone” or “social glue” that helps humans attach to their babies, even if that attachment takes a while. When you engage in common acts of mothering like feeding, holding, cooing, and smelling that yummy baby head, the pituitary gland releases oxytocin, which reinforces nurturing. So the more you nurture, the better you feel. And as you’re reveling in this feel-good hormone, your baby will be doing the same. This love juice doesn’t make you start loving all the babies, but it’ll make you really like your own (at least most of the time).
If you notice a lack of pleasure when interacting with baby, your body might not be producing adequate levels of oxytocin. As this could be a sign of postpartum depression — which is not your fault — check in with your care provider to ensure you receive quality support.
In addition to oxytocin, there’s also the little thing where motherhood cracks you open. It shakes up all your preconceived notions and turns you into a new version of your pre-pregnancy self. This new version might still find other kids irritating, but it will have a new skill set that helps you care for and relate to your little human. You’ll also develop deeper empathy for the kid-crew as you gain insight into why they do what they do. For example, after you have a baby and hear another baby crying, you might find that you’re no longer irked by the sound but instead recognize it as a request for a clean diaper or some boob. Realizing how much parenthood changes you can be equal parts overwhelming and fascinating.
The most drastic motherhood change I’ve seen took place in my friend, whom I’ll call Clarissa. When a kid would run up to her, babbling about kid stuff, Clarissa used to recoil. She would give them a tight smile and excuse herself. The few times I saw her hold a baby, they would start crying — one time Clarissa started crying! So I was shocked when she became pregnant. Yes, kids freaked her out, but she said that because she and her partner came from small families they wanted people to hang out with as they grew old. Fair enough. But because her desire to have a baby was inspired by thoughts of what life would be like when the child was an adult, she had serious doubts and anxieties about her ability to care for a baby. She was so sure early motherhood would be awful that she asked her doctor to preemptively prescribe antidepressants. But she never needed them. When the baby was born, a switch flipped and her maternal skills turned on. She still finds other kids intolerable but adores her own. Her partner is in charge of “mommy and me” gatherings and kid parties, and Clarissa takes the reigns at home. It works for them.
That maternal skills and all-consuming-love switch might not immediately flip for you, and that’s okay. Even women who adore kids sometimes find it difficult to tap into mom mode. Be gentle with yourself, ask for support (professional support if you’re really feeling blue), keep nurturing that baby even when it feels uncomfortable, and take care of your own needs, as they’re still essential.
What to do
Remember that each mother and baby have their own way of relating. While these relationships may look similar on the outside, every mother and baby duo has a customized thing going. And you will find your thing as you navigate parenthood. You and your baby, and the rest of your tribe, will figure out the care systems and types of bonding that work best for you. It might not fall into place immediately, but continuing to follow your intuition regarding what feels right for you and your family will help you eventually find an individualized system that works. And don’t worry if your system looks totally different from what other families are doing. All that matters is that you figure out a way of life that gives everyone involved the opportunities to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled.
Tip: Because it can feel really strange (and a little boring) to talk to a human who can’t speak, begin practicing by talking to your baby while they’re in the womb. As you practice this skill, know that you don’t have to speak in simple sentences, or in a baby voice. Feel free to read aloud from the newspaper, sing along to your favorite opera, or talk to your belly about your thoughts on climate change. The point is to expose baby to your voice and language, so you might as well talk about things that interest you. This exercise will peel away one of the many layers of newness you’ll experience during early motherhood, helping you feel a little more prepared for the unknown.