Why You Should Not Feel Guilty If You Don’t Love Your Child at Birth

I did not love my son when he was born. There were no internal fireworks or choruses of angels to signify that this child, this tiny infant, would be the subject of my unadulterated love. He felt like nothing more than a stranger.

This sensation, this absence of undying love for the child that had just been pulled from my belly, created an immediate sense of guilt. I admonished myself for lacking what I thought would be an innate reaction. What is wrong with me? What kind of mother does not love her child?

When I was pregnant, I imagined the moment I would hold my son for the first time. I thought this would be a magical, Disney-esque event (cue symphonic music and heart-melting tears). And while there were tears, I think they were more out of shock than out of love.

In those first few hours post-birth, I tried to forcibly alter my new found sense of ambivalence. I spoke to my son, hugged and kissed him. I sang to him. I thought of all the fun baby activities and toys I had ready-to-go at home. Still….nothing.

And this worried me. It terrified me.

I began to wonder if I was muted to the maternal instincts I had read about during my late-night Google-binge reading sessions. (Thank you to The New York Times’ article “Maternal Instinct is Wired Into the Brain” for that research-backed point. Yes the article discusses infants around 16 months, but at that time, I thought this instinct started at birth.)

In attempts to shake off this newly-formed anxiety regarding my inability to love my child, I told myself that this was probably (hopefully?) normal. So, I reached for my phone and began to search through forums and articles in hopes of normalizing my lack of emotion.

It didn’t take long to find others who shared my feelings (thank you Channelmum.com!). Statistically, there are many of us who experience this ambiguity. The International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Health and Well-being published a journal which discusses the percentage of women who lack that initial affection: “One study revealed that as many as 40% of first-time and 25% of second-time mothers recalled feeling indifference when holding their baby for the first time (Robson & Kumar, 1980). Most mothers find that feelings of affection come within a week from birth. However, some mothers are still struggling with this after many months (Righetti-Veltema, Conne-Perréard, Bousquet, & Manzano, 2002).”

While it helps to know that those of us who experience this lack of affection are not alone, that isn’t always enough to soothe our frustrations. Not knowing when this love will emerge can be difficult and depressing. Personally, I never thought I would have to learn how to love my child.

So, I waited.

As the days progressed, I began to evaluate my emotions, almost obsessively, determining where I stood on the “love scale” with my child. Weeks later, that ambivalence still hovered like a dense fog.

Physically, I showered my son with affection (hugs and kisses galore!), but I didn’t truly feel the love I was providing. It was as if my affection was a facade for a love that remained dormant, veiled under the overwhelming changes in my life and anxieties of newfound motherhood. As much as I wanted to have that mother-son bond he was still… too new.

As mothers, it seems odd to think that someone we carry in our stomachs for months — experiencing first kicks, first rolls, and watching through multiple ultrasounds (I was lucky enough to see Theo through the eerily amazing 4-D one) — can be, by definition, a stranger.

But that doesn’t last forever.

Today, my son is nearing his fifth month, and any semblance of numbed affections towards him are gone. (There are definitely days when those affections wane — mostly when he is screaming and I haven’t slept — but I know the love is still there.)

Did I wake up one day with a sudden change in admiration? No. It happened slowly. It grew during feedings, late-night hugs, morning smiles, strolls in the park, babbling conversations and shared naps.

But it did happen. It just takes time.

If you are having a similar experience, know you are not alone. Not loving your child at birth does not make you a bad parent. It is normal. For some of us, it takes time (months even) for the transition to occur.

Even though it may seem to go against your expectations, give yourself a break. Becoming a parent is hard. It changes you and throws your whole world upside down. Loving someone, even though he or she is your own flesh and blood, is not always immediate. Be patient. Trust yourself. And take it one day at a time.

Looking for Support?

If you would like support, I encourage you to call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855- 4A PARENT (10 am to 7 pm, Monday through Friday).