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Mom Talk: When Baby Bonding Isn’t Instant

Written by Katharine Schellman

Photography by Lisa Fuller, Photographed By Maria Del Rio

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Katharine Schellman talks the absence of love at first sight in her journey to becoming a mother. -JKM

It was a casual enough comment, made with the best of intentions. We were both holding babies on our hips, trying to sneak sips of wine, while keeping our glasses away from curious little hands. Parenthood, I’ve found, might be the world’s best ice breaker, instantly connecting two strangers, and providing a bottomless well of conversational topics.

“Didn’t you just fall in love as soon as you saw his face?” she asked, laughing. I laughed along, smooshing my cheek against my son’s as I replied, “Not really, but I got there eventually.” I swear I thought it was a normal response. She clearly didn’t agree. She didn’t get angry, didn’t say anything nasty or judge me out loud, but I could see the confusion, sense the way she drew back from the conversation. Here’s the truth: I didn’t love my baby when he was born. Not the way I expected to, not more than I had loved my niece or nephew when I first met them. I loved him like I loved all babies: because he was tiny and fragile and curled up against my chest like he was trying to melt into my skin. I felt fiercely protective and fiercely terrified. I held him with tenderness and awe. I wanted to care for him and nurture him and reassure him that he was treasured from the moment he was born. But, he was a little stranger, and I’ve never been one to fall in love with strangers.

Sometimes, I think I should feel guilty about that. Sometimes I want to feel guilty about that, because as far as I can tell, guilt and instant love are supposed to be the defining emotions of motherhood. But, I don’t. Here’s another truth: Even if you planned and wanted and dreamed of a baby—all of which I did—in those first few days and weeks and even months, you can still find yourself confused, mourning your old life, thinking that if you woke up one morning and someone told you, “Just kidding, it was all a dream, there’s no baby here” well, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe you’d go back to sleep for a few hours. Maybe you’d have sex with your partner, then go out for coffee alone, and enjoy sitting in silence. Maybe you’d spend all day reading that book that’s been on your bedside table for weeks. Becoming a parent is not always love at first sight.

Here’s the moment that changed: My son had just turned three months old. He had been fussing all day, a wiggling, frustrated ball of neediness that yelled at me every time I put him down. I was going to the bathroom, while holding him on my lap, because that’s one of the first lessons parenthood teaches you: you don’t actually need free hands to pee. The baby, content for the moment, was cooing softly to himself and trying to grab a towel hanging nearby. I pressed my face against him, exhausted, breathing in the sweaty, milky scent of his neck. And, I started sobbing because he smelled so sweet, like a baby, like my baby. He wasn’t a stranger anymore. He was mine, and I loved him so much.

Love is surprising like that. It sneaks up on you, provoked by the most irrational of moments, pummeling you with waves of joy, when logically you should feel nothing but resentment. It doesn’t happen at the same time, or in the same way for every parent. But eventually, we get there.

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