I’ll never forget the feeling.
It was 5 a.m., the morning light still hiding behind Lake Michigan. A nurse wheeled my newborn daughter back into the dark hospital room where I had been sleeping since the delivery. My daughter was swaddled up into the tiniest possible cocoon and snoozing peacefully. I opened my eyes groggily and complete joy and disbelief washed over me. “She’s mine,” I thought. “That is my little baby.”
I was sure I was experiencing the instant love so many mothers gush about. And perhaps I was, for a brief moment. But as the days went on and I slipped into postpartum depression, I realized I was one of those moms, the ones who don’t feel a deep connection to their baby. The realization was crushing. I felt at once ashamed, disappointed and alarmed. I loved my baby, but I didn’t feel in love with her the way I expected to and the way I know many mothers genuinely do.
My whole life I’d heard a mother’s love described in a myriad of ways: instant, natural, beautiful, unimaginable, without compare, beyond belief, all-encompassing, life-changing, nirvana-achieving. I’d never heard of it described the way I was experiencing it: complicated, scary and, worst of all, average. I thought my daughter was adorable and an incredible gift, but I didn’t feel a love that rocked me to the core. I felt exhausted from lack of sleep, overwhelmed by her constant needs, sure that anyone else could do a better job of being her mother, a classic symptom of postpartum depression. I felt like I was going through the motions—outwardly nurturing, while ambivalence lurked beneath the surface.
My whole life I’d heard a mother’s love described in a myriad of ways… I’d never heard of it described the way I was experiencing it: complicated, scary and, worst of all, average.
Meanwhile, my husband bonded with her the way I had expected I would. He was enamored from the start, and I envied how easily it came to him. When I watched him with her, I wondered if I could ever get there. I worried I never would. I tortured myself with questions that, in hindsight, were a form of punishment. “Do I love my husband more than my child?” and “Do I even love her at all?” I asked these questions off and on for months, due in part to sleep deprivation, depression and my fear of change.
At this point, you might expect me to reveal a magical moment where I looked into my daughter’s eyes and everything suddenly clicked into place. But I didn’t have a moment like that. I gave up.
I let go of expectations and focused on the moment. I knew I loved my daughter, and that was enough. I accepted the reality of postpartum depression and slowly forgave myself for allowing it to rob me of a joyful season in life.
I stopped comparing my experience of motherhood to that of others. Well, at least I tried very, very hard not to. If a social media post made me feel like a failure, I unfollowed. I wrote down how I felt and read articles from other women who had similar experiences—there are a lot more out there than I expected.
I opened up to family and friends. I was brutally honest about how much I was struggling and how hard it was to not feel the new-mom euphoria. The kindness and support I received from other moms and non-moms alike lifted me up when I needed it most.
I took care of myself. They say you can’t love someone until you love yourself, and it’s true. The more I practiced self-care (enjoying a cup of coffee at work, going to bed early instead of doing the laundry, going for a run), the happier I became and the better mother I became.
I did all of this, and when I wasn’t looking, I fell in love.
My love for my daughter was like a sunrise: a slow and sure progression. While I was still enveloped in darkness, I doubted the sun would ever peak above the horizon. But before I knew it, I was basking in its complete radiance. Somewhere between my postpartum haze and the present, a million little moments—highs and lows, laughter and tears—have collectively carved a permanent place in my heart I didn’t know I had room for.
Throughout it all, our bond grew and grew and grew, until it became something deeper than I’ve ever felt in my life.
While I watched her crawl for the first time, our bond grew. While I rocked her back to sleep at 3 a.m., wondering whether it was possible to die from lack of sleep, our bond grew. First giggle, first steps, first word, fourth tooth, eighth illness, 50th meltdown, 100th snuggle. Throughout it all, our bond grew and grew and grew, until it became something deeper than I’ve ever felt in my life.
A year in and my love for her is bordering on addiction. I live my life for her; I would give my life for her. I cry just typing these sentences because it’s the most real thing I’ve ever felt, and it’s hard to believe I ever worried I couldn’t or wouldn’t get here. You’ll get there, too.