Bonding in Regular (i.e. na´ve) Mothers
Maternal bonding is a simple term used to define a powerful and complicated experience-falling in love with one's baby. Contrary to popular belief, it is not one instantaneous superglue event that happens when the mother lays eyes on her baby, preferably within seconds after birth. It is a process that occurs over time and can begin before conception and continues throughout the pregnancy and into infancy. It is also flexible and can overcome many obstacles like anxiety, illness, NICU and separation.
Bonding does have peak moments for a mother: when she actually stops using birth control; when she gets a positive pregnancy test result; when she sees the baby's image on an ultrasound screen; when she feels the baby move for the first time; when she holds her baby after delivery; when her baby is sleeping peacefully. In general, bonding happens when she thinks about or spends sweet times with her baby.
While the maternal bond may be well established early on, it is not an achievement that remains constant after a certain point. Rather, it is a dynamic process that rises and falls. During pregnancy and infancy, there will be times when the mother feels great swells of love and devotion and other times when she feels like running away. There will be times when she is so happy to have this child in her life and other times when she rues the day she invited him in. This is normal.
The maternal bond also grows and adjusts over time. As the baby develops her own distinct personality and becomes a separate individual, the bond expands to accommodate the otherness of the child. As baby grows and leaves the breast, then leaves the lap, then leaves for school and then leaves home, the bond doesn't lessen or disintegrate; it simply stretches. (This is true when a baby or child dies-the bond doesn't disappear; it gradually changes as the mother grieves and adjusts to a different relationship with the lost child.)
Occasionally, the bond will break down a little-when there are more daily stresses and less attention is devoted to the child, or if the child is going through an IMPOSSIBLE STAGE (no doubt identical to one YOU went through.) This breakdown is temporary until things get back on track. The mother may wrack her brain for solutions or consult a family therapist to help them get out of a bad rut. When things seem darkest, trying to find answers and getting help are signs that the maternal bond is strong. Giving up and throwing in the towel is the only way to dismantle a bond.
Bonding for Bereaved (i.e. wise) Mothers
While "regular bonding" involves dreaming about a new life and picking out baby bunny wallpaper for the nursery, "bereaved bonding" can involve dreading a new death and picking out neutral wallpaper for the extra bedroom. Nevertheless, the tenets of bonding that hold true for regular parents also hold true for bereaved parents. Bonding is a process that occurs over time; bonding has peak moments; bonding is flexible, dynamic and resilient.
Time . . .
You may swear up and down that you will not let yourself bond with this baby until you can see for yourself that s/he is healthy and will likely survive. On the other hand, you may worry that when this baby is born, you will feel no love or devotion since you haven't "bonded" during pregnancy. Rest assured that one needn't even endure a pregnancy in order to fall in love with a baby. Just ask any adoptive parent.
Peak Moments . . .
Although you may be too scared to appreciate them, you will still experience peak bonding moments. For instance, you may not dare to enjoy that positive pregnancy test result or first fetal movements or first cuddle for fear they are false or won't last long. Nonetheless, in spite of your worries, just the fact that you know conception has occurred, because you sense the baby is growing, or when you see the baby is cute, you have taken a leap forward in bonding. It may feel more like terror than love, but it is still bonding.
Flexible . . .
Bonding during pregnancy doesn't have to include knitting booties, buying baby clothes, stroking your belly, and dreaming of the day you'll hold that baby in your arms. While these activities are evidence that bonding is occurring, they are not mandatory. You may steer clear of knitting, baby boutiques, your belly, and your dreams. Indeed, you may not dare to count on having this baby. However, by simply wanting the pregnancy to continue, you are bonding.
Dynamic . . .
Although your emotional ebbs and flows will be different from the regular mother, like her, you will alternate between feeling joy and sadness, hope and dread. You may feel too stressed to devote attention to the idea of a baby growing inside you. Or you may regret this endeavor day after day and decide to get some counseling. All of these feelings happen to parents who've not lost a child or battled infertility. As a bereaved parent, you are certainly entitled to them also.
And although fearing death is not paramount for the regular mother, her bonding includes having worries about the health and safety of her baby. So when you worry, you are bonding too. Your fear is evidence of your deep emotional investment in this child.
. . . and Resilient
If you feel reluctant to get close to this baby after birth for fear of getting hurt again, rest assured that it may take you a little while to adjust to the reality that this baby is healthy and here to stay. It may also help to recognize that you really aren't protecting yourself by remaining withdrawn. You would be absolutely devastated if this baby dies, no matter how much you try to harden your heart. So you might as well reap some benefits while you can. Dare to enjoy your baby. The pain of grief is the price we pay for our heartfelt attachments to others. And most of us would rather have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all.
If you have nagging concerns about your maternal feelings, do seek help from a qualified counselor who has experience with bereaved parents. Ask your local hospital, support group or other bereaved parents for referrals. And do stay in touch with your grief over the baby who has died. If you try to dampen any sad feelings, you also will dampen any joyful ones. Mothering a baby is such a precious time and doesn't last long. You deserve to enjoy it.
Maternal bonding is a wonderfully resilient process. Yes, you can bond during the most anxiety-filled subsequent pregnancy. Yes, you can acquire the full depth and joy maternal love during the months after your baby is born. The risk may seem great, but the rewards are immeasurable.
Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement and adjustment, parent education and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). With Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D., she is the coauthor of The Emotional Journey of Parenting Your Premature Baby: A Book of Hope and Healing (NICU Ink, 2003).