by Laurie Ganberg, LICSW
“I love my baby but I feel trapped.”
“Maybe having a baby was a mistake.”
“Every part of my life has changed. I miss my old life.”
I often hear these statements hesitantly shared by women experiencing ambivalence and regret after a new baby—along with, “I can’t talk about this in the new moms group.” But it is possible to find ways to hold these experiences without judgment, so that you can share the thoughts that have been swirling around in fear, guilt, and hopelessness. These feelings occur to many women – and their partners – after having a baby. You are not alone. In my work with new mothers we’re making space for feelings of ambivalence, regret, grief and loss that might come along with a new baby.
“How has motherhood been, compared to what you thought it would be like?”
Reflecting on what your expectations were and from where they came can help. Messages from partners, grandparents, Instagram, even strangers at the grocery store can morph into one loud proclamation: “You’re supposed to love this baby and this experience of parenting unconditionally.” In reality, we know that’s not always the case and we can work on tolerating a range of feelings and experiences of motherhood. You can love your baby and not love the baby stage at the same time.
“Not everyone feels an overwhelming burst of love for their baby at the birth. Some do, but for others, it comes a few weeks or even months later. Not feeling it now doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel it. How has it been for you?”
When you’re not feeling connected to baby, it can feel like it won’t ever get better and there must be something wrong with you. Yet not everyone has a made-for-TV moment with baby right after the birth. A scary birth experience, past trauma, or NICU stay can be a factor; sometimes, the love just takes longer to build. I’ve seen it happen.
Connecting with a newborns can also be challenging. They’re not great conversationalists. They won’t tell you you’re doing a good job. And the job never really seems to be complete. We start seeing more social smiles and sustained eye contact at about 6-8 weeks. Around 3 months they’re starting to try to grab for things. Understanding the rough guidelines for infant development can help you know what’s coming and put some of the challenges in context.
“What are you doing with your baby?”
Take a moment to acknowledge all that you are doing with and for your children. Sometimes parents feel pressure to be doing or teaching more. Those emails you might receive saying, “at this age, your baby should be…” can reinforce this. But what babies need most is for you to simply “be with” them, comfort them, feed them. All these moments can feel insignificant, especially if you feel like you are going through the motions, but these actions are the foundation of a secure attachment. So recognize that even if you’re not feeling like you’re doing enough, you can be still be meeting baby’s needs and building a connection.
Ambivalence can emerge no matter how challenging or how easy the tasks of parenting feel. But there are also larger stressors that can make things more difficult, such as
- Expensive or hard to find childcare
- Work pressure around maternity leave, schedule, or role
- Limited social support
- Challenges for military families
- Discrimination and the effects of racism, homophobia or other oppressions
Finding others who might also be experiencing these challenges—and connecting with them in real life if possible—can help you keep perspective and reduce feelings of failure and self-blame.
We know from research that mothers develop resilience “not only when a space is made available for the exploration of ambivalent feelings towards our children, but when we focus on the strain mothers endure in managing the experience and meaning of ambivalence on a daily basis,” (Baraitser and Noack, 2007). Coping with and managing feelings of ambivalence and regret is challenging, but my hope is that by making space for a range of experiences of motherhood, including ambivalence and regret, we can lessen the feelings of shame, fear, and despair.
What can you do?
- First, know that these feelings are not uncommon. Regret about being a parent or a sense of grief after becoming a parent are feelings many new parents feel.
- Feeling ashamed that you have these negative thoughts is also not uncommon. Having negative thoughts about parenting doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent.
- Replace “but” with “and.” “I love my baby and I miss my old life.” Both of these can be true.
- Stay connected with friends and family to support yourself during this time.
- Take care of yourself – make sure you’re sleeping when you have the chance, eating well, getting outside, and engaging in other self-care.
- Talk about it in your PEPS Group or in another support group.
- If any of these suggestions are feeling particularly difficult or you want more support and a place to process your experience of having a new baby, seek out a therapist—preferably one with expertise in perinatal mental health. Perinatal Support Washington is a great place to find one.
Baraitser, L., & Noack, A. (2007). Mother courage: Reflections on maternal resilience. British journal of psychotherapy, 23(2), 171-188.
About the Author
Laurie Ganberg, LICSW, is a clinical social worker who specializes in supporting women in pregnancy and early parenthood. She provides outpatient therapy and works in the Day Program at the Center for Perinatal Bonding and Support at Swedish.