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The Bunk About Bonding

With stitches in the perineum and hemorrhoids rampant, postpartum moms have enough to worry about. But two Australian chaps inadvertently gave new mothers another hurdle. Researchers Marshall Klaus and John Kennell coined the term bonding in the 1970s to describe a phenomenon in which mothers who had skin-to-skin contact with their babies 30-60 minutes after birth experienced a "specially sensitive state which made them unusually ready to 'fall in love' with their child."

Subsequent research has not confirmed the physiologic state Klaus and Kennell described. Yet, we know that touching and massaging a newborn stimulates breathing, that a mother's heartbeat can quiet an infant used to the uterine environment, and nipple contact stimulates the release of oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle hormone" that helps contract the uterus and inhibit bleeding. Undoubtedly, there is a synchronized dance of physiology that takes place in a mom's and baby's reactions to one another.

Bonding is a trust built between a needy baby and a responsive caretaker, over repetition of "crying" and "soothing" episodes. Somehow though, "bonding" became an all-encompassing term, the buzz word for the entire relationship between mother and child. We use the term to describe an ethereal connection we feel with our young, evidence of the maternal instinct at work. This little cocktail of bonding and instinct makes "the perfect mother."

Bonding with a Capital "B"
Bonding becomes too big for its britches when it's used interchangeably with "attachment," a broader scientific term that describes the affection between a child and his caretaker that propels him to healthy, emotionally balanced adulthood. Although attachment difficulties are most commonly identified in adoption and foster care systems, the reason many moms quit jobs and stay at home – and many more fret that they can't – is to establish connections during the first eighteen months of a child's life that they believe will be of lifelong value.

Yet, as Carin Rubenstein notes in her book The Sacrificial Mother: Escaping the Trap of Self-Denial, psychology's dirty little secret is that there is no real proof this early and all-important connection exists. Even if it does exist, science hasn't shown that this connection has anything to do with how well-adjusted or sociable a child is later in life.

Indeed, we know that genes have the greatest influence over a child's future personality. Social circumstances also have an impact, such as being born and growing up poor, or experiencing a frequent number of divorces or moves during childhood. Contrary to what many of us believe about the decisive influence of the parent-infant relationship, studies of identical twins who were adopted at birth and raised by different mothers and fathers demonstrate that no matter who raises them, identical twins grow up to be uncannily similar.

Am I Bonding Correctly?
The moms I know are terribly confused and have very different definitions of bonding. Some moms meant it literally, as in the "immediate inclination to mother." A good portion of moms felt this sensation even while they were pregnant, perhaps fueling their nesting instinct. Other moms felt a profound bond when they first held their babies and said it seemed as if they were "born to do this."

Others, though, felt bonding was a decision – that at some point they consciously chose to let themselves fall head over heels for the wrinkled bundle in their arms. And a couple of moms believed that bonding was a hoax. They didn't accept it as a postpartum milestone, much less a litmus test of good mothering.

Despite our varied definitions, many of us expect baby love and the ability to mother to arise from the mist, in the same romantic way described in InStyle and other magazines' celebrity mom profiles. Jane Seymour, Reese Witherspoon, Christie Brinkley, and Jada Pinkett Smith welcomed us into their Malibu mansions and Hamptons hideaways to see how babies had met their deepest yearnings for happiness. As mommies, they were thin and radiant in nurseries with hand-painted murals or at catered showers attended by Hollywood's glitterati of childbearing years. Literally and figuratively, they shared recipes so we could be just like them, only without a staff of nannies, personal chefs, and trainers.

Logically then, in our postpartum haze, we wonder where our expected bliss has gone. We fail to recognize what psychiatrists know very well: Many people initially respond to intense feelings by distancing themselves.

If our bliss is mitigated by fear, or goes underground while we sort out the enormity of love we feel, we think we don't have the right stuff for motherhood. We worry, can our babies tell that our whole hearts are sometimes not in it? And, if we hold our infants and toddlers close but don't experience a giddy tingle inside, does it mean bonding is doomed?

Stop the Madness!
Before you start tallying your missteps and inadequacies in early motherhood, take some advice from my learned friends and me. Nearly all of us have had moments when we doubted we were cut out for parenthood. We feel an abiding love for our kids. We see before us babies that thrive and grow, smile and walk. Yet, that isn't enough. We still harangue ourselves for not being the mothers we feel our natural instincts are supposed to produce.

To stop the flogging, and settle our nervous hearts, we're learning to repeat out loud the following truths.

Fall in Love at Your Own Pace and Tempo
My 50-year-old friend Lisa, an author in Chicago, recalls holding her baby son, Luke, for the first time: "I simply could not believe it. There are no words for it. I was viscerally in love. His skin, his smell – he was perfection."

To this day, Lisa is smitten, now staring at seven-year-old Luke on the subway. "He's so beautiful to me, I am so proud of him. It's a joy to look at him and see this blend of us – his father and me. My worry is that I care too much. I've never had to pump myself up to do more for him. It's always been all-out."

Love at first sight, in courtships and with babies, is our romantic ideal. We expect to coo the way Lisa did, with all-out reverence. And indeed, more than half of the women I interviewed reported bonding "immediately."

Yet, there are other wonderful, quirky ways that moms and dads develop connections with their babies, none of them reflective of parenting gone wrong.

Julia from Cincinnati bonded differently with each of her two children. "The second I saw my son, my first thought was 'I was meant to be this child's mommy. This is what I was put on earth to do.'" With her second child, a daughter, Julia says, "I didn't really bond until she and I went to my ten-year college reunion. She was nine months old! I think it was the first time I didn't feel guilty paying more attention to her than to my son. And I know it was the first time I began to appreciate her unique qualities."

Gayle, a thirty-eight-year-old mom who lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, says that childbirth, seventeen hours long, was one of the worst experiences of her life. "It was physically traumatic, scary, and overwhelming." She threw up frequently, got the shakes, and "had no sense of the outside world" for hours on end.

After Bethany was born, Gayle just wanted to be mothered, and to "lick the wounds of delivery." People did not "see the injury I was experiencing, or comfort me." Friends who visited kept saying to her, "You must be so happy!" "I kept thinking to myself, 'Why would I be?!'"

The first night, Gayle sent Bethany to the hospital's newborn nursery – something she now regrets. "I was too afraid," she says. With the reality of being a mother setting in, Gayle explains, "I was trying to delay the onset of my new job."

Within a few weeks though, when the baby gained weight and Gayle felt as though her parts were working again, she "relaxed and let the bonding happen." Then, Gayle abandoned plans to use part-time daycare because she couldn't imagine leaving Bethany. "I love being with her. The few times I have gone out alone, I drive away and feel that something's missing."

In other nations and cultures, moms get help so that they can bond well and get their postpartum needs met. In Malaysian villages for example, Mom and baby do not rejoin the community for forty days. During this reprieve, mothers receive hot baths infused with fragrant leaves. They are massaged from head to toe with herbs, with special attention paid to rubbing the abdomen to shrink the uterus.

"Where's my herbal massage?" you may be asking. Well, as much as bonding is endorsed in this country, American moms contend with rushed hospitalizations, and nursing ratios that often cannot accommodate breaks for mom to sleep or take time off from baby care. We face the additional healing required by an unusually high C-section rate, and don't automatically receive home visits from a doula or baby nurse as mothers in European nations do.

All Moms Bumble
In the crucial first two weeks after I gave birth to my son Patrick, our pediatrician told us the baby was not "thriving." First, Patrick had to be re-hospitalized for treatment for jaundice and spent hours under therapeutic lights that kept me from holding or nursing him. My milk was slow to come in and then I never seemed to produce enough. Patrick's doctor urged Duke and me to supplement my breast milk with formula.

On the contrary, lactation specialists I consulted were adamant that a bottle could bring on "nipple confusion," in which the baby begins to prefer bottle-fed formula over the breast. They recommended I pump milk between each feeding, which meant that every two hours, after letting Patrick nurse for forty minutes on each side, I let a grinding mechanism manipulate my breasts for a half hour and got a whopping ten minutes off before starting the feeding routine all over again.

Eventually, I sent all boob-obsessed parties to their corners and devoted myself to what I called "bovine therapy" – constant and unremitting feeding of the little skeleton boy, who could seemingly suck the life out of me. I did so, lying down in bed, where I could sleep and Patrick could gnaw and suck at will.

My milk production did increase, and a few weeks later we added a bottle of formula in the afternoons when I was particularly depleted. Patrick grew one chin after another, we both survived, and are now as tight as thieves.

All of us hit potholes in our bonding journey. Yet, unlike any other endeavor we undertake in our lives, we believe that from the start we have to be perfect at parenting. We expect to be naturally endowed with knowledge and ability, or to augment our skill with help from a plethora of child-care manuals. No learning curve is permitted.

We can't afford a learning curve, you see, because the latest research maintains the most critical period of brain cell firing occurs in the first three years of life. To ensure optimal health and intellect, we have to hold a baby so many hours, respond to her cries within so many seconds, and talk to her whenever she's awake – preferably in several languages. We resist pacifiers for this reason, and bottles in bed for another. Dad can't be too entrenched in work that he fails to provide the appropriate proportion of male modeling. Mom can't work at all, lest she doom her child to daycare, patterns of aggressive behavior, and substandard intellectual stimulation. In this context, it's a wonder any of us escape the pressure with our panda esteem in tact.

Sometimes it simply takes settling into your own skin again to allow bonding to occur. A year and a half after Patrick was born, Duke and I escaped to Palm Springs for our first weekend away from our little dictator. At an outdoor caf�, I kept remarking how incredible the sun felt and how delicious the food tasted. Even my otherwise dormant sexuality was revived over this break.

So it was that in a shower at an inn an hour's distance from my baby and home, I bonded with my firstborn. You see, for hours by the pool that day, I'd consumed Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue about a mother and her little boy's escape from an abusive spouse. At its devastating conclusion, when the main character loses her son to his terrible father, I started to cry. But it wasn't until I was under the shower nozzle that the wailing began and that I realized the truth: I had never been more vulnerable, never more susceptible to devastation, than in this moment, when I realized how completely I loved and was devoted to Patrick. The notion of losing him, jarred loose in me by Quindlen's book and a relaxing weekend, showed me how attached I really was.

Bond Your Own Way
How much better off you will be, understanding that some moms are infatuated from day one and some moms find love bowls them over in a fit of tears months later. The same is true with dads, though research tells us men typically follow a year behind moms in their emotional adjustment to parenthood. It's common for fathers to lag behind in the bonding process.

All this said, take heart. Because it really does not matter how you or your spouse come to feel affection for your child. It only matters that you do.

Give in to Skin-to-Skin
One of the secrets moms are too self-conscious to share is how exquisite it is to cuddle with their babies and children. We don't talk about the "sensuality" of the mother/child relationship for fear of people thinking we mean "sexuality." Yet, there are few more intoxicating pleasures in life than falling asleep with your baby in your arms, carrying a snoozing toddler to his bed, or holding hands with your son on the way to the bus stop.

The sheer physicality of motherhood is staggering. You are, most often, the body the babe craves, the one associated with food and comfort, and later the only one capable of chasing away nightmares. Infants crave us because they know our scents, recognize our voices from the womb, or get accustomed to us as their primary caregivers.

But the intensity of a baby's desire can be overwhelming and frightening. It blows apart feminist theory such as "Men and women can do the same job equally well." It makes you question the Creator, "Did you design us this way so we would be encumbered with children and unable to do ANYTHING else?" It makes all the dreams you had of maintaining your life, outside of motherhood, seem like a chalk drawing, pelted by rain.

No More Personal Space
This pressing body stuff is alarming for parents who need privacy or are uncomfortable with intimacy. When my sister, Catherine, had her first son, Taylor, I remember watching her carefully shore up her boundaries. She pumped milk but did not breast-feed directly. Taylor slept in his room from the first night home on. She cautioned friends not to cradle her slumbering boy for long, lest he grow to depend on being held.

Catherine adored her son and worried about doing the right things for him. But she wasn't willing to have Taylor impede on her long-held realm of modesty, even if it would make her life, managing a new baby, easier.

I saw the fears of Every Mom being played out in Catherine's home. The first weeks postpartum, the lines between you and baby are terribly blurred. Where you stop and the baby begins is unclear. It's natural to resist the cloying nature of these interactions, and to sink a flag into dominions you want to remain your own.

Touch Simply Works
Yet, there are two compelling reasons for softening your position, as Catherine discovered and went on to implement with her second baby. One, infants and children respond to touch. Letting little Russell into your bed may very well mean that you get all-important REM sleep. Carrying Chloe in a Snugli® may mean dinner gets prepared and you and your husband aren't wigged out during those stressful evening hours. In other words, by allowing the baby into your personal space, you may gain more sanity than you surrender.

Secondly, if you give in to skin-to-skin to any degree, you'll experience the loveliest, and I would say holiest, aspects of parenting. Indeed, more than half of the women I interviewed said their most contented moments of motherhood occurred when they were snuggling with their kids. Seeing your husband skin-to-skin, tiny fingers resting on a wide chest, is spine-tingling, too.

Kim, the mother of three in Maryland, says she loves to rub her children's hair and heads. Never again will Kim resist a head rub from her mom, now that she knows how immensely full of love and delight that gesture is.

Kisses on the Lips
Another mom was embarrassed to admit that she likes when her kids kiss her on the mouth. If you didn't grow up in a demonstrative Italian or Greek family, or even if you did, you may of late have reserved kisses on the lips for romantic life. Then the closeness of family calls out to be expressed, and your lips become healing to boo-boos and pink targets for little puckered mouths that want to tell you they love you.

When I was first married I was amazed that my husband's first impulse, even before consciousness in the morning, was to reach for me. Now my four-year-old, Liam, cannot start the day without making body contact. Though I can't sleep while spooning with my husband, Liam and I meld in these perfectly comfortable ways. If his face is not touching mine, he sleepily shifts to make it so. And even his morning breath is sweet-smelling to me in this predawn sanctuary of mom and child.

Later in the day, Liam will get up on my lap and lift his T-shirt and mine to expose our stomachs so we sit together, skin to skin. In this incredibly literal way, he reminds me that we once shared my belly, and that I will always be the origin of love for him.

This proximity was so off-putting and scary in the beginning. Now, between preschool and soccer practice, dinner preparation and homework, I just can't get enough.

Strangely, by surrendering boundaries and adopting a language of touch, you discover your uncanny, innate power for healing, molding, and emboldening your young. Cheek to cheek, hand to tummy, or warm feet to Popsicle toes with your little one, you will feel a connection to mothers and sons/mothers and daughters the planet through.

Once you get comfortable with the closeness, I guarantee you will be addicted, too. Any anxieties you have over bumbling the bonding process can be healed with hugs and more hugs.

A Delay in Bonding Is Not Harmful
Moms are prevented from immediate, full-fledged bonding for all sorts of reasons. Try forging natural connections when you've been released from the hospital and only get to visit your preemie in a neonatal intensive care unit. Parents who've endured arduous fertility treatments, or those who elected to terminate a previous pregnancy due to birth defects, sometimes have trouble adjusting to a happy outcome.

Krista of Savannah, Georgia, is a thirty-seven-year old adoptive mother who didn't truly connect with her son for about six months. "In large part," Krista says, "I didn't bond right away because I was overwhelmed by gratitude toward his birthmother, and guilty that I was better prepared to raise him than she was." Nothing written about bonding can prepare moms for feelings such as Krista's, which are complex and not easily whisked away, even in the presence of a miracle baby.

Postpartum Depression and Adjustment Disorders
The United States has the highest rate of postpartum depression of any industrialized country. While hormones play a major part, postpartum depression is an equal opportunity troublemaker, as one set of gay parents recently told me.

My neighbor John and his partner, Jason, became parents by adopting a child born to a surrogate. They saw the surrogate mom through a first pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, and a second she carried to full-term, to bring home gorgeous Anna with the dark brown curls. Yet, the first weeks with Anna – in which they rarely slept, went out, or did anything but figure out how to get Anna to sleep – plunged John into a clear-cut case of postpartum melancholy.

John describes his long, fretful nights "I paced the hallway at night, thinking to myself, 'Oprah will have me on her show. I will be the first person ever to have paid $80,000 for a baby, and gone through all the difficulties of adopting as a gay couple with a surrogate, only to have given my baby up for adoption in the first month.'"

If you think new moms are isolated, try being a new gay dad, John says. "None of my friends could relate at all to what Jason and I were going through with Anna. We were at totally different points in our lives."

Indeed, the enormous life adjustments that babies bring can contribute to earthquakes within. Increasingly, psychiatrists report, new moms and dads are being diagnosed with "adjustment disorders" – disruptions in mental and emotional health that occur when these budding parents try to absorb this jolting life change. And if you're struggling to find your equilibrium in this new life and your biology is also out of whack, your ability to meet all the needs of your newborn can be dramatically impaired.

Six days into motherhood, after an uncomplicated C-section, Teresa, a school psychologist in Houston, developed difficulties breathing and a quickened heart rate. At first her doctor suspected a pulmonary embolism, which occurs in rare instances after birth, but it turned out postpartum panic attacks were the culprit.

Yet, a subsequent Zoloft prescription from her primary care doctor – to tide her over till she could see a psychiatrist – contributed to a "downward tail spin." Two weeks into the treatment, Teresa says, "I couldn't function. I had insomnia. I was terribly anxious and mildly depressed. I was hiding in corners of a room, thinking I wanted to drive off a bridge."

Fortunately, Teresa could hand Taylor off to her mother, who moved in and lived with Teresa's family for two and a half months. The expert on postpartum anxiety and depression with whom she met changed the medications and gave her small doses of narcotics that enabled her to sleep. "I could literally feel the stabilization of my body," Teresa says. "I learned that my body could not withstand the incredible hormonal drop that comes with childbirth. In my case, the problem was 99 percent biochemical. Nowhere in the dozens of books I had read was there a description of the magnitude of these side effects."

Eschewing breast-feeding, which she had planned to do, Teresa started taking birth control pills again, which restored her estrogen, a hormone often tied to happiness in women. Teresa actually welcomed her first period, saying, "I felt I was finally in my own body again."

Counseling was also helpful. "I was immediately reassured by my psychiatrist that I was experiencing a time-limited illness, and that my baby would get the love and care she needed from my mother in the meantime."

Are You At Risk?
Remember, you may be at higher risk for postpartum depression if you or members of your family have experienced depression; if you have a difficult labor and delivery or a C-section; if you are adopted; if you have had an abortion or miscarriage in the past; or if you are a victim of rape or incest.

The important message here is that whether or not you suffer from postpartum depression – from "baby blues," the mild sadness and anxiety that comes a few days after birth, to a more serious form – your health and well-being cannot be denied. Attend to your needs as best you can and stop worrying about bonding. Dads, partners, grandparents, and friends can satisfy and comfort babies until storms calm for Mom and illness remits.

Nothing in the baby literature tells moms that sometimes, it's all right to put ourselves first or that often a baby's health depends on Mommy attending to her own health. A mom, who was both a homemaker and pilot's wife, once sat across a caf� table from me and whispered that it was okay to let a baby cry, for hours at a time, if it came to that. "When my husband was away, and I had no help for days on end with a toddler and a newborn, I learned that sometimes, I had to put myself first. I could not stay up all night every night, soothing an inconsolable baby. Sometimes I had to put my own health before hers so I would turn off the monitor and go to sleep. It was the scariest, most radical thing I'd ever done. And no one but my husband ever told me it was all right to do that. So now, I tell every new mother I know."

Amid bumbling and delays, babies can and do bond, despite the fact that moms are human and have needs, too. Corny as it sounds, Teresa says postpartum depression was "the best, and the worst, thing that ever happened to me. Of course it has made me more sympathetic in my work. But it also totally changed my outlook on parenthood, so that now I don't sweat the small stuff. I see my girlfriends killing themselves trying to maintain order in their homes, and I think, 'Just sit down in the mess and enjoy your baby.'"

From What No One Tells the Mom by Marg Stark. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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