Not long ago, during a discussion on my Author Facebook about toxic mothers and how to deal with them, a reader posted, suggesting that “ the lack of the moment of bonding after birth” was to blame for the dysfunction, and that daughters should have empathy for mothers who didn’t know that they had to immediately put the baby to the breast. (She was a doula, by the way, part of the ever-expanding arsenal of birth experts.) It won’t surprise you that I had lots to say.
This maternal bonding business is a relatively new wrinkle—first popularized in the late 1970s by a study, a bestselling book, and countless how-to articles— on the myths of motherhood which assert that maternal love is inborn and instinctual. The bonding theory—that moment of infant flesh on mother flesh that supposedly cemented a connection so concrete that it could weather any storm—changed not only hospital protocols but thinking about the mother-child connection.
Alas, I’m calling it a myth for a reason, and it has only served to muddy already cloudy waters and is yet another stumbling block on the way to an honest and helpful discussion of the challenges motherhood presents, both right after birth and long after.
Here’s my take on the six reasons we need to tackle this myth to the ground, now and forever.
1.It’s’ not true.
Yes, this is a really good reason to toss the idea in the trash, although it’s easy to understand why people love it, since it’s got all the tenderness of a painting by Mary Cassatt and sums up every thought ever plastered on a greeting card. As opposed to instant bonding, what does happen (or doesn’t, as it happens) is the process of attachment, as the mother responds to the infant’s cues with either attunement or the lack of it. Note that this is a process over time, a dyadic dance between mother and child that not only forges the quality of the connection between them but has profound implications for the development of the infant and her brain. Bonding and attachment are not synonyms.
2. It ignores the psychological shift motherhood presents.
The idea the moments of flesh on flesh will make you a loving and fabulous mother is so simplistic that it’s laughable. Whether you call it the “motherhood constellation” as Daniel Stern does in his book of the same name, there is a profound shift in the new mother’s identity and thinking, as she transitions from being a daughter to being a mother. For some, especially those who have had unloving mothers or those who felt inadequately parented, this transition may not be seamless or easy. For others, it may feel natural and automatic, even if it isn’t. And many other new mothers will find themselves somewhere in-between, happy one moment and ambivalent the next.
The larger point is that it is a major shift, not some magical moment that takes minutes.
3. It induces guilt and marginalizes the challenge of parenting.
And what happens to the new mother who doesn’t feel that instant bond but believes she’s supposed to because everyone’s been touting the myth? She’s going to think wrongly that it’s her fault. What if she nurses and doesn’t feel that mystical connection? (Confession: I found nursing efficient and good for the baby and exhausting sometimes. But mystical? Nope.)
There are many, many reasons a mother may not feel instantly attached—and, most of the time, it’s just not a make or break moment. The pregnancy or birth may have been difficult, or not what she expected, or she may feel ambivalent or nervous about the responsibility she’s taken on. All of those concerns can be dealt with if they are acknowledged, not swept under the rug by feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy.
4. It prevents new mothers from getting help if they need it.
Since there’s no discussion about a normal amount of emotional turbulence—just about this supposed instant connection—many mothers will feel hesitant about discussing their feelings and, for those who really need support, they’ll be unlikely to ask for it. I’ve seen bottle-feeding new mothers excoriated in public for their inadequacies; how is a woman supposed to voice feeling a lack of connection to the baby she carried and gave birth to?
5. It makes it harder for an unloved daughter to be heard.
Yes, the myth makes people even less willing to entertain the possibility that some women are terrible mothers and actually wound their daughters emotionally. The human brain is wired to pull up the most easily remembered fact to inform thinking (it’s called the availability heuristic) and, judging from often-heard comments, it would appear that the “fact” of bonding is at the very top of the pile. Not good for anyone
6. It reinforces the myths of motherhood.
The Internet is folded with visual memes—cats with kittens, cats nursing puppies, and much more—that are shared millions and millions of times, make us feel better about life generally, and reinforce all those rosy thoughts we have about the instant and unqualified nature of mother love. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Pretty, yes. Good for us, no? It’s real dialogue we need to help mothers and daughters alike.
Photograph by Freestock.org. Copyright free. Unsplash.com