Postpartum Rainbow, Part One
Connectedness -- The Expanding Bond
What kinds of experiences come in newborn time? Our stories are as unique and personal as our fingerprints; but over and over again, one word shows up. The same image glows at the center of many parents' postpartum memories:
"I felt connected..."
We may have heard of bonding; we may have assumed that we would feel something special for our own baby -- and yet the power of the actual experience takes many people by surprise. "The first unusual thing I noticed," says Linda, "was a feeling of 'connectedness' with my baby. I hadn't expected this." "To be truthful," says Nancy, "I never knew such contact between human beings was possible."
Adoptive parents too:
Before adopting her baby son, Lisa feared she would "lack some sort of cosmic connection" since she hadn't given birth to him. But instead, she says, "I couldn't believe how aware and how connected to him I felt." Another adoptive mother marvels, "The connection feels so deep... I am knit to my child."
Richard was amazed to experience a close communion with his baby right from the moment of birth: "As soon as I caught him, it was as if we were one person. I thought that I was feeling what he was feeling. We were communicating on a telepathic and empathetic plane..."
For some parents, there's even a sense of recognition. The baby seems familiar! Sarah was unconscious at the time of delivery, and nearly died of a hemorrhage. Twelve hours later, she was finally able to meet her newborn daughter. "My husband was in the room with me," she recalls. "He says he will never forget the look on both of our faces when we saw each other for the first time. He says we were locked in a gaze that was so strong, so committed. I remember feeling that I was seeing someone I knew already in the most intimate and personal way. It was like a reunion, and from that moment on I was 'in love' with her in the deepest sense."
At this point...
I wonder if it's all right to talk about these experiences. When I first felt the power of bonding with my newborn, I was awestruck and mystified. Love -- I thought I knew it! Romantic love, sexual love, friendship, even "divine" love... I'd known or heard or read about them all. But no one ever prepared me for the shock of falling in love with my baby! I honestly wondered if this was a taboo that everyone else understood: "We just won't talk about our feelings for our babies." Maybe silence really was golden?
Cautiously, I wrote about my experience in my first book, and I didn't get struck by lightning! But my mother-in-law reflected that she felt a little sad at seeing what she'd missed in her own postpartum stays, where the babies were routinely filed away in the "nursery." With a pang, I saw that talking about happy experiences can make others feel sad, inadequate, cheated and upset. Sure, the feeling of connection is blissful -- but it's the opposite painful sense of disconnection that surprises many of us in newborn time. Our baby may not seem familiar at all, but more like a total stranger. Love and bonding may develop slowly or be eclipsed by other feelings. Maybe we should keep quiet about the happier possibilities, out of consideration for the many parents who face a rocky postpartum period?
But even the most "perfect" births and bonding times are sure to include some disappointments and things we'd like to change. Recalling my childbirth and postpartum days, I realize that most of the problems I met were caused by lack of communication. Questions I didn't know to ask, details they thought I didn't need to know... (like, "If there's even a trace of meconium in the waters, you won't get to use the birthing room after all!") Sometimes, when we try to spare people's feelings, all we're really doing is withholding the information they need for their own decisions. (Think of those manuals for new mothers that assure them there's no real difference between breastfeeding and bottle-feeding.)
When we know the possibilities, we can make choices that favor the happiness of babies and parents, and their happiness blesses the world. It has a way of expanding -- especially in the form of this "sense of connection" that begins with our response to a new baby and ripples outward.
Widening Circles of Connection
A couple's empathy and love for one another can deepen as this sense of connectedness enfolds them. During that first postpartum week, the bond between my husband and myself felt like a nourishing cord of light and warmth. Martha writes, "I felt other people's emotions as if they were my own. I knew a great closeness and openness with my husband. I felt his grief at the loss of his job as in the saying, 'When one cries, the other will taste salt.'"
Many new mothers experience a deep bonding with mothers everywhere. Says Sarah, "I remember feeling as if I was connected to all the other mothers of the world. It was something like this: all of us were trees and our roots went down into the earth and were connected together. But that is an inadequate description. It was much more spiritual than earthy. The best I can do is to say that, in the most profound way, I felt connected to all the mothers of the world from the beginning of time."
And the sense of connection goes on expanding outward. Mark describes his experience (in Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin): "Holding Louisa for the first time was the most awesome part for me. Her eyes opened right away and it looked like the Universe being unfolded before my eyes. Her face would go through many changes so that she looked like different people that I knew, and I felt telepathic with those folks through her... I saw that place in Louisa that was in all those people and could feel connected and One with the entire Universe through her."
This loving bond can expand until it seems as though it nurtures the whole world. As one mother mused, a week after her first child's birth, "We are so in love with our baby and each other... and our cat... and everything!" More sedately, a new father wrote, "Our baby has brought a feeling of being more connected with the entire community -- with all life."
These experiences can permanently change us, making us more compassionate and empathetic human beings. Since becoming a mother, Kate says, "I feel as if every baby were my baby, and I feel most sharply that -- what? -- we're all one? I am you and you are me?.. I have a new, deeper love for all people. All baby plants and animals are my baby." Another first-time mother explains how profoundly she feels changed by this expanding bond. Karen writes:
"I stopped belonging just to this generation and became part of the entire human race. Simple daily events that I never questioned before loomed large in my mind. I stopped reading the local paper and its profusion of murders, rapes and fires. No longer could I read or listen to stories of children being abused or abandoned. These would bring on my tears and an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
"Not only did human suffering come out of the background but also I felt strongly about all life on earth. My focus became both smaller and more expanded. I cared deeply about our family -- baby, husband, and me, and spent my energies at home focusing on us. But at the same time I thought more about the world and our place in it. The world opened up and everything took on a new luster..."
New perceptions of the world and our place within it can change the way we feel about ourselves as well. One mother expresses it this way: "I felt a part of the whole picture of the world's beauty and wonder. I felt connected to the natural world."
If we have been closed and disconnected, the bonding time offers us a chance to change. In a way, we come full circle as we experience the trusting openness of a newborn's gaze and feel our own "newborn self" come awake within us. Love melts our protective boundaries for a while and allows us to open and connect, just as we may have done at the time of our own birth.
What can we do to support this power of the bonding time to expand our compassion and empathy? Please share your thoughts about ways we might nurture this bond, to help make a world where we see all children as our own.
Postpartum Rainbow Introduction
Part 2 "All My Senses Were Heightened"
Part 3 "Changing Mind"
Part 4 "The Sea of Emotion"
Part 5 "New Spaces In Our Psyches"