On Bonding

by Asheya on February 21, 2012

I’m a part of an email list on maternity care issues, because of my work here for Mothers of Change.  Asheya signed me up for the list so I could have access to conversations and research links on pregnancy and birth related topics, and it is fascinating and very overwhelming.  Ina May Gaskin is a list member, for example.  Sarah Buckley.  Big names in birth circles, people.
Anyways, there was a little explosion recently in some discussion regarding mode of birth and bonding.  I’m a list lurker so I’m not allowed to add my 2 cents, but I figured I would offer it here.

The natural birth community emphasizes the natural bonding process that happens during and after a natural birth as being designed for survival of the species and involving a complex mixture of hormones Dr Michel Odent calls the”love cocktail.”  It is felt that interference in the natural process with drugs to induce or augment labour, analgesia for pain, or even a great degree of disturbance during labour can interrupt the natural flow or cascade of hormones, and interfere with bonding.  “How do we live, without love?” asks Dr Odent in The Business of Being Born.  I think what he is doing, in asking this, is challenging the now normal medicalization of birth on a cultural level.  He is not challenging our ability to love our babies born by ‘unnatural’ means, as individual parents.  He’s asking a valid question which challenges our culture’s beliefs surrounding birth.  One of those beliefs is that birth is entirely physical.  The only thing that matters is the mechanics of birth and whether the baby comes out, and that both the woman and baby are alive at the end of the day.  This is a medical view and is so pervasive that surgical birth is now the most common operation that is performed in Canada, and nobody bats an eye.
Does it matter how our babies come into the world?
Yes, and no.

The list discussion got heated because someone challenged the Dr Odent idea that a non natural birth is less than optimal for the bonding process.  It was stated that cesarean babies integrate wholly and rapidly into the heart of their families, and that adopted children bond fully and should not be disqualified from being “bonded” just because of the way they came into the family.

I have a unique perspective on this topic.  I have had a cesarean, an adoption, and two natural births (one with oxytocin immediately after birth, and the other with oxytocin about 30 minutes after birth: this is significant because oxytocin is considered one of the main “love” hormones and synthetic oxytocin blocks the body’s production of natural oxytocin and does not have the same “love” effect on the emotions: this is considered more relevant during labour and delivery than afterwards, but I thought I should mention it.  Not, in fact, fully, 1000% natural, per se, to all people.  But natural according to me).  I have the unique opportunity to compare the bonding process from three different perspectives.

There are complicating factors, but I think it could be said that my experience might be similar to many.  My first baby was unplanned, and difficult for me to wrap my mind around.  His birth was totally unnatural.  Not a single contraction.  Just check in to the hospital in the morning, get a spinal anasthesia in the afternoon, and ten minutes later get sliced open and voila!  You’re a mom.  Very odd.  Surreal.  He cried and I thought it was someone else’s baby.  The first time I held him I felt nothing.  No emotion.  Zero.  I didn’t feel bad or unhappy, I just didn’t feel anything.  It was taking awhile for my body and my mind to catch up with what had happened to my uterus (ie, the baby came OUT, so it was time to BOND).  In the recovery room afterwards, when I was separated from Ayden, I started to feel restless and anxious to see my baby and hold him, and by the end of my weekend hospital stay I really felt like a remarkable miracle had occurred and his name was Ayden.  I was surprised by the force of my desire to study him; watch his face while he slept and marvel at his random arm movements.
And yet, I didn’t feel the love.  I felt love, and I felt bonded, and in particular when I breastfed Ayden I felt extremely powerful and amazing and loving.  But I didn’t feel the way people describe as you know that love you feel for your kids, and how strong it is?  And how it is different from any other love?  Yeah, I didn’t feel that.  I felt the same kind of love for Ayden that I did for my parents or my sister.  Familial, and strong, but the same.
I shrugged.  I figured maybe I loved my parents and siblings more than your average person?  Who knows.  But then when he was 5 1/2 months I read a book about a woman whose baby was taken from her at birth in captivity and kept in the next room until he died of starvation, in order to torture her.  I looked at Ayden in the middle of the night as I read that book and BOOM, I felt the love.  And I’ve felt it ever since.

Matthew also had complicating factors.  Namely: my brand of crazy.  My anxiety disorder totally interfered with our relationship and the normal development of love between an adopted child and his mother.  Also complicating was the factor of his intense personality and how difficult it was to feel anything except flat out running for the sake of survival.  It was all about feeding and bathing and keeping the kid alive, and I didn’t have a spare nanosecond to relish him.  Study his sleeping facial expressions?  Marvel at random arm movements?  THERE WAS NO TIME.  THERE WAS TOO MUCH POOP TO CLEAN UP!  And just keeping that kid alive was a double shift, I tell you.  It still is.  Bonding with him was a slo-o-o-o-o-www process.  Each day was a day where we shifted closer, but it took three years to feel the love.  I think most adoptive parents feel it much faster than that, but I don’t think many of them feel it instantly.  And yes, I’ve felt it ever since.  And yes, it is the same.  It feels the same as the love for biological children, although it took longer to grow and is generally more complicated with feelings of guilt, fear, worry over identity issues, and the need to reinvent the wheel so often as an adoptive parent when you stumble upon problems that simply don’t exist for biological families.  Like a lack of access to medical history, for example.  We have no idea if ADD runs in Matthew’s biological family, if he was exposed to alcohol as a fetus, or if he had medication during his birth.  We just have to wing it, sometimes.  There are a lot of emotions that surround this, and any issues that arise as an adopted child grows up are always complicated by fear that adoption caused it, contributed it, or may derail it in some way.  Worry can cloud positive emotions, like love.  It doesn’t erase it, but you spend less time relishing it and more time dwelling and worrying.  The love that I do feel for this particular baby of mine is very dear to me, because it was so hard won.  Feeling the love for him is victory and triumph, every time.

I had Riley naturally, vaginally, no drugs, minimal disturbance, minimal interference, fully on my own steam and power.  And the bonding was seamless.  There was no before and after.  There was no love and love.  There was just always the love, from before he was earthside.  Some of this was the preparedness we felt for his pregnancy, and how much we planned for and wanted a baby at that point in our life, and some of it was the way he was born.

I had Amarys naturally, vaginally, no drugs, NO disturbance, no interference, no fear, no worry, all peace, and all of my own power.  It was seamless again.  I felt less interconnected with Amarys before she was born than I did with Riley, likely partially because I had more time and energy to focus on Riley while pregnant because I had no toddler to care for (just a four and five year old), and partially because we found out at the ultrasound that he was a boy, so I felt like I knew him a bit better in utero.  But despite this minor difference in my feelings of closeness with each pregnant belly, there was always just the love with Amarys, too.  The euphoria is remarkable, and emphasizes how one and yet two we are, when we give birth to a baby.

Some women feel ambiguity towards naturally birthed babies, and some women feel the love during a cesarean birth process; we are not lemmings and our DNA does not prescribe a certain path for all of us.  But I would say that in my experience, the journey towards bonding is largely already traveled by the time  your baby is born with natural birth.  Whereas cesarean birth needs some patience, as several of the stepping stones in the path have been skipped over, and need a few extra minutes, hours, days (or months, in my case) to realign.  Because each stone must be traversed.  Not in order, but it must be traversed.  And adoption requires building your own path.  You don’t traverse a predesigned, prefabricated path that nature has laid in your hormonal and biological makeup.  You make it yourself.  You cut the rock, carry it, lay it down in a foundation you poured yourself, and then you traverse it.  No biology to give you a leg up (but no biology to get in the way, either).  It is harder to build and incredibly valuable as a result.

And you know what?  Adopting a child is a lot like becoming a dad, really.  The biology is all heavily weighted for the woman, but dads get the love bug deep in their souls, too.  Rather than hormones, it’s all about the cerebral cortex.  An incredible example of the flexibility and adaptability of the human animal.  Adaptability is one of our greatest assets, and part of why humans survive a vast array of environments, life experiences, diets, and social patterns.  And family.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael June 10, 2012 at 5:09 am

Thank you for you openness about this!


Heather B September 17, 2014 at 8:17 pm

I had an emergency C-section and didn’t get to hold my baby right away. But bonding for me actually started during pregnancy. We very intentionally began the bonding process by regularly reading a week-by-week development book. It is truly amazing to track the miracle that is taking place. It really made a difference for me even after birth, and it was great for my husband, too. Now, there are a lot of great books and blogs out there to serve this purpose, but the one I’m reading now blows all the others away, and it’s great for every pregnancy, not just the first. Not only does it have even more development details than usual, and personalized, it has a section in it where you can journal or write letters to baby. It’s called “The Wonder Within You: celebrating your baby’s journey from conception to birth” by Carey Wickersham. It’s an awesome combination of week-to-week information, what’s going on with the baby, “Did you know?” plus health advice about what to eat, cravings, nutrition, etc, BUT also with awesome 3D/4D pictures and videos you can link or QR with your phone to and see what your baby looks like at each week stage. I’ve just not seen anything exactly like it! It’s got famous quotes and real mom stories, too. The pregnancy information is as up-to-date as it gets and it’s such a great keepsake. I want to get one for everybody I know who is expecting! I highly recommend it! http://www.TheWonderWithinYou.com.


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