Enjoy The Baby! (It’s Not So Simple)

When I was a new mother, I was frequently accosted by older women in check-out lines instructing me to enjoy my baby. “Enjoy it!” they commanded.  I was tired, haggard, and bitter…and enjoyment of motherhood was not on my radar screen in those moments. The well-intended instruction to “enjoy it” did not sit well with me.  Since that time, I understand better what these women were trying to tell me.  But still, I don’t like it.  I get irritated when I see today’s new moms getting similar directions.  I am certain that I am not alone in my aggravation.

I’ve been thinking about why this is. Why is it so frustrating to mothers of young children to be told to enjoy their babies?

Here is the answer I have come to.  Enjoying a child is a parenting goal. It is an achievement for mothers and fathers.  It does not go without saying that a parent can or will enjoy their child.  This feeling is not automatic for everyone.  In fact, the capacity of a parent to enjoy their child is multiply determined.  Here is my preliminary list of five necessary elements:

1.  Time to Reflect.  Enjoyment of children does not always happen in the moment.  Children, in the moment, are often demanding and annoying. However, in moments of separation, like when the child is in bed, parents can reflect on the day…they can remember the funny or cute things their child did with a smile.  But you need time and space to make room for these feelings. And to have them in the moment is a great achievement!

2. Sleep. I can’t enjoy much of anything when I’m dead tired. Can you?

3.  Support and a Reflecting Community.  I find that parents can enjoy their children better when they have other people around who also love them.  Ideally, other people can give parents a break (and, hence, time to rest and reflect). In addition to time, though, parents benefit from being surrounded by others who can appreciate the beauty in their child.  These loving others help the parent to reflect on their child in a different, often meaningful way. Parents can then see their children from a different perspective. It also helps when a parent gets to behold someone else admiring their child. Pride facilitates enjoyment!

4.  Positive Childhood Attachments. Some parents are lucky enough to have been born into good-enough families, and as a result grew into adults with a sense that the world is a safe place. They have positive mental models of parenthood as they become parents themselves. Their secure attachment style  gives them increased freedom to enjoy their child. Other parents are not so lucky.  These parents were born into families where there was trouble, and where things went wrong in their early days.  They did not develop a sense of safety and security in the world, because, for them, they could not necessarily rely on others to meet their needs. Compared to parents with a secure attachment, parents with an insecure attachment have increased difficulty enjoying their children.

5.  Psychological Strength.  Parents who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental disorders tend to have a hard time bonding with their baby.  I, personally, believe that these feelings are associated with a parent’s own upbringing.  (Although this is not always the case.)  When a parent is suffering, whatever the cause, enjoyment capacity also suffers.  In fact, the absence of the capacity to enjoy (i.e., anhedonia) is a diagnostic criterion for depression. Parents who are emotionally depleted cannot enjoy their children to the same degree as their non-depressed, non-anxious counterparts.

There was a great opinion piece in the NY Times last October by David Bornstein on protecting children from toxic stress.  One thing that stood out in this article was a quote by the clinical director of a program that works to repair broken attachments in parents, for the sake of their children.  She says of the parents’ responses to their children, “We want delight! Delight is protective.”

Yes.  Exactly.  We want delight!  We want parents to enjoy their children! Let’s work, as a society, to help this be possible for every parent.  And let’s keep in mind that these feelings don’t happen on demand, in check-out lines.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.
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Birth of a Mother

I have been reading a book by Daniel Stern called “The Birth of a Mother.” Daniel Stern was a psychiatrist who worked with parents and infants, who wrote extensively about this work, and who has been a major professional inspiration to me.

In “The Birth of a Mother”, Dr. Stern writes about the phases women go through as they enter into motherhood. During pregnancy, he writes, women spend a great deal of time fantasizing about their baby–the kind of child it will be, the role it will play, and the relationship it will have to her. (Of course, this is all fantasy, and eventually the real baby will replace the fantasy baby in the mother’s mind, if all goes well.)

According to Dr. Stern, these are some common baby roles/identities expectant moms imagine:

-The baby will be a giver of unconditional love

-The baby could be a replacement for a deceased love one

-The baby might be expected to be an antidepressant

-The mother may wish to fulfill her own dreams vicariously through the baby

-The baby could be expected to be the glue that holds the parents’ marriage together

-The mother may worry that the father will experience the baby as his competitor for his wife’s attention/affection

-The baby will enable the parents to become the perfect family

-The mother may worry that her baby will perpetuate particular flaws that run in the family

-The baby can be seen as a gift from the husband, from medical science, or from God

-The baby may be expected to contribute to the upward social mobility of the family, especially when the parents are emigrants

-Mothers may also imagine that their baby will be the family conciliator who will bridge interpersonal divides and repair damaged relationships among family members

-Babies are also sometimes expected to carry on the family traditions in terms of work, education, status, etc

Reading Dr. Stern’s categories made me aware that in my first pregnancy, I had hoped my baby would be a “dream fulfiller” as well as the “family conciliator.” First, I had wanted him to be a girl, since girls are scarce in my husband’s family–so I thought having a daughter would endear me to my in-laws. I also wanted a daughter so that I could experience the loving mother-daughter relationship I never had with my own mother but had yearned for. Learning that I was having a son simultaneously shattered both of those fantasies (and even more so when I found out my second baby was another son, since we were stopping at two).

After I had embraced the gender of my baby, though, I began to imagine that he would be the magnet that would finally draw my family together. And, more than that, he would help me to build closer relationships with my husband’s family. But–once he was born–it was clear that no baby could work these kind of interpersonal miracles. And it was too much to ask of him. Over time, I had to let go of my wishes and accept the reality my baby and of motherhood, with all of its beauty, wonder, pain, and fatigue.

And now, as I reflect on this, I am completely amazed by the mental work that women do as they become mothers. Really–becoming a mother is probably the most maturing experience a woman can have.

I wonder–do any of these fantasy-baby categories sound familiar to you? Do you remember how you reconciled your fantasy baby with your real-life baby? If so, did it require a lot of mental effort, or was it instantaneous and natural?

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.