Is Bonding a Fraud?

There’s probably nobody more susceptible to guilt-tripping than a parent. We want so badly to do a good job; we’re constantly reaching for more information, understanding, and help to do it better; we see anything less than perfection as a grievous hurt to a child; and there are so many contradictory messages in the larger environment about how to raise children, that just about anything we do (or don’t do) can be called into question.

Take “bonding” for example. The current message is that a mother needs time with her baby right after the baby is born, so that they can “bond”. Now there are a lot of things that are right about this approach. It makes infinitely more sense for a mother and a baby to be together right after birth than for the baby to be whisked off to some anonymous nursery for hours. If talk about the importance of bonding helps to change those hospital practices then it is a clear step forward.

But what happens if you and your baby--horror of horrors--fail to “bond?” What happens if, after those fist few magical hours together, you look at that wonderful little bundle in your arms and you don’t feel totally connected, you still see a stranger? What could be a more damning indictment of your ability to be a successful (even adequate) mother? You start off this whole process with a very black mark against you. Or, perhaps even worse, what happens if you’re the father? Since bonding seems to be something magical that happens between mother and newborn, then you start off, not with a black mark but with a hopeless handicap in developing your relationship with your new baby.

When I failed to “bond” with my second child--as I had with my first--I began to wonder about the nature of the whole phenomenon. We had planned for this child carefully and had a wonderful birth experience (in contrast to that of his older brother). He was beautiful and a pleasure to be with and I was very pleased to have him. But there was nothing magical--no instant knowing. Then I began to think, “How could I know him? He’s come to live with us, we’re delighted to have him, prepared to love him, very ready to take on all the responsibilities of caring for him, but the reality is that he’s a stranger; we’ve never seen him before in our life.”

This brought a fresh insight: developing a relationship with a newborn is not magic; it is basically the same as developing a relationship with anybody else; You spend time together; you get to know each other; you communicate and share of yourselves as fully as the situation allows.

The thing that is so special with babies is that they come to that new relationship, for the most part, without reservations, barriers or old hurts. They are ready to take in all that you offer and to give fully of all that they have. This may be what has given rise to the feelings of magic and the myth of bonding. If a mother comes prepared to love fully as perhaps she has been been able to love before, and meets clear-eyed total acceptance, it can easily feel like a miracle. That is certainly a wonderful start, but not a substitute for getting to know each other. (It’s a bit like the difference between “falling in love” and building a strong on-going loving relationship.)

If we come out and call “bonding” a fraud, and focus instead on the starting of a new relationship, then many other things fall into place. The mother above gets her wonderful magical-feeling first moments. The father has a real shot at building his own relationship with the newborn (though work roles and societal expectations may set up real obstacles). And the mother who comes to the birth without a strong agenda of finding someone to love (or with emotional obstacles that make it hard to happen right away), gets to live with this little stranger and develop the relationship at her leisure without having to cope with a load of guilt.