By Stephanie Noll
When I found out I was pregnant, I began thinking a lot about what it meant to be a “good” mother. I became fixated on the idea of having a natural childbirth, assuming this was the path that would lead straight to an instantaneous bond with my baby. When the possibility of a C-section came up in our birthing class, I looked away and my husband reached for my hand.
“There’s the birth, and there’s the baby,” my doula said to me, after 20 hours of intense labor and an epidural, when my doctor suggested it was time to consider a C-section. We cried—my doula, my husband, and I—but as I made the decision that we knew was best for the baby, I also put aside my desire for immediate skin-to-skin contact, and my hope for the easy breastfeeding and bonding experience I was told would come with it.
If only I had tried harder, meditated, taken Bradley classes, delivered at home in an inflatable pool. These are the thoughts that plagued me. And while I understood they were not really connected to my son Xavier, or might have no bearing on what our bond would look like, I still wondered whether my unplanned childbirth experience would have some kind of impact on our mother-child relationship. When the doctor held him up to me, though, when my husband announced, “It’s a boy!,” and I saw my baby’s face, it was like seeing an old, but also a new friend, one I couldn’t wait to catch up with.
During the first weeks of Xavier’s life it was as though an impenetrable forcefield settled over our house. It was one of the hottest summers on record, but we didn’t mind. We cranked up the air conditioning, slept when Xavier slept, and danced with him at 3am when he wouldn’t. My husband, Xavier, I—we were blissed out. Having one baby—and an easy baby to boot—was like having an accessory that we’d take to restaurants and museums; we even flew together to visit family in Pennsylvania and Kansas. It took six months for me to fully recover from the C-section, but what occupied my thoughts was this love for my baby, a connection that felt otherworldly. Any guilt or reservation about a “failed” birth plan was replaced by an unwavering commitment to the actual child in front of me.
Seventeen months later, and pregnant with my second, friends would tell me that a mother’s love multiplies rather than divides. I wasn’t worried, though, that I wouldn’t have enough love. My concerns were more practical. I worried about having two kids in diapers, I worried that they wouldn’t nap simultaneously, I worried about entertaining Xavier while I nursed the baby. I worried about them loving each other, but I didn’t worry about my love for them. Even though I had no regrets on how Xavier’s birth plan turned out, I still felt committed to experiencing this next childbirth without intervention. While I knew firsthand that a C-section could lead to a perfectly healthy, happy, baby, I still wanted to know the physical capabilities of my body and spirit, that I was able, strong, and ready—and this I equated with a vaginal birth.
Elias’s birth story began much like Xavier’s—my water broke, my contractions slow to come—but the ending was completely different. I had a VBAC, something one mama friend calls “the unicorn of birth stories.” Getting to bring Elias into the world as I intended—the “good birth” I had planned for—still filled me with wistful hope for our bond. This despite my sweet, smiling 23-month old with whom I felt a strong connection, who came into this world opposite to the way I had planned for him.
Though I had a “perfect” labor and delivery with Elias, we didn’t bond immediately. We did have the skin-to-skin contact I missed out on with Xavier, but this didn’t prevent problems breastfeeding. I might have had enough milk to feed the neighborhood, but Elias and I couldn’t figure out how to get it into him. It was the second hottest summer on record, and this time around I did mind, mostly because I spent my days chasing Xavier while Elias was strapped to me in an Ergo. Was it colic, reflux, or food allergies that made Elias cry every waking moment? He came with a host of newborn problems that despite my best efforts—with lactation consultants, reflux meds, and an elimination diet—I couldn’t solve.
My doula’s words kept coming back to me: there’s the birth, and there’s the baby. They were more relevant than ever. Having the birth I wanted didn’t mean I connected with the baby that came from it. Not immediately, and if I’m being honest, not for months. And, if I’m being painfully honest, not for years. Birth can be a monumental moment full of grace and light, yes, but it’s only a moment. The baby itself, if we’re lucky, offers many, many more.
Stephanie Noll is a writer and storyteller living in Austin, Texas. Her essays are forthcoming in Modern Loss, Precipice Collective, and The Postpartum Years: an Anthology.