When I was pregnant with my first baby, Mathilda, I imagined her birth would be akin to an ecstatic religious experience -- complete with tears of joy, instant bonding and overwhelming happiness. In truth, Mathilda's birth was a long, drawn-out mess -- labor that didn't progress, followed by an emergency Caesarean section, and ending with one drugged-out, beaten-down mom. After she was born, the only emotion I remember experiencing was relief that the ordeal was over. I'm hardly alone; childbirth doesn't always go according to plan -- emotionally, as well as physically. Read on for the skinny about birth and postpartum experiences that may catch you off guard from birth experts and moms who've been there.
Surprise: You're not euphoric
Gentle warning: The birth of your baby may not be the emotional highlight of your life, and that's okay. Noelle Hale of Los Angeles had a long, difficult labor with her baby Chloe. "It was intensely painful; not at all the magical, beautiful moment you dream about," she admits. "I got to a point where I just wanted the baby OUT." Noelle experienced pangs of guilt and disappointment because she wasn't overwhelmed with joy at the moment of birth, even though she adored her baby more and more as the days and weeks of new motherhood went on. "Later, I talked to so many friends who had been through similar experiences," says Noelle. "It was such a relief knowing I wasn't the only mom who felt that way."
If it happens to you: Contrary to popular opinion, the glowing "high" of childbirth isn't a universal experience, says psychologist Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood. "New moms experience a myriad of emotions, good and bad," she says. "The thing is, no one prepares you for the negative emotions. But they're completely normal: You're exhausted from labor, frustrated with breastfeeding and completely sleep-deprived." But when we dwell on negative thoughts, they can quickly escalate to "Maybe I'm just a bad mom," or "Maybe I shouldn't have had a baby." A better approach: "Accept all emotions and thoughts as interesting, and move on," suggests Ledley. "You'll have many blissful thoughts -- 'What an adorable baby!' -- as well as worried ones -- 'I can't do this!' Consciously choose not to stay focused on the negatives."
Uh-oh: You don't bond instantly
Like most moms-to-be, Catherine Choi expected to fall in love with her baby at the moment of birth. "But I had never seen a newborn before," says the Toronto, Ontario, mother of two. "Noah was ultra-white with red lips, and his head was elongated from the birth canal and the suction they used to get him out. It was like I was holding an alien -- I felt disconnected from him, and then terrible for feeling that way." Catherine's doctor reassured the new mom that her emotions were normal. "I was still worried," admits Catherine. "But as the day went on, Noah got sweeter and sweeter. By night, I was completely in love with him and couldn't imagine life without him."
If it happens to you: Instant bonding is a lovely thought but does not happen for every mom, says Ledley. "This baby is a human being, and you need to get to know him over time," she says. "Look back on your relationship with your spouse. Did you feel bonded on your first date?" Relax and know that even if you got a rocky start, you and baby will bond during the weeks and months to come. "It really continues for years," says Ledley. There's no magic bullet, she adds; bonding is a process that naturally unfolds as you spend time with your baby. "Just enjoy being a mom," she says. "Bathe, feed and cuddle your baby - the bonding will naturally follow."
Oh, no: You have postpartum depression
About 15 percent of new moms suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), says clinical psychologist Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies and past president of Postpartum Support International, a nonprofit organization that provides awareness, prevention and treatment of mental health issues related to childbearing. The severity and duration of symptoms separate PPD from the milder "baby blues." "Many new moms feel irritated, overwhelmed and sad, with loss of appetite or trouble sleeping," says Bennett, who experienced PPD after both her pregnancies. "But if those feelings don't go away a few weeks after the birth -- if they get in the way of daily functioning -- you may have PPD." The condition is most likely triggered by shifting hormones, but contributing factors can include trauma, lack of support and feelings of inadequacy. Most important: PPD isn't something you can ignore, or wish yourself out of. "It's not a character weakness or personality flaw," says Bennett. "It's not your fault, and it doesn't mean you're a bad person, or a bad mother."
If it happens to you: Carolyn Brink was walloped with PPD immediately after the birth of her first son, Zachary. "My family noticed something as soon as he was placed in my arms after birth," says the Charlotte, North Carolina, mom. " I was just staring at him as if I had no idea what this thing was or what to do with it." Carolyn's husband and family members chalked up her spaciness to exhaustion, but when they got home, Carolyn showed typical, if extreme, PPD symptoms. "I had constant anxiety," she says. "I kept telling everyone that I had made a mistake having a baby, that I wasn't ready to be a mom, even that I wanted to give him away."
Fortunately, Carolyn's family helped care for the baby and got her professional help within the first two weeks. "You need to be honest about how you're feeling," says Carolyn. "You can't get the help you need if you pretend that everything is fine and just push through it." Find a therapist who specializes in PPD, says Bennett, and join a support group. "Online resources such as postpartum.net can also be a great source of support," she suggests. "No one should suffer from PPD in silence."
Yikes! Your guy is a no-show
Your baby's birth went more or less according to plan, with one glaring exception. Your partner, who was so enthusiastic and hands-on during pregnancy and childbirth classes, let you down. He may not have passed out in the delivery room, but he wasn't the comforting pillar of support you were expecting either. (More than one dad has squeamishly declined to cut the umbilical cord.) When our preemie son A.J. was born, my husband, Tony, wouldn't hold him. In his defense, Tony is about 6'3" and built like a linebacker; A.J. was just over 3 pounds. My dear husband was terrified of hurting the baby, who was attached to a jumble of IV tubes and monitor wires. But at the time, I didn't see that. I just saw that Tony wasn't participating.
If it happens to you: First, cut him some slack. The whole birth experience is an emotional roller coaster for dads too, says Bennett. "Men are completely set up," she says. "We're asking them to be birth coaches, husbands, fathers -- it's way too many roles to play." To ease the stress, Bennett recommends having a doula or other non-family member present during labor and delivery. "The emotional and physical support of a nonjudgmental third party really helps the couple," she says. "It takes the pressure off your partner, who may be feeling faint, or is so worried he can't be a real support to you." After all, you want your memories to be about your baby's arrival, not the anger and resentment you felt because your guy didn't live up to some impossible standard.
Shocker: You don't bounce back Hollywood-style
Okay, let's lay it on the line. If you're not wearing skinny jeans or looking like Jessica Alba a month after your baby was born, you are normal. Repeat: normal. Blame the tabloids for our warped view of what new moms are supposed to look like, says Claire Mysko, co-author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. "Recently there's been a huge increase in coverage of celebrity pregnancy and motherhood," she says. "Every celebrity mom profile talks about how she's 'getting her body back.'" These stories create a highly unrealistic image of new motherhood as well as promote the idea that weight loss should be the number-one priority for new moms. It's a setup for major disappointment."
If it happens to you: So you leave the hospital feeling as big as when you went in. So what? Instead of comparing yourself to Hollywood stars (who have nannies, trainers and personal chefs on staff) join a new mom's group for a more realistic view of postpartum life. "Accept the fact that your body changes with pregnancy and motherhood," says Mysko. "Even if you go back to the same weight you were before you were pregnant, your figure will be different." Instead of body-bashing talk, focus on getting as much rest as possible, eating fresh, healthy foods and taking walks with your little one. Soon you'll radiate health, happiness and love for your baby, which feels even better than fitting into your skinny jeans.