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You Can’t Hurry Love

Postpartum aftershocks

The reasons new parents don't always fall in love instantly with their newborn are as varied as the mix-and-match DNA of babies themselves. One potential factor: the way American culture romanticizes the first months of parenthood. Just consider how many images you see in the media of an infant curling a tiny hand around an adult's index finger. Ross Thompson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, wonders if these images delude some prospective parents about the unrelenting demands of caring for an infant. Brian Cullman, a composer in New York City, had figured parenthood would be "like life before -- only with a baby thrown in for good measure. It's amazing that in reality a creature so small can be so all-consuming, so unequivocal in its needs."

What's more, many first-time parents don't have the support network that their parents did. New mothers routinely used to spend a week recovering in the hospital, but that's no longer the case. Working women often return to their job at the expense of really feeling connected to their baby. And parents receive less help from extended family, who are more likely to live in another state. "Parenting can be tremendously isolating," says Thompson, "especially when you're tied to home."

That rings true for Terry Moser, a stay-at-home mother in Brooklyn, whose primary goal each day following the birth of her daughter became simply taking a shower. But Moser, whose husband connected with their daughter with ease, believes other factors also got in the way of her bonding -- not least of which was her inability to produce enough breast milk. This required her to bottle-feed as well as nurse. "I'd expected that the heavens were going to shine on me, and I was going to put my breast in the baby's mouth and we would be fine and happy. But at first the whole breastfeeding thing was very upsetting. I felt like my body was failing me."

Moser, who began to bond with her daughter at 7 months, also suffered one of the most common maladies of new parenthood: sleep deprivation. "It was unbelievable. I said to my friend, 'This is something they would do to a prisoner of war.' "

Cornell University sleep researcher James B. Maas, Ph.D., author of Remmy and the Brain Train, estimates that a newborn's primary caregiver loses up to 700 hours of sleep during the first year of parenting. "It's hard to love anyone when you feel miserable, and you feel miserable because you're tired," he says.

It's also hard to love someone when you don't like her looks. Despite studies that suggest Mother Nature designed babies with cute, easy-to-love faces, some parents are disturbed to discover that they've actually created a seven-pound eight-ounce, red-faced, squinty-eyed, chinless squaller. Amy Bernstein of Milwaukee blames her struggle with PNA on the fact that her perpetually crying daughter was a ringer for her own volatile mother. "My mom was a screamer," says Bernstein. "You never knew what was going to set her off. And here I had this kid who looked like my mother and screamed all the time. She was about six weeks old when I finally sat down and had a conversation with myself: 'This is a baby; it's not your mother.' "

Even cherubic babies can disappoint their parents by offering scant feedback. After all, newborns devote most of their time to eating and sleeping. "If the baby isn't responsive to 'goo-goo-ga-ga' talk, some parents may be less interested," says Justin Frank, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University Medical Center.

Some parents unconsciously resent a baby's ability to demand whatever she wants, says Dr. Frank. This can be especially true for fathers, who may find themselves jealous of the attention that their partner lavishes on the newborn. "And if the father has younger siblings, he may reexperience his childhood pain of being excluded when the new baby comes," he says.

"It's not particularly rewarding having a newborn," agrees Moser. "It's like a backpack that eats and poops and wakes you up at night. There's no one else you're expected to love at first sight. And here comes this thing that's all take and no give, and you're expected to love it immediately."