After his son was born, David Gittelman was in no mood to pass out cigars. He had expected to fall in love with his baby as soon as he laid eyes on him; instead, he and his wife, Kathy, felt "uncomfortable...underwhelmed."
Nathan, an unplanned addition to the family, had been conceived only nine months after the birth of the couple's first child, a daughter named Marisa. Even with months to get used to the idea of having a second baby so soon, the Gittelmans still found themselves unsettled about the situation as Nathan's due date approached. "I was heading back to work, I was heading back to having my body back," recalls Kathy. "I felt like the baby was an intruder in my life, and especially in my relationship with my daughter."
To pacify a clingy Marisa, Kathy let the 18-month-old sleep with her. Meanwhile, Nathan bunked with Dad down the hall. David dutifully bathed, changed, and fed him, but, he says, "I felt completely displaced. I was no longer in my room, in my own bed. Of course, my sleep went straight into the toilet. I held Marisa like nothing could ever pry her from my arms. I held Nathan like 'Well, I'm resolved to do this.' "
It's rarely admitted, but plenty of parents initially want to shoot -- or at least shoo away -- the stork. Call it postnatal ambivalence, or PNA. It affects everyone from unwed teenage mothers to fathers in their 40s, from contented couples to those verging on divorce. What often unites them is profound guilt and a fear that their emotions -- or lack thereof -- will scar their children. That, and feeling like pariahs in a culture that preaches "Love thy newborn now!"
David, an advertising executive in Philadelphia, was surprised to find that out when he attended a sales workshop six weeks after Nathan's birth. "One of the first exercises was to go around the room, introduce yourself, and say something that you wouldn't typically say," he says. "I told everyone that I'd just had my second child and that I wasn't that excited about his arrival, and hoped that would change. There was such silence in that room! Everyone looked at me as if I had just announced that I had a new son and had lopped off all his limbs."
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."
Making the connection
Understanding possible causes of PNA still leaves an important question unanswered: Are temporarily ambivalent parents permanently damaging their children? There's a dearth of studies on the issue. One, by Family Health International, a nonprofit organization committed to improving the health of women and children worldwide, found that Brazilian infants whose mothers had expressed doubts during pregnancy about having a child scored lower on aptitude tests at age 1 than their immediately loved peers.Still, most child-development experts believe that babies with initially wishy-washy parents will be just fine, provided that their parents act in a loving and responsible way -- even if they don't much feel like it. "Feelings of love will come when you repeatedly act in a loving way toward your child," insists Tucson, Arizona, psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D. "If you're rocking the baby, cuddling her, reading to her, and talking to her while you feed her, it doesn't make a difference how you feel. Just do it."
Thompson advises parents simply to allow themselves time to become acquainted with their offspring: "The bottom line is that parents who go through the shock of having a newborn shouldn't worry if they take some time to get used to it."
Patience eventually paid off for the Gittelmans. "When Nathan was around 3 months, Marisa started getting less clingy and I could pay more attention to him," says Kathy. "She wasn't always in my face or in his, and I could make eye contact with him. He was starting to sit up and roll over. That's when I fell in love with him." David warmly remembers that his relationship with his son changed soon after the boy began to talk in full sentences at 18 months. "I used to grab Nathan and wrestle with him and say, 'Who's my big boy?' Well, the day Nathan looked up at me and laughed and said in a little voice, 'Meeee!' -- that was the best day. I love him more than I ever thought I would, which is great -- and a relief."
David Wallis is the editor of Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print. He also contributes to The New York Times and The Washington Post.