Bonding is the most important foundation in your relationship with your child. Imagine trying to love your husband if you weren’t bonded to him, and him to you. It would be so difficult. You’d feel an incredible burden to keep a good attitude, think well of each other, and remember to serve each other. You could go on your own efforts for awhile, but you’d get exhausted eventually. And every time you had a crisis yourself, or a bad mood, you couldn’t keep up the facade.
Being bonded to your children is similar. It isn’t an end in itself, but a means to an end. Ideally, it is established in the first days or weeks with your newborn, but sometimes it doesn’t happen and you have to work at it later. When you adopt a child, you still need to bond, and it can take awhile if the child is older or has problems adjusting.
Here are some questions you can ask to gauge your bonding with your child:
- How often do I look him in the eyes? And does he look at mine? Do I have trouble looking at his face, watching him if he is looking, or otherwise paying attention to him?
- Do I like him? Do I enjoy being around him, or is it difficult for me to like and feel comfortable in his presence?
- Do I feel anxiety around him, or when he has a problem?
- Does it feel unnatural for me to move towards him, proactively? (i.e. to think of giving him a hug, or starting an activity with him that he’d like) Or do I mostly respond to what comes up?
- How hard is it hard for me to keep liking him when he messes up? Am I able to separate his problems or weak areas from his person? Do I inwardly criticize his personality (or see it as unspiritual), wishing it were some other way?
- Do I try to give someone else responsibility to take care of him, when it is available? When dad, grandma, a babysitter, ,or a friend who likes him is over, am I relieved or hopeful that they’ll take care of doing the loving?
All these types of things sound crazy to the bonded parent but are very real to the unbonded one. Many times, when they are felt towards a newborn, they are the symptoms of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is very real and very serious, and this is why people always tell the new mom to mention it to a doctor—it is why lots of moms drown their babies or kill them, while the uncomprehending world who hears of it shakes its head in disbelief. We just can’t imagine how a mother (or father) could commit such an atrocity to her own flesh and blood. But it is possible that radical hormones or selfishness can motivate this type of behavior. (Of course, the remedy and response to these two different causes should be very different as well.)
Also, there is hope if you are not bonded! Don’t fall for the lie that you can’t bond later with your child, or that you or they are essentially unlovable. Bonding often occurs naturally through birth, breastfeeding, or quality time with your baby. But when it doesn’t, eliminating things that are causing tension or confronting fears by spending more quality time with just you and the child can foster bonding. It is harder to do unnaturally (with explicit effort) what is often accomplished naturally (without explicit effort), but it definitely can be done!
Here’s a suggestion: When things are going well, try taking a short trip with just you and the child. Try to make him or her happy with your selection, and do something that makes you happy too. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and don’t do a lot of correction. Make it an easy, peaceful time. Get to know the child as much as possible. This is difficult when they are a baby or toddler because they can’t actually talk with you much. But try to observe the child in a natural environment and appreciate them. Try to see the loving things, the positive things, the way they are similar to you… rather than the weak areas, the offensive things, and the way they are different. Don’t let yourself observe bad things or criticize their personality. Keep a pleasant voice, keep a nice tone. Act the way you ideally would act if you had all the feelings you want to have. Imagine yourself having those feelings. Imagine what you would do and say, and do those things. And don’t berate yourself if the feelings still don’t come or another obstacle comes up (which will inevitably happen with little ones!). Feelings are not your god. And they usually don’t come in a day. But keep working for what you envision, repent when you’re thinking negatively, and keep praying for God’s love for the child (AND for you, as you are probably feeling inadequate and guilty, or angry).
The bonding is available. It will come.