In my experience, there are few types of love that are truly unconditional. From significant others to best friends, I've witnessed all kinds of love disintegrate like candy hearts discarded at the back of a drawer. The one exception to this rule? The love between a mother and child, which is a hybrid of pure affection and utmost interdependency.
For years, I've watched in awe as little ones adoringly gaze up at mommy or daddy, their gaze confirming that this person is their everything. So when I found out I was expecting a little girl, I counted down the days for someone to love me that unconditionally, too. What can I say? I love being loved.
Before my daughter Luna was born, I read up on the milestones she should experience in her first year of life. WebMD told me that I could expect her first genuine smile around six to eight weeks (any smile before then would supposedly just be gas or a mindless reflex). WhatToExpect estimated that it'd happen a little sooner, at approximately four to six weeks.
No amount of reading, however, helped me conceptualize just how few emotions Luna would be able to display once she was with me. Discomfort and annoyance, sure. Love, recognition, or even just contentment? Not so much. That's why, for whatever reason, I've been finding it difficult to show tons of affection to Luna.
The first few weeks of motherhood were some of the hardest of my life. Never mind the 52 hours of birth, 48 of which spent sans epidural and with contractions I thought would rip open my lower half, like some post-apocalyptic birthing scene out of The Walking Dead. That was all easy, compared to what happened after we took Luna home.
This tiny human was taking up every second of every day, and I was pouring all of my affection and energy and strength into her. But she couldn't really love me back. Not yet, anyway.
For almost three weeks, Luna struggled to latch onto my breasts. She struggled to sleep, mainly because we had to wake her up every two hours to cup-feed her some milk. When she did eat, her feeds would last another few hours, a byproduct of being born quite small and not strong enough to suck or drink with gusto. And when she did sleep, I was too exhausted to do the same.
So here was this tiny human who I already adored, beyond a doubt. This tiny human was taking up every second of every day, and I was pouring all of my affection and energy and strength into her. But she couldn't really love me back. Not yet, anyway.
I'm sure that Luna barely knew what was going on around her. According to BabyCenter.com, she wouldn't even be able to focus her vision until the end of the first month, after all. All the knowledge and logic didn't make it any easier to handle my baby's apparent apathy, though.
People often joke that babies have four jobs: Sleeping, eating, pooping through their clothes, and screaming loudly enough for the neighbors to hear, should the aforementioned three tasks not go according to plan. But I never could have anticipated how much the screaming would overwhelm me, and how difficult it would be to love something so hard when all they could do in return was cry.
I never could have anticipated how much the screaming would overwhelm me, and how difficult it would be to love something so hard when all they could do in return was cry.
It's not that my love for her lessened as a result. It's not that I stopped wanting to take care of her, either. I did, however, feel utterly defeated. I found myself crying whenever she did, or in the bathroom when I finally got the chance to pee in solitude, or in bed with her in the middle of the night as I tried and failed to get her to latch onto my breasts. She couldn't understand that I was just trying to help her; just trying to love her. And so my desire to show her that love wavered, even if the love itself didn't.
Although science can tell us all about our babies' milestones, I don't doubt that many of us paint inner pictures of what we believe the first weeks of parenthood will be like. Other parents might tell us about the exhaustion; some might joke about how hellish it is, while simultaneously reassuring us that "it's still totally worth it."
But what no one really says is, "Hey, be prepared for your baby to be an angry, screaming, splotchy blob who can't display positive feelings or affection after birth. They won't be like that forever. But the development of empathy and humanity and maybe even love takes time. And you'll need a lot of patience."
When I brought this up with a friend recently, she told me that maybe Luna's dependency was her way of showing affection. I brushed her off initially, but the words stuck with me, and I eventually wondered how much we can ever separate love and dependency from each other in any relationship.
We often love the people we feel we can rely on: The ones who will be there through every bad day and every tear-filled nervous breakdown; the ones who won't walk away when things get hard; the ones who will take care of us when we need it most.
So maybe that's where it starts for newborns. They don't have the physical or cognitive abilities needed to display affection as some of us, myself included, might want them to. They can't cuddle or speak or kiss, and it's hard as hell to accept that when you're going on 40 minutes of sleep in two days. But they can count on us. And one day — hopefully somewhere around the four to eight-week mark, they'll give us a little smile. And that little smile will feel like the "I love you" that you've been waiting for.
Or it'll just be gas. But you'll take it anyway because it's way better than the screaming.