I wish I could say I felt like a mom the moment I held my first child. I wish I could wax poetic about the second my newborn looked into my eyes, or could write eloquent (and probably long-winded) sentences about some overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling of maternal instinct and serenity that overcame me seconds after giving birth. But I can't. It would be a lie. I held my son and felt like an imposter; a fraud; like someone calling me "mom" was a mistake. I found myself asking, "When will I feel like a real mom?", terrified that the answer would be never.
For me, and many others, it can take a while to feel like you're an "actual" parent. My son was a solid 6 months old before I felt like I was a real-life, full-blown mother. And sadly, for the first six months of my new life as a parent, I felt ashamed as a result. I didn't experience the "love at first sight" moment so many new moms proudly describe. I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing... at all. I didn't feel the way I thought I was supposed to feel.
Thankfully, my experience isn't abnormal.
"It's common for a woman not to feel connected or like a 'real mom' right after giving birth," psychologist Dr. Venus Mahmoodi of the Seleni Institute tells Romper. According to Dr. Mahmoodi, women go through a process called "maternal preoccupation," where a woman's hopes, dreams, and emotions are associated with her baby or future baby. "It's almost like an obsession with her baby and imagining what it's like to care for her baby or be a mother," she says. Many women experience maternal preoccupation during their first and third trimesters, Dr. Mahmoodi says, and that preoccupation often results in an immediate bond and connection post-birth.
For others, however, it can take about three to six months after their baby is born before they feel connected to their child. "If there is further delay, it might be helpful to see a mental health professional to help assess if there is something getting in the way of developing a strong bond," Dr. Mahmoodi says. "Bonding can be affected by mental health issues (like anxiety and depression) and major life stressors (poverty and family conflict), but not necessarily."
A 2018 study published in the journal Sex & Reproductive Healthcare found that it takes moms about six months to feel confident in their new role as a parent. And another 2018 study of 2,000 moms with children 3 or younger, conducted by OnePoll in conjunction with Store Brand Formula, found that it takes about 14 weeks for a mom to feel like she has "got the hang of motherhood."
By managing anxiety and stress, you can feel like a real parent.
"Our culture and social media often perpetuates the expectations that bonding and feeling like a real mother has to happen right away, from the moment a woman is pregnant or the moment a woman meets her baby," Dr. Mahmoodi says. "Women often feel the pressure or hear stories and want to have similar stories to share with friends." In her practice, Dr. Mahmoodi says she has noticed that when women feel safe and supported enough to tell their real stories about their foray into motherhood, others are often able to connect with them and support them as they navigate the realities of parenthood.
"There is much vulnerability in this process," she says, "but if a woman is able to be vulnerable with peers and her social support she can definitely feel like a real mom sooner."
So if, like me, it's taking longer than you originally thought to feel like you're an actual mom, know that you're not alone and there are things you can do to help support an eventual bond with your baby.
"Be in the moment. Anxiety or stress will get in the way of being in the moment," Dr. Mahmoodi says. "By managing anxiety and stress, you can feel like a real parent." Dr. Mahmoodi also says that being in the moment will help you "observe and connect with your baby."
"I often ask anxious moms to observe their babies and describe what they see. Describe baby's face, eyes, nose, hair, hands, feet," she says. "What does baby's hands feel like? What does baby's head feel like? Use neutral language and enjoy the moment. If it's hard, keep trying."
And, of course, if it's been longer than six months and you still don't feel like a "real" mom yet, it's worthwhile to call a health care professional to discuss your feelings and determine whether or not there's an underlying mental health issue that's keeping you from feeling like the parent you are. "If a woman is concerned about her bonding she can speak to a perinatal mental health specialist who can work with her and figure out what is getting in the way," Dr. Mahmoodi says."
I can't say I felt like a mom the moment I held my baby. But I can say that one magical day, when my son was around 6 months old, I looked at him during a random diaper change and suddenly, overwhelmingly, felt like a mother. Like his mother. And it didn't matter if it took a while for me to get there... it was one of the best feelings in the world.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.