Jessica Valenti with her four-week-old daughter Layla, halfway through her stay in hospital. Photograph: Andrew Golis
Mothers are supposed to feel an all-encompassing joy when they look at their children for the first time. But even now, as my daughter celebrates her first birthday, I’m still waiting.
I love my daughter. But not only is this feeling a relatively new one, it’s something that hasn’t come easy – something I have worked towards rather than an innate given.
The guilt of looking at my baby with fondness, not an overflow of emotion, is overwhelming. What kind of mother doesn’t go ga-ga over her infant? But our relationship is complicated. Most mothers and daughters don’t start the jokes about killing each other until the teen years hit, but the unfunny truth is that my daughter and I were a deadly combination before she was even born.
In my 28th week of pregnancy, I developed pre-eclampsia – a leading cause of death in pregnant women and of premature birth. I was blissfully unaware of the war being waged in my body until a routine doctor’s visit and a blood pressure test turned into a frantic rush to the hospital. I had relatively few symptoms, and those I did have seemed innocuous compared with my regular bout of nasty pregnancy side-effects. I’m the woman who vomited in a plastic bag on public transport every day; feeling ill was par for my procreation course.
So my husband and I were surprised when the doctor told us that I wouldn’t be leaving the hospital until I gave birth – whether that be on my due date almost three months away, or within the next 24 hours.
We had a consultation with a neonatologist who explained what to expect when you’re expecting a “preemie”. Brain haemorrhages, developmental and physical delays, underdeveloped lungs and heart, breathing problems, vision and hearing impairments, anaemia, jaundice: it went on and on. “Good that you’re having a girl, though! They do a bit better than the boys,” she said.
My husband and I continued to think it was a fluke. But within two days, my blood pressure continued to rise and I developed a much more dangerous complication – Hellp syndrome – which put my liver in danger of failing. All because I was pregnant. The only cure was not to be. I had a complicated emergency c-section, the memory of which can still bring me to my knees.
But I got off easy compared with my daughter, Layla Sorella, who was born weighing a little over 2lb. Before I could catch little more than a glimpse of her, she was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where she would spend 56 long days.
On a good day, all Layla required was her normal preemie accoutrement: a central line IV that started in between her fingers and ended near her heart, and required her arm to be immobilised by what looked like a splint made of lolly sticks and gauze; a nasal cannula that delivered a steady flow of oxygen, the pressure of which would change depending on how many times she stopped breathing that day; a blood oxygen monitor attached to her foot; four or five wires that measured her heart rate; and the feeding tube inserted through her throat or nose. A maze of wires and tubes to make up for my body’s failures. The bad days are too painful, and private, to describe. But good days or bad, she did not look like a well baby to me. She looked like a baby that would die.
This feeling was only exacerbated when we were allowed to hold Layla for limited periods of time. I didn’t cherish those few minutes – I dreaded them. About half the time I held my daughter her heart rate would dip dangerously low or she would stop breathing and turn blue. When the alarms went off, a nurse would quickly snatch her from me to give Layla oxygen, or sometimes tap on her chest to stimulate her heart.
Given all of this – the trauma and fear – I know that my inability to immediately feel love for Layla isn’t really my fault, just a natural response to a very unnatural situation. When your entrance into parenthood isn’t marked with flowers and congratulations, but a deadly disease and a baby that is 2lb of sagging skin hanging from fragile bones, your brain simply doesn’t let the possibility of a happy ending enter the picture. Better not get attached, it tells you. This does not look promising.
I was so detached during the first months of my daughter’s life, that even after she came home from the hospital, I referred to her only as “the baby”. It was only when a friend asked over lunch why I didn’t call her by her name that I realised what I was doing.
I know logically that I love my daughter. In a video my husband took while Layla was still in the NICU, I’m holding her on my naked chest (something the NICU nurses call “kangaroo care”) breathing deeply and slowly, whispering to her. When he asked later what I was whispering, I tell him it was “strong lungs, strong lungs”.
But there’s a difference between having love for someone and being able to feel it. I had so much love for Layla that I couldn’t bear to let it manifest, lest she would be taken away from me. I had to slowly, over months, convince myself that she wasn’t going to die after all – that it was OK to get attached.
Slowly coming to feel the love I’ve always had for Layla was inevitable – I don’t believe our relationship could have grown any other way. What was preventable, though, was the guilt. There was no reason for me to be so cruel to myself, beating myself up daily for being a terrible mother and awful person who couldn’t love the tiny human being who needed me the most. But in a world that tells women that immediate and all-encompassing love for their children is the only “natural” response to birth, I didn’t stand a chance.
This expectation is incredibly damaging, not only to mothers like me – whose babies come into the world without congratulations, but hushed tones – but to all women who are made to feel like monsters if they don’t love their children at once and with everything they have.
The more I speak to other mothers, with birth stories from the mundane to the frightening, the more I realise my experience struggling to love Layla isn’t unique. It’s just something we don’t talk about all that often – after all, who wants to be known as the mum who doesn’t love her baby enough?
The truth is that relationships are nuanced. There’s no “natural” way to love a child. There’s no measurement of adoration that will gauge what’s in our hearts and minds. And yet, the expectation looms large. Even today, with Layla pudgy and happy and starting to say words such as “kitty” and “baby”, I worry about her health constantly and, at times, can feel myself starting to drift away from her. It takes work, more than I’d like to admit. If we really value parenting, if we value mothers and children, then we’ll lose the notion that there’s a proper way to love a baby. Believe me, mums will thank you.