Posted on December 22, 2016
by Madeleine Kerrick
Imagine: you’re an expectant mother daydreaming about the moment when you will first meet your baby. Most likely, you envision overwhelming positive emotion, a sort of love at first sight. But what if instead, baby arrives and you feel…mildly fond? resentful? exhausted and relieved that the birth is over? Or maybe, you feel nothing at all.
New research suggests that mothers experience a range of feelings upon meeting their newborns. A team of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) recently looked at how first-time American mothers described developing feelings for, and a connection to, their babies.[i] We were interested in how these women told their stories and whether there was evidence of a cultural expectation, or “master narrative,” as to how mothers should feel about their babies.
In examining 35 interviews with mainly white, well-educated, partnered new moms, we found that most of the mothers (56%) exclusively recounted the experience of having overwhelmingly positive feelings for, and a connection with, their baby in pregnancy or right at the time of birth. However, a large minority of mothers (31%) exclusively recounted that it took time for their feelings and connection to develop, that their positive feelings were tentative or questioned, and/or that they felt negative feelings, such as resentment. Notably, these two groups did not differ on key variables such as type of birth (vaginal vs. cesarean), social support, or the presence of depression. But when we compared both groups' accounts, we found evidence that the “love at first sight” story is indeed a master narrative.
As common cultural storylines, master narratives are everywhere.[ii] This is certainly true of the maternal love at first sight narrative. Most of us rarely, if ever, hear other stories about maternal feelings. And if we do, they are likely stories that signal that a lack of love at first sight is out of the ordinary or even problematic. Master narratives are no doubt useful because they help us make sense of what our experiences mean. They serve as a kind of cultural benchmark for what’s expected or typical.[iii] But master narratives can also be limiting — when our experience doesn’t line up accordingly, we may struggle to figure out what our “non-conforming” experience means. We may wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ This can lead to feelings of shame and guilt for not measuring up to cultural expectations.[iv] To combat these feelings, those with non-conforming experiences must construct their own “counter narrative” that makes sense of their experience in a way that is satisfying. For instance, one of our participants positioned herself as “more like a dad” in that her feelings for baby didn’t develop during pregnancy. This was a way she was able to normalize her experience for herself.
Unfortunately, not all who undergo non-conforming experiences are able to come up with a counter narrative. Instead, these individuals are often left with unmet expectations. Indeed, many of the mothers in our study with non-conforming experiences struggled to make sense of their experiences and some expressed difficulty in talking about them. This unease adds an additional stressor to the trials of new motherhood, an already-challenging time in which new moms are getting to know baby, overcoming feeding challenges, and dealing with sleep deprivation.
In order to combat this tendency and help expectant mothers develop realistic expectations regarding the diverse ways in which maternal feelings and connection may develop, we need to normalize experiences other than maternal love at first sight. If more mothers felt safe sharing their diverse experiences, perhaps the master narrative that women should feel love at first sight would hold less sway. Educators and birth workers can play a key role in spreading the message that women experience a diverse range of emotions about baby throughout pregnancy, birth, and on into motherhood.
So, mothers: do tell. What was your experience? Did you feel love at first sight? Did it take time to develop positive feelings and connection with your new baby? Please share! And expectant mothers: please make the time to seek out others’ stories and explore your own expectations in advance of your baby's birth.
Madeleine R. Kerrick is a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at UC Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on how we develop identities, self-beliefs, and relationships in the context of everyday conversations—with a particular focus on the transition to parenthood. To learn more about her work, visit her website.
[i] Kerrick, M.R. & Henry, R.L. (2016). “Totally in Love”: Evidence of a master narrative for how new mothers should feel about their babies. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s11199-016-0666-2
[ii] For an overview of master narratives, see McLean, K. C., & Syed, M. (2015). Personal, master, and alternative narratives: An integrative framework for understanding identity development in context. Human Development, 58(6), 318-349. doi: 10.1159/000445817.
[iii] Andrews, M. (2004). Opening to the original contributions: Counter-narratives and the power to oppose. In M. Bamberg & M. Andrews (Eds.), Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense (pp. 1-6). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company
[iv] Spreckels, J. (2004). What discourse analysis reveals about elderly women, sex and the struggle with societal norms. In M. Bamberg & M. Andrews (Eds.), Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense (pp. 205-212). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.