Before becoming a mother, Saejal Ohri had never been all that into babies. “I mean, I thought they were cute, but I was never that twenty-something woman saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I absolutely can’t wait to have a baby!’” says Ohri, a mom of one from Vaughan, Ontario. “Until I was married in my early 30s, I didn’t feel that pull at all.” Even after Ohri and her husband decided to have a child and she became pregnant, Ohri, remembers worrying that she didn’t have “that mothering instinct you hear about” and that she wouldn’t know how to care for a helpless infant.
Batya Grundland, a family doctor and the maternity care lead at Women’s College Hospital Family Practice in Toronto, says it’s common for mothers-to-be (and fathers-to-be) who haven’t had a lot of experience with babies to worry about whether they’ll know what to do when the baby arrives. She says that especially among women like Ohri, who love their jobs and independence and who may have consciously delayed having children while focusing on other important life goals, “there is this sense that they’re used to being really competent in other areas of their lives, and they are worried they won’t be as good at this.”
In her practice, Grundland first tries to figure out whether a patient experiencing these kinds of worries could be experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder. “If the anxiety is consistently interrupting your sleep and interfering with everyday life and relationships, those are warning signs,” says Grundland. But once that possibility is ruled out, Grundland reminds her patients that a certain amount of worrying, and even the occasional nightmare about a future child, are a normal part of pregnancy, even among women who have spent a lot of time around other people’s babies.
And she says it’s important to let go of the idea that all women are supposed to feel an immediate deep bond with their own infants. “There’s no rule that says the minute the baby comes out, you have to love your baby. And that if you don’t, you won’t grow to love your baby and be a great parent,” says Grundland.
It’s also perfectly acceptable—and normal—for some parents to find the toddler or school-age years more enjoyable, or more engaging, than the monotony of life with a baby, which can be a blur of diapers and days that revolve around nap schedules and feedings.
One of the things Grundland emphasizes with nervous first-time parents is to make sure to read some books that focus not just on pregnancy and labour, but also on newborn and infant care, or to sign up for a prenatal class that goes beyond childbirth and pain management techniques. (Some hospitals offer weekend bootcamp classes that cover baby-care basics.) And she recommends researching in advance resources available nearby that can provide some extra support once the baby arrives: lactation consultants, public health nurses, family members and friends willing to lend a hand. You may feel better the more prepared you are.
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At the same time, Grundland encourages pregnant women to avoid channeling their anxiety into trying to plan for every possible variable, or setting an unrealistic goal of being the “perfect” parent.
“A big part of the counselling I do is trying to get women used to the idea of uncertainty, of not being able to be in control,” says Grundland. “With pregnancy and birth and then parenthood, you just can’t do that anymore.”
Saejal Ohri had to quickly get used to things not going as planned when her son Niam was born two months premature in July 2016. He spent the first month of his life in the NICU and when she and her husband finally got the OK to bring him home, Ohri struggled to adapt to motherhood. “I never got that sudden rush of bonding in those early days,” says Ohri. “For the first few months it felt like he was crying all the time and I was always anxious and exhausted and trying to figure out what he wanted.”
But then when he was about four months old, Ohri remembers a moment when everything shifted. Niam had woken up in the middle of the night crying and when none of the usual tricks managed to soothe him, Ohri thought maybe he was too hot, so she changed him into a thinner sleep sack—and it worked. “I just remember him calmly looking up at me like, ‘You get me,’ and I had this huge feeling of accomplishment and love for him,” says Ohri.
Now more than a year into parenthood, Ohri says she realizes that one of the biggest mistakes she made in the beginning was trying to become the mother she thought she should be instead of the mother she is. “I tried to transform myself into some kind of Earth Mama, organic-hippie mom like the ones you see on Instagram. But I am so not that person,” says Ohri. “My son has changed me in ways I didn’t think possible, but it only happened once I stopped trying to force it.”