Mother Guilt At Birth: When The Love Isn’t Instant

Did you feel an overwhelming sense of love when you met your baby? Thank oxytocin not maternal instinct.

Mother Guilt At Birth: When The Love Isn’t Instant

Mother Guilt. It can eat you from the inside out some days, and come back in the still of night to pick the bones. Mothers can manage to feel guilt over pretty much anything, but  sometimes they feel guilty for how they greeted their babies at birth.  That can be wholly unfair.

DISCLAIMER: This article does NOT suggest that ALL women feel this way after a caesarean or a difficult, high intervention birth, this article is addressing the women who DID experience sadness or mother guilt.

When I met my eldest daughter I expected to fall in love instantly, but after she was cut out of me and I didn’t get to meet her for many hours, all I felt was flat. I was shocked and in pain and I felt entirely ordinary. All I wanted was to sleep. It was a disquieting thought for a very young mother who had wanted to feel deeply maternal.

I felt like there was something terribly wrong with me, but there wasn’t. The problem was in the way the hospital had managed her birth. I was induced with syntocin (without medical cause). I had an epidural, and then after 37 hours I had a caesarean. I “gave birth” without a single natural hormone. For years I thought I was substandard because I didn’t understand the fundamental truth of the moment of birth. The rush of love women describe, is caused by oxytocin, and oxytocin is rather shy.

The well known blog Birth Faith contains a piece on syntocin / pitocin with the following quote from the author:

”I was given Pitocin through my IV following my first daughter’s birth to help slow my bleeding……It wasn’t until roughly a week after her birth that I “fell in love” with my daughter. I thought there was something wrong with me… why didn’t I love her right away? I’m now quite certain that Pitocin interfered.”

At the moment of birth the brain is supposed to release huge quantities of the love hormone, oxytocin. There are several reasons for that. It clamps the uterus down to protect against haemorrhage, and it stimulates milk production. But most relevant to this conversation, is that it creates a powerful bond between a mother and her newborn. It causes a “rush of love” unlike anything you can imagine ….. and yet you have probably spent years imagining it. Even as little girls we imagine how much we will love our babies when we first meet them. When things don’t turn out like that we are often swamped in mother guilt.

In her article “Pain in Labour, Your Hormones are Your Helpers” Dr Sarah Buckley asserts:

“Levels of oxytocin gradually increase throughout labour, and are highest around the time of birth, when it contributes to the euphoria and receptiveness to her baby that a mother usually feels after an unmedicated birth.”

And to be quite clear about this, unmedicated, as described by Dr. Buckley doesn’t just refer to the standard pain relief, it also refers to medications used to induce or augment labour. Namely the artificial hormones. 

In order for natural oxytocin to be released properly there needs to be a number of perfect conditions in place. Oxytocin is released when the mother is in a private place, when she feels comfortable, and safe. Oxytocin is the same hormone you feel when you make love, and unless you could do that with a room full of strangers watching you and fluorescent lights blaring down on you, you can’t release the necessary amount of oxytocin to create the rusk of love.

The overwhelming rush of love that some women describe at birth, has nothing to do with the quality of the mother, and everything to do with the quality of the BIRTH. If a baby is born by caesarean, if the mother has synthetic oxytocin or an epidural she will not release the rush of oxytocin. Those things actually block the natural release of hormones. That’s a fact. 

How many births have none of those things in hospitals?

According to the French Obstetrician Michel Odent:

“Most women give birth now on a synthetic Oxytocin drip. It is the most common medical intervention in childbirth. But with no long term studies on its side effects we are playing with the Oxytocin systems of human beings without knowing what we are doing.”

Many women feel wretched for not remembering the moment they met their babies with unadulterated joy. Many more feel guilty for not remembering the moment at all. Hospitals should be legally required to explain the side effects of their standard labour management. It could be argued that by not doing so they are failing to meet their legal requirement for informed consent, but I digress.

From the book Pushed, by Jennifer Block

”A British midwife told a researcher that the sounds women make when they’re on artificial oxytocin are hauntingly different: ‘It’s a panic, it’s a scream and it’s different from the noise they make when they’re working with their bodies. . . . It sounds like someone’s being murdered”

Feeling a rush of love after that is pretty unrealistic. You can hardly go from sounding like you’re being murdered to feeling euphoric.

Mothers are their own worst critics when it comes to mothering. They love their children so much that they hold themselves to an unattainable standard of perfection. Feeling mother guilt over something that wasn’t in their power is unfair. We need to make it extremely clear to the women who have suffered birth trauma or grief, that IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT if they did not feel overwhelming love when they first set eyes on their babies. It was purely and simply, a lack of natural hormones, caused by medical interventions. It was not the first sign of an inadequate, substandard mother. It is a symptom of modern birth practices – be they necessary or not.  Let go of your mother guilt, it does not serve you any longer. 

The undeniable truth of motherhood is that mothers love their babies, no matter how they enter the world. When a mother loses a baby, whether the birth allowed oxytocin production or not, she grieves deeply. This shows us that there is far more to it than one moment at birth. Women are well bonded and thoroughly in love with babies, with or without the rush of love. There are hopes and dreams all wrapped up in each baby, the anticipation of a life together. Mothers expect those memories to begin at birth, with a rush of love like no other. What women need to know is that if the rush of love doesn’t happen, it isn’t because they are incompetent, or lacking maternal instincts, the odds are good that the conditions under which they gave birth were not favourable. Mother guilt in a situation like this is the sign of a loving mother, who needs more information. She needs to forgive herself and acknowledge the love she feels, even if it didn’t begin how she dreamed. 


Mother Guilt and the rush of love
Mother and baby
License: Creative Commons CC0.

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4 Responses to "Mother Guilt At Birth: When The Love Isn’t Instant"

  1. Laura  18 April, 2016 at 7:25 am

    This has healed me <3

    • MHeket
      MHeket  18 April, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Much love to you, I’m glad you found something that resonated with you xx

  2. Anon  8 July, 2016 at 8:54 am

    I hoped this would make me feel better but it didn’t. I had a “textbook” birth; waters broke, an hour later contractions started, 4 hours later went to hospital arrived 9cm, 1.5 hours later my baby arrived. No pain relief, no intervention, a warm caring environment. I felt nothing towards him. I struggled horribly with bonding and it went on for months (breastfed exclusively in case you’re wondering). This post makes me feel I shouldn’t have felt like that, I am abnormal, because I had no intervention or c section etc. Well I hope it’s not that unusual. I think it’s ok not to have love at first sight and for love to grow. I hope someone reads this and knows it’s ok if you struggled or are struggling! Births come in all shapes and sizes and it doesn’t matter how you reach the finish line! The love will come through one day, like it did for me x

    • MHeket
      MHeket  8 July, 2016 at 7:29 pm

      Actually how you reach the finish line matters a great deal to women. It’s why we see so much birth trauma, and grief, like you yourself are expressing. What you are saying is by no means unusual, and that is something our whole society needs to address. I’m sorry you did not find validation in reading the article. Not feeling love at first sight is rare in truly unhindered births, but the nature of hospital birth is thoroughly disruptive to our hormones, whether our birth is with or without drugs, whether it is vaginal or a caesarean. My definition of unhindered birth would not cover anything that occurs in a hospital, because of all the bright lights and disturbance, whether or not there are interventions. Furthermore, even the most basic procedure in hospital actually interrupts the hormones. Take a vaginal exam for example. A vaginal exam is an intervention, although our society may not see it that way. It intervenes with the flow that a woman has found within herself to help her manage the intensity of birth, it requires her to come away from the part of her that is focused solely on bringing her baby into the world (often referred to as Labourland) it requires her to speak to people who are strangers to her, and to allow them to touch her in places that are private, and intimate, and sensitive. Past trauma – rape, or molestation – can play a role in how we respond to our surroundings during birth, and how our hormones function under those circumstances as well. Much love to you, thank you for stopping by and commenting. You are absolutely right when you say that the love will come, mothers ALWAYS love their children. We just expect to feel a rush of love at birth, and that’s quite rare these days.


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