May 25, 2015

Delayed Bonding

There's an expectation when your baby is born: the clouds part, the sun shines, angels sing, and you're overcome with a feeling of love unmatched by any emotion you've felt before.

Except, it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

For some men it does. I have friends who were 100% smitten right out of the gate. But for a lot of men (and women too, but I’ll stick to writing what I know), it’s months before actual affection approaches what they think they "should" feel.

You may not love your baby right away. That’s okay.

Rachel had a rough labor. When Emma came out, I remember looking at her – crying, head malformed, covered in mucus – and thinking, “If the last twelve hours was the cost for this, I’m not sure it was worth it.” 1

I was fortunate to have several men2 warn me that I might not fall in love with my baby right away. If you’re expecting to and it doesn’t happen, you’re likely to end up with shame piled on top of the already heavy load of being a new parent.

After all, what kind of monster doesn’t love their baby?

To be clear, becoming a dad probably will be the best thing that ever happens to you. But it might not feel that way for awhile. And it’s quite possible that, in the beginning, you won’t enjoy it at all.

Affection isn’t a light switch. I love my wife far more today than I did on the day we met. Looking back, there are a number of qualities about Rachel that helped that affection grow. She has a great personality. She looks me in the eye, listens to me, and we have meaningful conversations. She cares about me and my needs. She laughs and smiles more often than she whines and cries. She doesn't wake me up at 1 am. And 3 am. And 5 am. She doesn't shit herself six times a day.

And yet, even with all that going for her, it still took me a while to warm up to her.

So if you’re a new dad asking yourself, “Why don’t I love my baby?”, don’t worry. It's called “delayed bonding” and it’s perfectly normal. A better question might be, “Aside from vanity and evolution, for what possible reason would I feel affection for this thing?”

Over the next few months, three things will go to work on your heart to rectify the situation.

Baby Gets a Personality

Four months is around the time things get interesting for dad. That’s when baby starts doing more than just feeding, pooping and sleeping. Namely, making eye contact, smiling, and laughing.

Actually, the smiling starts a little earlier (that GIF is from around two months) but it’s inconsistent and typically results from a bowel movement – which, as a dad, does fill me with warm and fuzzies. The good stuff though, is when you can make her laugh.

The watershed moment for me was “The Claw.” My hand would raise high in the sky, menacingly open and close, then descend upon her with the appropriate sound effects. As it closed in on her belly, I’d give her a good shake and she’d give me a hearty giggle.

But then something super cool happened: anticipation. I’d throw up The Claw and she’d stop fidgeting and just stare at it. Then she’d start giggling, before The Claw even moved.

That’s around the time she started being a “person” to me: when her brain started putting the pieces together instead of simply reacting to whatever stimulus popped into frame. That’s also when I realized, “I can teach her tricks now.”

Dad Gets Routines

In those first few months, the answer to pretty much every problem was “breastfeeding.” There was no routine other than, “Baby cries. Rachel feeds.” Rachel and Emma were inseparable. I could change a diaper, but Rachel was already there. I could pull the baby out of her crib in the middle of the night, but we both knew how that was going to play out.

As Emma’s gotten older, we’ve been able to create more space for me to contribute directly to parenting as opposed to just doing the dishes. For instance, I take Emma and the dog out for a long walk in the morning so Rachel can get another hour of sleep. At night I give Emma a bath, read her a story, and put her to bed.

I miss our rituals when I’m away. I miss Emma more. I miss her to the point where I was watching her sleep over the IP camera in her bedroom while I was in San Francisco last week for work (which sounds kind of creepy now that I’ve typed it out).

You care more about the things you’re involved with. Familiarity, competency, and anticipation breed affinity. And there’s a lot more of all of those things as your baby gets older.

Affection Compounds

There’s another natural law at play on your heart – one of the most powerful and under-appreciated laws in the universe: compound interest.

I can confidently make three assumptions about my affection towards Emma:

  1. I liked her some, but not a lot on Day 1.
  2. I like her a little more every day.
  3. Paternal affection grows exponentially, not linearly (ask any dad).

Let’s say I got ten “affection points” for Emma on the day she was born. And let’s say “a little more” is 1%.

10 * 1.01 ^ 180 = 60
10 * 1.01 ^ 365 = 378
10 * 1.01 ^ (365 * 2) = 14,300

By six months, I’m at 60 affection points – six times more than the day she was born. By twelve months, I’m at 380x affection. At two years, she owns me.

If you’re a new dad, and you’re concerned that you don’t love your baby enough, don’t fret – you’ll get there. In the meantime, know that while you can’t control your feelings, you can control your actions, and your actions have a profound effect on your feelings.

Act as if you love the shit out of your child.

You will.