When I was about seven years old, my mother told me that mothers love their children involuntarily, but that a father's love is a choice that he makes-- or doesn't make. I don't entirely agree with her (and I'm not sure she still believes it), but when I gave birth to my own daughter, I could understand her sentiments. After I had my daughter, my love for her was absolutely outside of my own control. The moment she left my body after 21 hours of agonizing, unmedicated labor, I squealed and cried "I love you" a million times to my newborn baby, holding her tight to my chest and telling her that she was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me, and she was. I was hopelessly, irrevocably in love, and there was nothing that anyone could have done to stop it.
This involuntary love continued for two and a half more years. The same rush of hormones and endorphins that caused that love at first sight persisted through the most difficult years of infancy and toddlerhood. They kept me hopelessly infatuated with my baby through hundreds of diaper changes, tantrums, and up-all-nights. They made me smile through being puked on, peed on, and woken up by screams.
Then, when I weaned my daughter and transitioned her to her own bedroom at two and a half, all those "Happy Mom Hormones" petered away… And I was left realizing that I had a real child, a smart, sweet, loving child, but a real child after all. A kid who had tantrums. A kid who spilled drinks, woke up too much at night, and wouldn't learn to use the potty. A kid who, in moments of toddlerish rage, would say that she didn't love me. A kid who, I realized for the first time, would one day be 13 and wouldn't want to have much to do with me. And, though my devotion to my daughter never faltered, my sense of unconditional maternal bliss evaporated.
For many mothers, love for a baby is an uncontrollable biological response to factors like childbirth and breastfeeding, and while that doesn't make their love any less real, it isn't a choice that we make. And perhaps that's a good thing: if it weren't for those ingrained hormonal responses, many moms and babies might not survive the years of colic and spit-up and tantrums. I had spent two and a half years of my daughter's life not realizing that much of my love for her wasn't because of who she was, but because of how my mind and body instinctively reacted to her -- and how much that wasn't within my control.
It was at this point that I was forced to build the relationship with my daughter that I have with her today, not an obsessive, all-consuming, my-baby-can-do-no-wrong love, but a sense of mutual respect and understanding between two real, live human beings. I no longer love her simply because she is "my baby." I learned to love her, and to a degree, chose to love her, because she's smart and funny and insightful, and because she kisses my boo-boos when I'm hurt, hugs me when I'm sad, and sings me lullabies when I'm sick. I learned to love her as a person, not just as a seemingly magical creature I created.
Bonding is different for every parent. Many fathers and adoptive moms have the same love-at-first-sight hormonal rush that I felt with my daughter, that carried through the first few years of her life. Many parents never experience that feeling at all. For some, it never goes away, and for others, it ends as soon as the hormones from labor or nursing peter off. But I think that all parents, regardless of when it happens, face a moment when they choose to love their children not just as their children, but as real and imperfect human beings.
As for me, I'm glad that my relationship with my daughter, who is now five years old, is one that was eventually built on respect, trust, and love for one another as individuals. Although I had no choice in loving her when she was a newborn, I love her deliberately today, and I think this kind of love is the strongest and healthiest kind of love a mom can have for her kids.
When did you first love your kids? Was it ever a choice for you?
Juniper Russo, a Shine Parenting Guru, is a freelancer author, ghostwriter, and dedicated mom. When she's doesn't have her hands full with her wonderfully eccentric five-year-old daughter, she writes about many topics including health, parenting, science, and green living.